Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman has not been secretive about the fact that his eldest son, now 21, fell prey to substance use disorder. Nor, as the father of an addict, is he unwilling to discuss how he himself has turned to support groups to learn how to manage the situation and stay strong.
“Do I send him to the hospital? Do I keep him home? What do I do with my other children? One of the things you learn early on in recovery is that addiction is a family disease,” said Schusterman, the spiritual leader of Chabad of Peabody.
“Whether it’s substance abuse or gambling or sex addiction, the impact is on everyone. Whether [addicts] go to the hospital or go to jail or fall apart – wherever the craziness takes them – it affects the whole family. And you – the family of the addict – need to get your own support. If you are a mess, you can’t help others, including your own child.”
So he and his wife, Raizel, have found themselves in a lot of church basements over the last couple of years, attending support groups such as Al-Anon for family members of addicts, sharing their story, and listening to others.
And helpful as the meetings were, he often found himself wondering: “Why is this only happening in church basements? Why are there no Jewish places to do this?”
This is soon to change, with the launch of a new type of support group called Jewish Support Anonymous (JSA). Co-created by the Rabbi and Raizel, it will bring together men and women struggling in any area of their lives, be it mental or health problems, substance abuse, fraught relationships with children or parents, or any other tough challenges life has handed them. Its stated goal is “helping one another to struggle better,” and while it will meet at Chabad of Peabody, it is not a program of Chabad, Schusterman said.
“It is to give a place to people who are exhausted, who are spent by life and need a safe place,” he said. “Sometimes people just need to say, ‘I hate my parents at this moment, I hate my job. I just need to kvetch it out. Sometimes I need someone to hear me and not judge me.’ ”
The inspiration for the group came from a podcast he heard called BrainStorm with Sony Perlman.
Perlman, a New York social worker specializing in addiction, started a support group called “Mevakshim (Seekers) Anonymous” for men in the Orthodox Jewish community – “regular people who want to feel better,” Perlman said in an interview. “We don’t have the same level of desperation that addicts do, but we all struggle.”
Schusterman immediately saw the potential for a broader application in the Jewish community, and reached out to Perlman. “I thought, ‘yes, that’s what I want to do here!’ ” said Schusterman. “We need our own version of this.”
“He’s a doer,” Perlman said. “He was off to the races.”
JSA, which Schusterman expects will begin in the next month, is modeled loosely after Al-Anon, the respected peer support organization for people impacted by another person’s alcoholism, and based on a 12-Step personal recovery program. It will be peer led – “it does not need to be led by me,” Schusterman said – and offers anonymity and privacy.
But it will factor in the unique needs of the Jewish community. “There is so much brilliance in the 12-Step programs, but the Al-Anon world is very rigid, very much about boundaries,” he said. One of the bedrock principles is, you have to hit bottom: If you have to kick them out of the house, and let the kid sadly fall to the lowest level -– even to homelessness and death, God forbid -– so be it, to keep yourself and the family sane.”
But Jews are guided by additional principles, he said. “Jews by their very nature are very compassionate, to the point where some of the strictures of Al-Anon don’t sit well with them. Kindness is at the core of our being. We believe in a safety net. It won’t work only if you tough-love them till they find the light. You can love them, and not the disease.
“For example, if they know the money you are giving them is being used for a substance, you don’t have to give them money, but you can still give them food. It’s about ‘I am going to love you, I will support you in your good decisions, and I will detach with love from your bad decisions.’ ”
He said the group is not restricted to denomination. “If you identify as Jewish, we’d love to see you there. I am going to feel comfortable using the ideas of Judaism and Torah, but people might take it or leave it. You don’t have to be religious, you don’t have to be Orthodox, you don’t have to be practicing, to attend. I’m not going to ask you to do any specific Jewish mitzvot. This is just to get peer support.”
The genesis of this idea was the Schustermans’ experience with their son, Mendy, who has been sober now for 20 months, though the rabbi shares few details about it, saying “It’s his journey to share.”
Mendy is now a college student studying social work and who also works in a youth development program. He’s been vocal on social media about what he’s described as “years of battling my demons by turning to the bottle or getting high.”
He’s spoken, too, about his recovery process, which has included stays in a psychiatric ward, three rehabilitation facilities, and a sober house. Ultimately, “G-d grabbed me from the depth of despair and helped me through it,” he posted on Facebook last spring.
“I am very, very public about my life,” Mendy said in an interview. “I recover loudly so others don’t die silently,” he said, quoting a line often used in the field of recovery. He described his parents as “amazing people. They’re one of the biggest reasons I am not dead today.”
Raizel Schusterman emphasizes that the new support group is “an outcome” of her son’s experience, but “it is not about him.” She describes herself as a “very proud, grateful member of Al-Anon. We are learning and growing ourselves, realizing that – as community leaders – there is a void out there. Everyone needs support. There is a very deep sense, in the world, of loneliness.”
And yet stigma and shame often keep people from seeking, and offering, support.
“If you have cancer, people show up with dinners, but if someone’s wife is struggling with bipolar disorder, there is no one knocking on your door,” she said. “There is shame and there is embarrassment, and that’s the part no one wants to talk about.”
Raizel, who is certified as a positive life coach, believes “people are uncomfortable in their vulnerability,” and that includes community leaders like herself and her husband. “But vulnerability is the birthplace of connection,” she said. “It’s time for people putting up these fronts, or masks, to be real with their people.”
She acknowledges there are times when this is easier than others. “If I was in the midst of active addiction, or my son was in the hospital, who wants to talk about that? It’s embarrassing, to be seen as some Orthodox mother who really failed her son. It’s hard to share when you’re down, and much easier to share when you’re on the way up,” she said. “And that’s the darned truth.” Θ
Anyone interested in this group, which will meet bi-weekly, should email their first name and email address to firstname.lastname@example.org, or go online to Jewishpeabody.com/JSA to be added to a confidential email list and notified when meetings begin.
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com