Three years ago, Rabbi Nechemia and Raizel Schusterman of Chabad of Peabody found themselves seated in a folding-chair circle in a Peabody church basement. The church was playing host to Al-Anon, a 12-step fellowship program for those affected by another’s drinking, substance, or other addiction. They were the only visibly Jewish people there.
The Schustermans’ son, Mendy, was just beginning his journey of recovering from addiction, and as his parents, they were on a journey of their own. While Al-Anon was – and remains – pivotal for them, the experience lacked Jewish elements. The couple was seeking something additional to augment what they gained.
“It became clear to me that there’s nothing in the Jewish community for people to get together to meet to talk about 12-step recovery in a Jewish-flavored environment,” said Schusterman. Thus, Jewish Support Anonymous (JSA) was born. Now, just over a year after its inception, it has become something even more unique than it was when it began.
JSA started off because the Schustermans were looking for something that didn’t exist. “A safe space for Jews to talk in an environment that is Jewish, culturally Jewish,” he said. “Where you can say words like kvetch and kugel and other Yiddishisms, and people will know what you’re talking about and will identify, and very often people have been through what you’re dealing with.”
Over the past year, JSA has acted as a safe space for Jews to talk about their issues. Schusterman reports that participants say the group “helps keep them centered and balanced in a shaky and uncertain world.” Each meeting usually draws between 8-12 people, with some regulars and some who come on occasion. The JSA anonymous mailing list holds over 60 names.
The biweekly meetings are structured like an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting (the 12-step fellowship program for alcoholics); a leader reads the opening statement, outlining the values of the program, the importance of confidentiality in that space, and, in this case, emphasizing that while this program uses the tools of 12 steps, it is not affiliated with any official 12-step program.
What has diverged from traditional 12-step programs is what issues the group talks about. “It’s become a lot less about substance use, or family members with substance use – even though it has that as its core component,” said Schusterman. “It’s become a lot more about mental health and emotional health.”
The program now acts as a space for people to discuss myriad personal issues, with less of a structure than in traditional 12-step meetings.
“If you have a problem and you can’t do anything about it, immediately the 12 steps kick in,” Schusterman explained. “Because it means giving up my control to the higher power, recognizing what I cannot control, recognizing my role in the process.”
In fact, Schusterman said, people used the space to talk about their emotions and struggles in the wake of Oct. 7. “That’s not a conversation you’ll ever find at an AA meeting or an Al-Anon meeting, because they’re very structured,” he said. “You don’t get to talk about stuff like that.”
The structure of AA and Al-Anon was one of the things that didn’t totally work for the Schustermans. For example, they felt the hard-and-fast rule of letting your loved ones hit rock bottom – which could mean throwing them out on the street – was not in line in Jewish values.
“In Judaism, really the only scenario where a child would be sent out of the house would be if they’re actively putting somebody in danger,” said Schusterman. “Fundamentally, we don’t believe that you throw someone out.”
In addition to the meetings, in the last year they’ve also hosted a national program called “Quieting the Silence” on the North Shore. The event is usually run by an organization called the Blue Dove Foundation, which works to reduce stigma around mental illness and addiction in the Jewish community. With the support of the foundation and the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, JSA has facilitated two “Quieting the Silence” events through Chabad of Peabody, and plans to do more in the coming months.
“A year ago, this felt like a startup and a test to see if this concept works,” said Schusterman. “A year in, I feel like we have confirmation that this is a legitimate group and provides a proven value to the community and for those who have participated.”
On Jan. 4, Schusterman spent the day with Mendy to celebrate his three years of sobriety.
“I think fellowship is good as a concept,” Mendy said to the Journal. “I think it’s good for people to have a place to talk and speak.” Θ
To join JSA, go to the Adult Ed and Programming link at jewishpeabody.com.