The death of a 19-year-old from an overdose of heroin — just days after he was last in synagogue for Yom Kippur — has badly shaken a Bucks County synagogue and called attention to a problem that many say is being overlooked in the Jewish world.
“This must be a wake-up call to the Jewish community in Pennsylvania, New Jersey — and the entire country,” Brandon Wind, the current co-president of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, wrote in the synagogue’s newsletter. “Too many families refuse to acknowledge that their child, their father, their mother or their spouse has a problem.”
In the tragedy’s wake, the congregation, and its new rabbi, Aaron Philmus, are struggling to process the loss and to figure out how best to move forward.
Synagogue leaders are spreading the word about a new Jewish recovery support group that was already in the works before the young man’s death. It was started at the behest of another recovering addict who grew up at the same synagogue, 20-year-old Emily Leventhal [see accompanying sidebar].
The group, which appears to be the only one of its kind in the Philadelphia area, is holding meetings every Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m. at the Glazier Jewish Center in Newtown, which is run by Chabad. The effort represents a rare instance of collaboration between a Conservative synagogue and a Lubavitch center.
The hope is that the new group will help recovering addicts find fellowship and build connections in a safe Jewish space. Meetings will be informal and run by the participants, rather than professionals. The gatherings are meant to supplement, and not replace, a more traditional 12-step fellowship.
Rabbi Yudi Shemtov, director of Lubavitch of Bucks County, said his movement “has been successful in many different communities to deal with recovery issues. Our motto is: Help every Jew, whatever their need.”
It’s nearly impossible to quantify the degree to which American Jews suffer from substance abuse. But as American Jews have begun to behave more and more like Americans as a whole, addiction issues have become more prevalent, according to Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, author of Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery.
There are a handful of Jewish institutions nationally — such as the New York-based JACS: Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others — solely devoted to helping Jews battle addiction, Olitzky pointed out. And many social service agencies, including Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, run prevention classes and refer clients battling addictions to other agencies.
Considering the scope of the problem, the number of Jewish groups nationally dedicated to working on the issue is woefully small, said Olitzsky, the director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York.
“Some people do not want the Jewish community to hang their dirty laundry out in public,” he said.
Part of the issue, he said, is that congregations have been reticent to invite drug addicts and alcoholics into their spaces.
At the same time, he said, recovery group meetings, most notably Alcoholics Anonymous, are so ubiquitous in churches that many Jews associate them with Christianity. The same is true of the 12-step method — originally developed in the 1930s by A.A. — which emphasizes that those in recovery must put their faith in a higher power to help them live a sober, responsible life.
“The 12 steps themselves are religiously neutral,” he said. The job of Jewish clergy, he stressed, is to “put Jewish flesh on the bones of a religiously neutral paradigm.”
The parents of the Bucks County young man who died last month asked that their names not appear in the article. That’s perhaps in itself an indication of the stigma that exists.
The young man had been battling heroin addiction — and had been in and out of rehab — for about two years. By all accounts, he had turned a corner. In addition to seeing professionals, he had met several times with Philmus to explore the spiritual dimension of recovery. The two of them studied passages from Olitzsky’s book.
According to his father, his son had been clean for several months and had passed multiple drug tests. He’d had dinner at his parents home the night of his death before returning to the halfway house where he’d been staying. His parents got the call at 2 a.m. from a hospital emergency room that their son had overdosed.
“It is a sickness that affects the whole family,” said the father, a former president of the synagogue. “All you can do is try to help the person seek recovery — but you can’t force him. We didn’t disown him. We didn’t throw him out in the street. We tried as best as we could to get him the recovery that he needed.
“This is not a Jewish issue,” he added. “This is a universal issue that affects all people in all walks of life.”
Bari Wolfson, Emily Leventhal’s mother, has worked alongside her 20-year-old daughter to establish and publicize the new Bucks County group they have called the Jewish Recovery Community. She stressed that while it is being held at the Lubavitch house, it is a community-wide program. Leventhal is also meeting with Philmus and knew the young man who died since childhood.
Wolfson long ago realized that any of the drugs her daughter had used over the years could have killed her.
“Once you face that, you never sleep again,” said Wolfson. “You never live a day again where you cannot worry about that. There are no words.”
She added that many in the community have a sense that addiction is something that befalls people from “trailer parks” and not from affluent, suburban communities, but that just isn’t the case.
The loss of one of their own students hit the synagogue’s professional leadership particularly hard.
Joan Hersch, the education director for 30 years, knew him well, as she has known Emily Leventhal.
Hersch said her former student “was trying to find a spiritual space to help him get over these demons. There was so much goodness in him. But we couldn’t save him.
“I don’t want that to happen to any other kids,” said Hersch, whose husband, Howard Hersch, is the synagogue’s rabbi emeritus.
“The synagogue,” she added, “should be a place that is sheltering, it should be a holy spot for them. It should be a place where they don’t feel that they are a pariah.”
Philmus is in his second year as the shul’s rabbi. He’d never before had to eulogize such a young congregant and the incident has clearly shaken him.
He acknowledged how scary it is to continue working with recovering addicts like Leventhal, because now he really knows how quickly he can lose them. He’s also thought about the amount of drinking that happened on the Taglit-Birthright Israel trips he’s staffed and wondered what more can be done about it.
He even considered banning alcohol in the synagogue on Simchat Torah, but decided that such a move wouldn’t really accomplish anything. Abstinence for everyone, he said, isn’t the answer.
“Unless you are an addict, or unless you have a person in your family that is an addict, you wouldn’t really understand that this is a disease that can bubble up at any moment and that is terrifying,” he said. “I am convinced that he didn’t want to die. When I met with him, he had such a sense of gratitude for having another chance in life.
I could tell that he was such a good person, so kind, so sweet, and that he wanted to recover.”
IF YOU NEED HELP
JEVS Addiction Services
Call 215-609-6040, or visit jevshumanservices.org
Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia Education and Outreach
Call 267-256-2050, or visit jfcsphilly.org
Jewish Recovery Community
Weekly 12-step meeting at Glazier Jewish Center
25 N. State St., Newtown, PA
Call Bari at 215-702-0918,
or email firstname.lastname@example.org 
Taglit-Birthright Israel sober trip
Contact Sharon Darack, director of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant
Others, at 212-632-4727, or email email@example.com