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Teen-on-teen Talk and Jewish Ideas Are Behind New Anti-addiction Program

July 8, 2004
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Lindsay, a pretty 19-year-old with striking green eyes, remembers calling her parents during her freshman year in college to tell them she was addicted to cocaine. Things had gotten so bad that she didn’t even leave her bedroom during the last few weeks of spring semester.

“I had drugs and alcohol, I had a TV, and anything outside was too much for me to handle,” said Lindsay, who asked that her real name not be used. “I called my parents, crying, ‘I’m going to kill myself!’ My parents sent me a huge bouquet of tulips and said, ‘Stop being neurotic. You’re going to Hawaii soon with us and you’ll have a nice vacation.’ “

“They’re loving, wonderful people,” she said. “They just didn’t get it.”

Lindsay now is in recovery at Beit T’Shuvah — Hebrew for House of Return — a Los Angeles-based, inpatient rehabilitation center for Jewish addicts. Last February she told her story to teenagers as part of a new curriculum designed to b! ring the message of addiction prevention to Jewish teens.

Developed by Beit T’Shuvah and The Change Companies, a publishing company specializing in educational materials promoting behavioral change, the program uses Jewish principles to encourage introspection and a healthy self-image.

It also seeks to counter the “spiritual bankruptcy” that undergirds addictive behaviors, according to Rabbi Mark Borovitz, a creator of the new program at Beit T’Shuvah.

“The reason so many kids today go off into craziness is they’re hopeless,” Borovitz said. “They need to have a sense of their unique purpose in the world, that no one can fulfill my unique place in the world except for me.”

Borovitz himself is a recovered alcoholic, and he frequently shares his story of redemption through faith with Beit T’Shuvah’s 120 residents.

Between 1980 and 1988, Borovitz was in and out of prison for crimes including grand theft, insurance fraud and passing bad checks. In 1987, while se! rving time in a state prison at Chino, Calif., he began to study Torah with Mel Silverman, the Jewish chaplain there.

Upon Borovitz’s release in 1988, Harriet Rossetto, founder and director of Beit T’Shuvah, visited him and invited him to work at the center. His work enhanced a budding relationship with Rossetto, and the couple married in 1990.

Borovitz went on to rabbinical school, graduating from the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Rossetto, Borovitz and Beit T’Shuvah’s clinical coordinator, Jennifer Ginsberg, developed the prevention program last year, when a disproportionately large number of Jewish teenagers and their families came to them seeking help.

“Our population is getting younger and younger. We’re seeing an inordinate number of youngsters who come from top Beverly Hills families, who have gone to expensive private schools, and what they learned was how to use drugs,” Rossetto said.

“I think it reflects a crisis of values that’s endemic to the Jewish community,” she continued. “There’s apathy, and this cult! ure of partying and seeking excess in order to feel.”

Attention to addiction in the Jewish community, particularly among youth, is long overdue, many educators and experts say.

Dr. Abraham Twerski, a rabbi and medical director emeritus of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh and author of “Addictive Thinking,” a primer on addiction, said many Jewish parents simply are unaware.

“Denial is the name of the game, especially in Jewish communities,” Twerski said. “You see kids out late at night on the streets in Jewish neighborhoods, and you know some of them are using, but the parents think, ‘Not my kid.’ “

Twerski advises two organizations in the New York area at the forefront of efforts to address and prevent addiction among Jewish adolescents: Jewish Alcoholics and Chemically Dependent Others, and the Yatzkan Center.

Founded in 2001, Yatzkan is a small kosher inpatient facility that provides housing and addiction counseling for a handful of teenage b! oys. Currently there are eight in the program.

Executive Director L ew Abrams says the facility also has an outreach program focused on prevention that has sent speakers to more than 25 Jewish day schools over the past three years. Yatzkan also enlists counselors to train teachers, rabbis and community leaders to identify signs of addiction and discourage drug use among adolescents.

Jewish Alcoholics and Chemically Dependent Others is a volunteer-led organization that supports Jews recovering from addiction. It also runs occasional retreats for teenagers with addiction problems and adult retreats in New York and Baltimore.

Administrators at both Yatzkan and Jewish Alcoholics and Chemically Dependent Others stress the value of enlisting young people in recovery to speak to young audiences.

“We talk about signs and symptoms, how someone gets involved in experimentation and how to make decisions to avoid it,” Abrams said. “It’s very effective to have kids address other kids.”

The first school to use Beit T’Shuvah’s prevention prog! ram was Los Angeles Hebrew High School, a supplemental religious school for students in grades eight through 12.

Principal Bill Cohen said a surge in addiction-related problems — especially eating disorders — among the school’s students prompted him to introduce the program to the senior class.

Arya Donay, 18, was among the Los Angeles Hebrew High students who participated in the pilot prevention program. The first surprise, he recalled, was its interactive nature.

“The first day I wasn’t ready, but some kids were saying things that were really private. I couldn’t believe they opened up like that,” he said. “There were definitely people who said things about drugs and alcohol, and people who were changed by the program.”

Ultimately, he thinks that the program prompted him and some classmates to think more about their lives.

“People were starting to think about how they were living their lives,” he said. “It made me think a lot more about my life and what I! ‘d been doing thus far.”

Those behind the prevention program say Je wish spirituality is key to their message. The program offers a curriculum of exercises that employ relevant Torah teachings.

One journal-writing exercise, for instance, poses the question “What is Your Pharoah?” encouraging students to view the Exodus story as a metaphor for acquiring the freedom that results from self-discipline and self-esteem.

Another exercise, called “Be Yourself,” asks students to answer questions using a quotation from the Talmud’s Reb Zusha: “On Judgment Day, when the Holy Tribunal asks me, ‘Why were you not more like Moses?’ I will be unafraid. If they ask me, ‘Why were you not more like Zusha?’ I will have no answer.”

Roger Goodman, 23, a recovering addict who is co-director of the Beit T’Shuvah program, says the program encourages teenagers to use Jewish principles to think about their own lives and find their own paths. So far, student response has been positive.

“Several kids called to thank me afterward,” Goodman said. “One has ! been calling me for four months. He’s stressed out because his parents put so much pressure on him to do well in school. He’s not into drugs or alcohol — yet — and I talk to him a lot about finding other outlets for his feelings.”

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