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Symposium aims to tackle addiction, stigma in US Jewish communities

Two-day online event includes Narcan training, discussions on recovery, role of Judaism in treatment, as tens of millions of Americans grapple with drugs and overdose deaths soar

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: 5-mg pills of Oxycodone, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)
Illustrative: 5-mg pills of Oxycodone, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

An online symposium meant to tackle drug use and addiction in US Jewish communities is slated to begin on Tuesday, as professionals and health providers say stigma around the issue is an impediment to care.

The two-day event will include classes and discussions about addiction, recovery, and training to prevent overdoses, and aims to boost awareness of different ways Jewish community members and others can be supported and treated for addiction.

“Stigma is very strong in the Jewish community, so we are trying to reduce that by showcasing the range of interventions and the range of offerings,” said Reuben Rotman, the head of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies. “We just wanted to lift up and highlight the fact that if you or a family member or someone you work with is struggling with addiction, there are resources in the community.”

Panelists at the event include substance abuse coordinators at human services organizations, social workers, education professionals, counselors, psychologists, and addiction specialists.

Over 100 professionals and community leaders have signed up, including social workers, rabbis, teachers, volunteers and community board members. The attendees come from a range of communities across North America.

The symposium is hosted by the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, an association of over 150 nonprofits in the US, Canada and Israel, and the Jewish Addiction Awareness Network. It is the first of its kind organized by the groups and will likely lead to future events and discussions, Rotman said.

“This is the way to kick off what I think will be deeper engagement and deeper interest,” he said.

One session, led by a former heroin addict, will instruct attendees on how to use the Narcan overdose prevention treatment. The nasal spray reverses opiate overdoses and is promulgated as part of the harm reduction treatment model, which seeks to decrease the damage from drugs, rather than eliminate drug use entirely. Narcan is widely used by first responders.

The education session cites the Jewish principle that saving a life — or pikuah nefesh in Hebrew — trumps nearly all other religious requirements.

Another discussion will focus on connecting recovering users with employment, and the role a job can play in recovery and mental health, while another will focus on the role of Judaism and family in recovery.

The second day of the symposium will take place next Tuesday, January 31.

Over 40 million Americans are struggling with substance addiction, according to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

The opioid overdose epidemic has been especially devastating in recent years. The most deadly drug crisis in US history, it killed over 107,000 Americans in 2021, and at least 932,000 have died since 1999.

Overdoses, mainly due to fentanyl, became the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18-45 in 2021, surpassing suicide, COVID, gun violence, and car accidents.

Jewish users, activists, and treatment providers have said the community has been hit like any other, albeit with some specific challenges, including a particularly unforgiving stigma around addiction and a lack of awareness.

Many US recovery programs also incorporate Christian themes, or operate out of churches, making the groups uncomfortable for some Jews, treatment providers have said.

There is no reliable data on Jewish drug use, since official sources do not track religion, and many people in the community hide their abuse. Amudim, a social services organization in New York, has had over 2,100 opioid cases since 2014. A UJA-Federation of New York survey on the impact of COVID-19 on Jews in New York City and its suburbs found that 10 percent of Jewish households reported a substance abuse problem. Nine out of 10 of those households said they were not seeking help for the problem.

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