When Rabbi Yosef Lipsker answered the phone one cold, rainy night 18 years ago, he never could’ve imagined how much it would change not only the caller’s life, but his own.
On the other end of the line was a man saying he needed to talk to someone about doing rehab and figured a rabbi would be a good source. Lipsker, who’d been in the Reading area for only a couple of years, naively thought he meant rehab for a physical ailment.
“I didn’t know what drug rehab was,” admitted Lipsker, who celebrated his 20th anniversary with Chabad-Lubavitch of Berks County on March 26. “But it was magic from the time I met him.
“I connected with him and was able to help him. I came home and told my wife this story about him breaking down while telling me about what happened to him when he was 8 years old. And now he was 60.”
That was Lipsker’s initial foray into the world of drug and alcohol abuse and the first time he started working with Caron Treatment Center, the renowned 60-year-old facility headquartered in nearby Wernersville. What began as simply inviting Caron patients into his home for Shabbat dinner — with his wife, Chana, baking the challah — has evolved into a lifelong commitment.
“It’s really been a life-changing experience for me,” said Lipsker who, besides his official duties with Chabad, works at least 20 hours a week for Caron. “It’s something my wife and I have learned from and embrace.
“Caron is the name of a man who literally took people off the streets into his home. In a certain way, what Chana and I do is similar. We let people feel validated again.”
Those people include Matt Stock, a 47-year-old Manhattan businessman whose life was careening out of control when his family convinced him to get help in 2011.
“I got into drugs — shooting heroin, taking pills, cocaine, everything,” Stock admitted. “I took too much and was in a coma for 10 days.
“I didn’t even want to go to rehab. When I got to Caron, they asked me, ‘Who do [you] want for religious guidance?’ I didn’t want the rabbi. I’d grown up in a Conservative shul, but once I reached my 20s, I went the other way. I probably hadn’t been to temple in 25 years.”
None of that mattered to Lipsker, who simply reached out to a desperate man.
“A guy comes up and says, ‘Hello’ and I said, ‘You must be the rabbi,’” Stock recalled. “I told him my story, and he said I need to give back to the people I took from.
“I found out about the Friday-night dinners. I decided to go. He’s there with his wife and kids, and it’s very warm and inviting. I remember at the end of the night he pulled me out of a meeting and gave me his number.”
From there, Stock not only turned his life around by kicking the habit, but rediscovered his Jewish identity.
“I used to curse these [Hasidic] guys on the street when I’d see them,” he confessed. “Now I put on tefillin everyday, I eat kosher and I’m a very active member of my shul.
“My life is so much better now. The fact I don’t do drugs and alcohol is one part of it. But identifying with my Judaism and God is the other. I’m a better person. Better father. I have a better life.”
Lipsker hears stories like his all the time, from a wide variety of people.
“With the image of a drug addict, you might imagine someone coming from a bad family, a misfit,” said the Brooklyn-born Lipsker, who’s gone on to become a certified drug counselor, “but it’s someone’s child, someone’s brother.
“It’s hard for people to wrap their head around it. Addiction is a disease, and people don’t treat it way.
“Many ask why do we let people into our home? I believe the minute they cross the threshold of our home, they’re different. We respect them and trust them, even though they may have done things wrong.”
While his involvement with Caron has proved rewarding to Lipsker, Caron, too, recognizes how vital he is.
That’s one reason it’s donating $100,000 toward a hospitality center at Chabad with a kitchen that can feed 50 or more and four full bedrooms for family members of Caron patients. Lipsker hopes the $500,000 center can open by September.
“I’ve known him 20 years,” said Dave Rotenberg, Caron’s chief clinical officer. “He’s a warm, generous, gentle soul who’s approachable. Jews of all ages, from adolescent to 70 years old, lean on this man for spiritual guidance when they’re at their weakest point.
“Checking into rehab is a very scary proposition for anyone. He makes them feel safe. Members of the Jewish community have very specific needs. When you have a Chabad rabbi and his wife serves kosher food and [you] have someone who understands your culture, it makes people more trusting.”
As a result, Jews flock to Caron for help, proportionately far more than the national average.
“That doesn’t mean Jewish people are more addicted than anyone else,” Lipsker explained. “The reason we bring in higher percentages is because of the relationship we have.
“You can talk about half a percent of the country being Jews, but Caron being 12 to 15 percent Jewish. This is because of what Chabad has done for families. It’s opened up the door for the Orthodox community to feel comfortable.”
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