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Orthodox Union tackles drug abuse

NEW YORK, Jan. 13 (JTA) – Taking on a range of dysfunctions that are of growing concern to yeshiva families, the Orthodox Union has called on rabbis, lay leaders and professionals to develop an “action plan” for confronting such problems. Some 65 leaders from across the tristate area convened at the OU headquarters in Manhattan recently, relating their experiences with substance abuse, drunk driving, promiscuity, eating disorders and other ills they feel have been creeping into their communities with increasing, and alarming, frequency. They were joined by outreach and treatment professionals. The panel resolved to form three task forces to work with parents on the creation of safe shuls, safe schools and safe homes. “We are hoping the first meetings of these committees will take place in the next two to three weeks,” said Rabbi Moshe D. Krupka, the OU’s executive director of programming. “The focus will be implementation. … We want to see the creation of user-friendly programs, curricula and reasonable expectations for leadership, parents and kids.” The task forces will involve members of the OU’s national board as well its Commission for Community and Synagogue Services, including rabbis, principals and mental health professionals. “They will identify areas of concern and create the communal mindset we all hope for,” said Krupka. “This is not a one-size-fits-all approach, where we can overnight create a sea change in the way the community perceives itself and its actions.” The OU’s new actions come six weeks after 42 students, including many yeshiva teens, were arrested in Livingston, N.J., for drug possession and alcohol consumption following an unsupervised party. Although incidents involving drug abuse at yeshivas and day schools remain rare, there has been increased concern about factors that contribute to recent surges in at-risk youth behavior. “While we are functioning better and brighter and are more accomplished today than compared to previous generations and previous times, there have been incidents,” said Krupka. “Rather than close our eyes to what’s going on around us, we feel the most appropriate approach is to educate our communities and empower them.” To those who have been grappling with at-risk behavior in the Orthodox community for years, the new tack by one of the nation’s leading Orthodox organizations — representing nearly 1,000 synagogues in North America — adds some much-needed muscle to their efforts. “This adds another powerful organization,” said Benzion Twerski, a psychologist in Brooklyn who serves Orthodox patients. “There are now many players in this picture, and I’m pleased to see that.” Ruchama Bistritsky Clapman, founder of MASK, a support program for parents of troubled youth in Brooklyn, said the OU effort was a step toward uniting those working in synagogues and in schools to fight drug use. “Just talking about these issues has a positive effect,” she said. Rabbi Joel Dinnerstein, who runs a Jewish recovery center, Ohr Ki Tov, in Florida, and was long involved in anti-drug efforts in New York, attributed the OU’s aggressive stance to its new executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who is also a clinical psychologist. “He has as much insight into the human condition as into the Talmud,” said Dinnerstein. “This is a long time coming and it’s sorely needed.” While praising growing awareness of substance abuse in Orthodox circles, Dinnerstein said members of the community were still waiting “two or three times longer to get help because they go to rabbis, or psychologists who are not trained to understand addictions.” He said programs in the Jewish community should combine the 12-step system used in most substance-abuse recovery programs with perspectives from religious sources.