By Lois K. Solomon, Sun Sentinel

The Jewish community can no longer deny a problem in its midst, some rabbis and advocates say: Many Jews are addicted to drugs and alcohol.

A combination of refusal to believe that addiction affects Jews and a lack of education have contributed to what some say is a dearth of services for Jewish addicts. Many of these addicts have specific religious needs related to their problems, such as untangling from a deeply held belief in the importance of wine in Jewish ritual.

In recent years, advocates say synagogues and other support groups have begun recognizing this struggle.

“There is a big community in recovery, especially in South Florida, the mecca of recovery and addiction,” said Rabbi Meir Kessler, director of the Jewish Recovery Center in Boca Raton, which will host a retreat for former addicts and their families beginning Feb. 8.

The six-year-old Recovery Center organizes weekly Sabbath dinners and other support services for Jews in rehab and other stages of healing. Kessler started out by hosting dinners for about 40 people each Friday night, but the group has grown to about 100 and has moved to the nearby Chabad of Boca Raton synagogue, where participants eat a traditional Sabbath dinner, sing, learn about the weekly Torah reading and share their stories.

Many Jews feel uncomfortable attending support group meetings in churches, Kessler said, and are searching for an approach that offers spiritual comfort in a familiar setting.

Marion Pimsler, of Boca Raton, said she was addicted to alcohol but has been clean for 12 years and sought a Jewish approach to remaining sober. She said her son, 28, deserted her years ago because of her alcoholism. Pimsler, a regular at Kessler’s dinners, said she approached the rabbi about her plight.

“I asked him why God doesn’t put my child back in my life again,” Pimsler, 58, recalled. “He said God does what he can, but as human beings we have choices, and it’s my son’s choice now. It made sense to me and took a big burden out of my heart.”

Some observers say synagogues have been slow to understand the frequency of Jewish alcoholism. According to rabbi and psychologist Benzion Twerski, who has written extensively on Jews and alcohol and will attend the weekend retreat, Jews are often ignorant of or in denial of the disease’s symptoms.

South Florida rabbis have become increasingly aware of addiction problems among their members. Several synagogues now serve grape juice instead of wine at many ceremonies. Others have started “Sober Seders,” Passover seders without wine that focus on alcoholics in recovery.

Parent Margie Hurwitz, of Boston, said she was among those who did not believe Jews could become addicted. Her son, who lives in Delray Beach, has been sober for eight years.

“The kid went to yeshiva [Orthodox Jewish private school]; we kept kosher,” Hurwitz said. “I was astounded. I thought, ‘How does this happen?”

South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Febrary 3, 2013

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