SAO PAULO, Brazil, May 19 (JTA) — For a Brazilian Jew who would only give his name as S., trying to kick his drug habit of 17 years led him to organizations with a strong Christian foundation. But that was only the start of his path. “After several years of rehab, God brought me to JACS Brasil,” says S., who has been drug-free for the past eight years. “This eventually represented my return to Judaism.” Following a recent expansion, JACS Brasil — the acronym is short for Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others — is hoping to provide more help and support for Brazilian Jews with alcohol and drug problems. It is unclear how many of Brazil’s 120,000 Jews are grappling with drug and alcohol problems because the stigma associated with these problems prevents many people from coming forward. JACS Brasil has operated quietly since 1999, but was officially inaugurated recently with an event at the Hebraica club here. The program is now working on getting the fact of its existence out to the Jewish community — and is adding a new focus: prevention programs for children. The strengthening of the program comes as Brazil’s 170 million residents become more aware of the problem of substance abuse. On the popular soap opera “The Clone,” a young character named Mel is involved with both drugs and alcohol. Many Jews believe their community isn’t affected by alcohol and drug abuse. In recent years, however, Jewish groups have realized that Jews do indeed suffer from these problems. “Alcohol, a.k.a. the ‘dirty drug,’ starts at the synagogue, at religious celebrations, awakening genetic pre-dispositions,” says Ida Rosa Bergel Goldenberg, the president of Brazilian Nar-Anon. “Some pre-Bar or -Bat Mitzvah children have their first contact with drugs at school at age 11. Alcohol comes in around age 14 or 15 in parties and bars, although many say they really started at home.” While Brazil has relatively low rates of drug addiction, it has high rates of alcohol abuse, Goldenberg says. The rate among Brazilian Jews is going up, Goldenberg says. JACS now has programs in the United States — where the organization was founded in 1979 — Israel, Canada, France, Australia and Mexico, as well as Brazil. JACS Brasil’s motto is, “It does happen among Jews. We know.” “In the United States, JACS started with addicts in rehabilitation and their families. In Brazil, our path has been somewhat different because many of our members and volunteers have never had the problem in their families, but they did become engaged in volunteering to help others and prevent their children and grandchildren from addiction,” says Marcos Susskind, JACS Brasil’s president. “We are not a 12-step program, though. We are not a religious order. We are not an alternative treatment, but an alternative way to find the right treatment.” After JACS helps restore some self-confidence to Jewish addicts, the program helps them find treatment in rehabilitation clinics. JACS’ goal is to make the Jewish community aware of the danger of drug and alcohol addiction, and to guide addicts and their families to discussion groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The program also gives support, including wisdom from Jewish texts, to psychological treatments, Susskind says. An e-mail group for JACS Brasil members has been created. Daily messages are exchanged to enforce commitment and volunteering as well as Jewish content. JACS Brasil’s inauguration ceremony at Hebraica was announced in the iG news portal, one of Brazil’s largest. All of JACS Brasil’s work is done according to Jewish precepts. Programs allow Jews from all religious backgrounds to interact. In addition, members are strongly encouraged to find resources within Judaism to help their rehabilitation. The group celebrates some Jewish holidays together. This year’s Passover celebration, for example, was somewhat special for JACS Brasil, which hosted a seder on the second night of the holiday. For Etel Wengier, a marketing manager and Jewish activist, one of the most touching words of a recent evening celebrating the strengthening of JACS Brasil were Susskind’s appeals for the entire Jewish community to cooperate. Indeed, JACS Brasil’s president called for day schools, clubs, synagogues, and youth movements to bring up the subject as part of their curriculums. “It is important that we all support this cause by making pressure for this theme to be part of our youth’s education,” says Gabriel Toueg, 23, who is the editor of Aleinu magazine, a publication targeting Jewish youth. According to Susskind, JACS Brasil’s programs will be expanded throughout the country from the organization’s current base in Sao Paulo.
Marcus M. Gilban is JTA's correspondent in Rio de Janeiro. A freelance journalist and columnist, he contributes to Brazilian Jewish newspapers, magazines and news portals.