Beating spirits with spirituality
Rabbis across country address substance abuse

Times Daily, Florence, AL, November 8, 2008

By Jennifer Crossley, Staff Writer

Church after church that sits on roads and even dirt paths offer spiritual recovery programs for alcohol and drug addicts. It's not unusual for those that don't host programs to allow Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to take place on their campuses.

People of other faiths must look beyond the Bible Belt for spiritual recovery programs.

Rabbi Yisrael Pinson expanded on Alcoholics Anonymous' tactic of beating substance abuse spiritually by tailoring a program for Jews about six years ago. The Michigan-based Jewish Recovery Community has blossomed to Los Angeles, Miami, Manhattan, Philadelphia and Montreal.

The idea is to fuse spirituality and recovery. "Their recovery community is not outside their regular community," Pinson said.

Chances of staying in recovery increase if people thrive and recover in their day-to-day environment, he added. To solidify spiritual community culture, people meet for Jewish traditions and study religious text. A Web site,, unites recovering addicts from all over the world. Pinson hopes to add a spcial netowrking component before the emd of the year.

Even Jews who seek help from AA or other recovery programs attend the religious gatherings. Shabbat dinner each Friday is popular.

"That's a magnet. People come religiously," Pinson said. When other group members complained to him that Jews outside the program were freeloading at Shabbat, he replied that if that's what keeps them on the path to recovery, then it's OK.

Does Alabama need Jewish recovery programs? "In general, yes, in Birmingham and Alabama, I don't know," said Rabbi Yossi Freedman of Chabad of Alabama in Birmingham. "The Jewish population is a minority of the general population."

Freedman soon will attend a workshop on providing recovery in professional programs. Chabad of Birmingham is an organization that educates Jews about their religion's culture starting with preschool age children.

The duality of recovery programs and religion is a natural remedy, Freedman said. "Part of recovery is a sense of self - you are what your purpose is. Judaism has a special emphasis on knowledge of self and being a productive, positive human being," Freedman said.

In many cases, embracing spirituality causes Jews to rediscover their faith. "The reality is, most Jewish people do not experience Judaism as spiritual," Pinson said. "People who are in AA are saying 'Wait a minute hold on a second I just found out there's more to life than rushing to make another dollar ...' "

Pinson's idea wasn't always heralded. When he started to develop Jewish Recovery Community, rabbis shied away from the topic. But that didn't hide the problem.

"I think that this is something that's been around for a while," Pinson said. "We're part of the American culture, and this makes us exposed to (temptation)."

Bringing the issue of substance abuse in the open is a challenge. "There's an underlying assumption that most Jewish parents have," Freedman said. "Sometimes they're embarrassed and too ashamed to get help."

Tony Faulkner, community marketing executive at Bradford Health Services in Florence, has witnessed the advantage of the religionless higher power in recovery programs.

But he takes a practical approach, realizing that some programs' spirituality may conflict with religion.

"It's a broad highway, and sometimes with certain religions, it's small and narrow," he said.

Guilt causes some people to bypass religion until they are well into a program.

"A lot of them still have a lot of guilt and shame," Faulkner said. "It takes them awhile. It probably takes about two years for someone to get to the point of getting back into organized religion. Nothing that the churches are doing, it's just (the recovering addicts) stuff to work through guilt and shame that goes along with addiction."

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