Fighting opioid addiction and stigma in Orthodox Jewish communities

- Opioid abuse is a serious public health issue. Drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of injury death in the United States, according to the federal government. Nationwide, more than 33,000 people died from causes related to heroin and prescription pain pills in 2015.

The problem affects almost every community, including the Orthodox Jewish communities in the tristate area.

Kazriel Benjamin was 25 when his roommate found him unconscious on his bedroom floor.

"Beautiful child, beautiful baby, and beautiful child," Sarah Benjamin, his mother, said. "We didn't know he was using drugs. That was the first that we knew he was using drugs. Police told us he had overdosed."

"He'd been to us for a meal two weeks before and he's bounding in, he looks really good, he's slim, he's smiling, he always gave us a big hug and this kid two weeks later was dead," Yehuda Benjamin, his father, said. "It pulled the rug out from under us altogether because it was so unexpected."

The culprit was likely a mix of heroin and Xanax. Kazriel's fatal overdose was 6 years ago. Since then the nation's opioid crisis has exploded. But in the Benjamins' Orthodox Jewish enclave of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, this story is rarely told.

"Within an insular community like here in Crown Heights, for example, there is this feeling that we have a moral level, and drugs and stuff is way down at the bottom of where we should be," Yehuda Benjamin said. "The idea that one person in your family had an addiction somehow taints the rest of your family, which has issues for a future wedding of a girl or boy or a position in a school or any of these things."

Yehuda and Sarah Benjamin made a conscious decision not to keep their personal tragedy a dark secret.

Earlier this year, Yehuda Benjamin spoke at what was billed as a groundbreaking event organized by Operation Survival in Crown Heights where 650 Orthodox Jews packed in to talk about addiction.


ADDICTION RESOURCES

"Anyone who takes prescription opioids can become addicted to them. As many as one in four patients receiving long-term opioid therapy in a primary care setting struggles with opioid addiction. Once addicted, it can be hard to stop." --Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Amudim Community Resources

Operation Survival Drug and Alcohol Prevention Program

CDC Information for Patients

SAMHSA Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator


"It really was out there for someone to get up and say, 'My kid died of a drug overdose,'" Yehuda Benjamin said. "I don't think it had happened before in Crown Heights."

But while the Benjamins are some of the only ones in their community sharing heartbreaking stories of drug addiction, they are not the only ones living it.

Daniel said he struggled as an addict in the Orthodox community.

"Nineteen years old, I was full blown all out roxies and Xanax and marijuana and mixing them, selling them," Daniel said. "I don't think they knew how to deal with that at that moment. The community would just close you out."

Now 25, he said he considers himself lucky to have found the help that ultimately saved his life.

"I know that at 24 hours a day, seven days a week even in the Orthodox community I know I can call certain people on a Saturday and I know if I call them twice they'll pick up even though it's Shabbos and they keep the Sabbath," he said.

But too many others haven't been as fortunate.

"We have right now 88 deaths that we know of since January 1st, 2017, to date that are 100 percent opioid overdose-related," Rabbi Zvi Gluck said.

The 88 deaths of Orthodox Jews within the tristate area is a low estimate and may pale in comparison to the national death toll of heroin and prescription pain pills, which reached 33,000 deaths in 2015. Of those, 5,500 were in New York State.

But the numbers, and stories that go along with them, are staggering enough that this tight-knit religious community is now listening. Is this a crisis?

"This is definitely a crisis, we term this in Hebrew a Magefah -- this is unproportionate to anything we've ever seen before," said Gluck, the founder and CEO of Amudim, a crisis-intervention organization that serves the Orthodox Jewish community.

"We have literally hundreds of people calling on a weekly basis specifically for addiction issues asking for help," he said.

Amudim created a dramatized YouTube video of a teenage girl overdosing. The scene has since played out in real life over and over again.

"We're not angels -- we suffer from the same problems everybody else suffers from, and addiction is no different," Rabbi Yaacov Behrman said. He is the program director of Operation Survival, which runs prevention programs in Crown Heights and has trained hundreds of Orthodox Jews to administer the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, or Narcan.

"I saw the need because people are dying," he said.

While drug addiction is certainly not unique to the Orthodox community, Behrman admitted that talking about drugs has unique challenges.

"Because we are very careful with regards to exposure to the secular world," he said. "So a mother would be more sensitive in an Orthodox Jewish school to exposing her child to drugs, 'Why are you teaching my child about drugs, I don't want to expose them to that at that age or altogether.'"

Overcoming the shame and stigma of addiction is just part of the challenge. There are also issues when it comes to finding the right resources and the right kind of treatment.

"I see much more people seeking help and there's no funding," Behrman said. "There's nowhere to go." 

Many Orthodox Jews seek out kosher rehabs, which are few and far between and often with long wait lists.

"I wish it was as simple as somebody calling and saying 'Hey I need an antibiotic so, uh, I don't get an infection' and here it is and have a nice day," Glick said. "It's sadly much, much more difficult and many times in the family dynamic, because of stigmas associated or the community's response overall, it makes it even more difficult."

But Rabbi Gluck of Amudim said he is seeing a shift. More people are reaching out for help. And more people are acknowledging this is an issue that needs attention -- not covering up.

"I'm not ashamed of him. Why would I lie about his manner of death as saying 'I'm ashamed, I don't want anyone to know,'" Sarah Benjamin said. "He would have hated that."

For the Benjamins, speaking up about their son Kazriel doesn't lessen the pain of their loss, but it is helping them cope.

"If I could do anything in my life that I have left, if I could even make a little dent in that, in the shame issue, maybe that's something I could do," Sarah Benjamin said.

"This always this layer of gray fog unfortunately over life once you lose one of your kids," Yehuda Benjamin said. "It's never quite the same."


ADDICTION RESOURCES

"Anyone who takes prescription opioids can become addicted to them. As many as one in four patients receiving long-term opioid therapy in a primary care setting struggles with opioid addiction. Once addicted, it can be hard to stop." --Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Amudim Community Resources

Operation Survival Drug and Alcohol Prevention Program

CDC Information for Patients

SAMHSA Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator


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