The Jewish Community Faces the Opiate Crisis



On the surface, an eating disorder and a substance use disorder may look quite different. One involves food while the other involves drugs or alcohol. Yet, they share one commonality that is immutable; no person, culture, ethnicity, socio-economic or educational group is immune from either of these illnesses. The same holds true with religion or religious groups.

Today, the opiate crisis sweeping America touches everyone, everywhere, even the most insular of communities.

Orthodox Judaism is often described as having definite traditions, sometimes considered strict. Many of these guidelines are designed to keep the youth shielded from outside influences and protected from an often unsafe world.

Unfortunately, despite best efforts, recent statistics indicate that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, like so many groups in today’s world, is struggling in the war against opiates.

In the New York area alone, since the beginning of June, 13 people have died of overdoses among Orthodox and formerly Orthodox Jews under the age of 35.  Moreover, since the beginning of this year, that number exceeds 100 individuals.

Although the reasons behind addiction and death are multi-faceted, in this particular community, much of this current problem appears to be connected to behavioral guidelines. The challenge is when absolutes exist regarding how young people should act, there is little room for individuality. Additionally, many ultra-orthodox parents aren’t entirely educated about drug addiction and also might lack awareness as to the extent of the opiate problem throughout America.  Therefore, if a child presents with an addiction, the response might be shame or rejection. These parents don’t lack for love, they might lack for knowledge.

The crisis seems to be hitting home particularly hard for those who either choose to leave the ultra-Orthodox group or are cast out. Regardless of why, these individuals lose community and in turn, lose a part of their identity. For those who experience expulsion, they often feel branded as an outcast or rebel, as if something is wrong with them.

The Orthodox community in New York is certainly not alone in their struggles and are taking steps to change. Parents are engaging in prevention education as well as overdose response training. Orthodox schools are also beginning to follow suit.

At Timberline Knolls, we have experienced an increase in Jewish residents, both adolescent and adult. In getting the opportunity to work with this special population, we see this as a very hopeful sign that addiction is being recognized, diagnosed, and those suffering are getting the treatment they need to recover.