Let me be the first to admit that I am not a math person, yet, unfortunately, it seems that right now my life has been all about numbers.
For those of you who have been spared the pain that has devastated klal yisroel since mid-June, let me fill you in on what has been taking place in Jewish communities all over the United States. Over a three week period, drug overdoses killed nine of our own, with six more remaining in comas as I write these words. Another 17 overdoses had more positive outcomes, baruch Hashem, with Narcan successfully reviving those victims, but without proper treatment I can’t honestly tell you that any of those individuals are really out of the woods.
Without fail, every time I share statistics like this, I get flak from people who suggest that I am making a chilul Hashem by publicly acknowledging that there is a severe drug problem in the frum community. It should come as no surprise that those claims come from people who know little about the realities of abuse and addiction. I can tell you one thing – they definitely don’t come from the friends or loved ones of those whose lives were cut tragically short, who know all too well just how horrific and far reaching this plague really is.
Allow me to set the record straight for those who believe that discussing these deaths embarrasses the Jewish community. A June 2019 National Safety Council report estimated that at least 100 people die every day from drug overdoses, with other reports putting that number at 300. While the death rate in the Jewish community is significantly lower than national averages, we can’t exactly pat ourselves on the back and pretend we are doing okay while people continue to die and families are crying endless tears. The Torah mandate of lo saamod al dam reyecha makes it crystal clear that even one death is one too many and each and every one of us is halachically obligated to take action when Jewish lives are being lost.
There is no doubt that as a community we are true gomlei chesed. From Hatzolah to Bikur Cholim to Tomchei Shabbos and more, we have proven time and time again that we stand united and are there for those who need help. Millions of dollars in resources have been poured into these incredible organizations, as well as into our schools, shuls and other vital institutions and yet in certain areas we are still falling short. I cannot understand why we have embraced those who struggle with cancer while so many still turn a blind eye to those who struggle with mental illness, drug addiction, sexual abuse and suicidality. Are those people less a part of our community? Have we written them off completely because these problems make us feel uncomfortable? It pains me to no end to know that we have had to waitlist people who have reached out to us for help because without sufficient communal support we simply don’t have the resources to provide for them.
I’m willing to bet that you’d be surprised if you knew who the people who came to us were. For the most part, people assume that those who are struggling with drug addictions are the kind of individuals that make you want to cross the street when you see them coming down the block, or angry teenagers with chips on their shoulders, but that is far from true. I can’t even begin to count how many clients have come to us, hooked on painkillers that were legally prescribed to them after a medical procedure, or students who abused their prescription ADHD meds to get through a grueling finals schedule. Others are individuals who experienced some kind of trauma who are just looking to numb the pain so that they can get through life; I promise you the list goes on and on.
The fact remains that addiction is a disease, one that doesn’t discriminate between men and women, kids or grown ups, marrieds or singles and the nine people we just lost ranged in age from 16 to 64 – they were mothers and fathers, singles brimming with potential and yes, even grandparents. We need to face the reality that drug addiction is a far reaching plague and that tremendous resources and manpower are needed to get this deadly epidemic under control. It is ironic that people feel very free to tell me what I am doing wrong, yet those same individuals have no interest in stepping up to the plate and becoming part of the solution. And lest you think this is exclusively an Amudim problem, I have heard from all of my colleagues in the field that they too have gotten apathetic responses from the vast majority of the community when it comes to becoming involved. Critics? There are plenty of those out there. People who are interested in actually rolling up their sleeves and getting involved? Sadly, those are few and far between.
Over the past five years, Amudim has helped nearly 6,000 families, a number that represents just a small fraction of those who are trapped in never ending nightmares. Between our United States and Israel offices, we field 200 calls a day and have 30 to 40 new cases coming in under our comprehensive case management every week. With each weekly story that we send out, every PSA video that we release and every awareness event that we produce, we see with our own eyes that the naysayers are wrong because our lines keep ringing off the hook as people who have been suffering in silence realize that help is just a phone call away.
In addition to raising awareness, we have also been working hard on proactive solutions. We have done training sessions with schoolchildren so that they are better informed and can avoid potential pitfalls which could lead to trouble. We have done seminars with semicha students, rabbonim and rebbetzins so that they can be on the lookout for problems and catch them before they spiral out of control.
But no matter how far we have come and how many people we have helped, it isn’t enough as long as we continue to bury overdose victims. We saw 32 potentially fatal overdoses in just three weeks, and with nine people lost there are far too many milestones that will never be marked and simchos that will forever be marred by the gaping holes created by these deaths. It is incredibly painful to see so many lives forever changed and it is clear that we need to do more on a personal and a community level.
There is so much good going on at Amudim, but we cannot do it alone. My door, and Amudim’s doors, are always open for feedback, new ideas and to welcome new members and volunteers to our team. There are various roles that contribute to the Amudim team and each one is meaningful and valuable to the total picture. I welcome your emaNIS at firstname.lastname@example.org and while it may take me some time to respond, rest assured I will get back to you. There is always so much that needs to be done, whether it is helping clients who are having trouble paying for their care, helping Amudim financially so we can continue doing what we do, bringing awareness to our communities or even something as simple as sharing our resources on social media.
Let’s work together to save lives and build futures.
Zvi Gluck is the director of Amudim, an organization dedicated to helping abuse victims and those suffering with addiction within the Jewish community and has been heavily involved in crisis intervention and management for the past 19 years. For more information go to www.amudim.org.