It’s hard to imagine the person Emily Leventhal describes: someone whose eyes lack any life, someone in such despair that she can’t bear the thought of God, someone utterly powerless over her drug addiction.
But that was the world of this 20-year-old from Langhorne who now comes across as upbeat, self-possessed and reflective. And it wasn’t all that long ago.
Leventhal is a recovering addict who, bit by bit, is reclaiming her life, her future and her faith — though, as she explained, an addict is never free from the fear of relapse.
She’s successfully pushed to create a new Jewish recovery group that launched last week and plans to meet every Tuesday at the Glazier Jewish Center in Newtown, Bucks County. The Jewish Recovery Community will function as a support group and is not meant to replace other, more formal recovery programs. She plans to go every week.
Leventhal sat down recently at Congregation Brothers of Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Newtown, in the office of her former Hebrew school principal, to tell her story to the Jewish Exponent.
The Neshaminy High School graduate said she is sharing her deeply personal saga in part because she believes the problem of addiction has been largely overlooked in the Jewish community, that too many people consider drug addiction a character defect rather than a disease of the brain.
There’s a sense, she said, that “there’s no Jewish addicts — it doesn’t happen in our community. People are dying over that. People need to know that they are not alone in this. There are other Jews going through this.”
Leventhal said she had a happy childhood and that addiction doesn’t run in her family.
A close friend suggested she try her first drink. It was right about the time she celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at Brothers of Israel.
“I felt like, ‘Wow, this is amazing, I have arrived,’ ” she said.
Beer, wine and hard liquor were easy to come by. She and her friends would often raid their parents’ cabinets, rarely getting caught.
Throughout high school, she drank regularly and experimented with some so-called recreational drugs, but she was able to function academically and socially, she said.
Things came apart for her in the fall of 2011, during her first semester at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She began using hard drugs, which were readily accessible. She declined to discuss specifically what she was using, instead describing it as “what you read about in the newspaper,” a substance that “turns someone into an evil person.”
For the next three months, she virtually never left her dorm. She never picked up the textbooks she’d ordered online. When she ran out of money, she called her parents and, once they understood how far things had deteriorated, they brought her home and enrolled her in a 28-day rehabilitation program.
Once that was finished and she was back in her parents’ house, she began going to a 12-step support fellowship group.
“They say in the 12-step fellowships, stick with the winners, stick with the people who want to stay clean, who want to stay sober. That was the opposite of what I was doing,” she said.
She fell back into drug abuse. One time, nearly two years ago, a friend overdosed on heroin.
“He had a seizure, then his lips turned blue and he stopped breathing. I was just pounding on his chest over and over and pouring water on him and slapping him,” she said.
She managed to resuscitate him and call an ambulance. Later, she picked him up from the hospital, “and we went and got more drugs. You know, the only logical thing to do.”
That’s when it hit her how bad things had gotten. She told her parents, who felt they had little choice but to try something drastic.
“My parents, they were so miserable,” she said. “Later, I found out that my mom would come into my room every night and check if I was breathing.”
In February 2012, Leventhal went to live in a drug treatment facility in southern Florida. Once, during a visit, her mother took her to a Chabad-run Shabbat dinner for recovering addicts in Boca Raton. It was a difficult experience.
“At this point, I had completely lost all my faith,” she said. “Throughout my active addiction, I was so miserable. If there was a God, why would he make me this way? I thought it would be less painful to be an atheist and not believe in God at all.”
But things began to turn around for her. After several months of living in the facility, she moved to a halfway house where she held a part-time job and eventually was asked to be a house mother. She tried in earnest to tackle the 12-step approach to sobriety, which among other things involves serious introspection and self-evaluation.
She found deep connections with other recovering addicts waging similar battles, but still struggled to fill the space that drugs had occupied in her world.
“It was the love of my life. It will always be the love of my life. Once you lose something that you love, it kind of leaves a void there,” she said. But she said she is optimistic she can fill this void “with something greater than me.”
She started growing more interested in Judaism and began going on her own to Chabad dinners. Earlier this year, she went on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip for recovering addicts, which she described as a transformative, spiritual experience.
But there was an ugly side to the experience. Several other Birthright groups were in Israel at the same time, she said, and “they found somehow that we were in recovery. To say they mocked us would be an understatement. They asked us to go out and drink with them,” she said, adding that she took it in stride. “People are always going to think what they think.”
Four months ago, after a year and a half in Florida, Leventhal returned home. She has started taking classes at Bucks County Community College and is talking about returning to a four-year school and studying bioethics.
She’s been attending services regularly at Brothers of Israel and is meeting weekly with the congregation’s rabbi, Aaron Philmus, who also went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She’s still active in a 12-step fellowship and her parents have been attending a support group for families.
But she said that addiction is a lifelong disease that could resurface at any time. She was particularly hit hard by the recent death of a 19-year-old former Hebrew school classmate, who suffered a drug overdose a few days after Yom Kippur.
“I don’t want this to happen again. I want people to have a place to come and be able to talk about these things,” she said, referring to the Jewish-centered recovery group she has helped start in Bucks County.
More than ever, she feels a deep bond with other Jews. “And since I have been in recovery,” she added, “I felt the same connection with other people in recovery. So the two things together — it’s indescribable.”