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  1. Hittoreri: Helping Jewish Men Recover from Addiction in a Jewish Way

6 months ago

Yehudis Litvak

Each incident of drug overdose in our community is heartbreaking, but the statistics are downright alarming. According to Amudim, a Jewish organization that provides support for individuals and families in crisis, 60 drug-related deaths occurred in the New York area Jewish community over the past year alone. The most recent victim was a 22-year-old granddaughter of a Chassidic Rebbe in Monsey. Clearly, the plague of substance abuse and addiction does not spare even the holiest of homes.

“Everyone knows someone who is struggling with substance abuse,” says Rabbi Yekusiel Kalmenson, clinical director of Hittoreri, a Jewish recovery residence for men ages 18 to 30 in North Hollywood, California.

Hittoreri was founded four months ago in response to “a strong need for Torah living outpatient rehab,” says Rabbi Kalmenson. It currently houses eight young men, with a maximum capacity of ten. The small size allows for individual attention for each resident.

Rabbi Kalmenson explains that while people struggling with addiction might be able to reach sobriety in a rehab, there is a very high relapse rate once they get back to their home environment. The goal of Hittoreri is to get to the root cause of its residents’ addictions and provide comprehensive treatment that would help them maintain sobriety throughout life. To that end, Hittoreri offers not only the twelve-step program for treating addiction, but also psychological and psychiatric services to treat its causes.

In most cases, the residents are dealing with a dual diagnosis – both addiction and mental health challenges. While sometimes it is the mental illness itself that leads to addiction, more often both the addiction and the mental health issues are triggered by trauma, abuse, or neglect earlier in life. “They experienced fractured relationships; they have no self-esteem, no self-confidence,” says Rabbi Kalmenson. “Usually there are mental health challenges to be overcome [in order to maintain sobriety].”

Joey, a 21-year-old from New York, has been dealing with addiction for three years, though it took him a full year to recognize the problem. His home environment was very competitive, with high expectations placed on him by his family and community. “There was a hole in me before I started smoking,” he says. “Smoking helped me fit in with my friends, gave me confidence.”

While many of his friends used drugs and alcohol, only some became addicted. “G-d gave everyone a choice,” says Joey. “[At first,] I had a choice to stop or continue using. Then I couldn’t choose any more. I lost that choice. [The addiction] became a part of me.”

No one can be forced into recovery, explains Joey. All addicts initially deny the problem, convincing themselves that they can control their substance use. “We don’t take anyone who is not interested in treatment,” says Rabbi Kalmenson. “We accept adults who want to change, and we surround them by people who can help them change.” Some of Hittoreri’s staff members are former addicts who have successfully maintained their own recovery.

Joey had also fallen into the trap of denial at first, until he hit rock bottom – a truly low point. Once he recognized the power his addiction was wielding over his life he sought help. “It’s okay to have a problem,” says Joey. “A lot of people look down on people who have an addiction. When someone has a cold, people [sympathize and] say, ‘feel better.’ With addiction, most people don’t listen with open arms.”

After several months in a different rehab, Joey went back home, but soon found himself relapsing. “I knew I needed help,” he says. “I picked up the phone and reached out.” Joey is impressed with the staff at Hittoreri, whose sincere desire is to see the residents succeed. After two weeks at Hittoreri, “I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long long time,” says Joey.

The best part of Hittoreri is the unity and camaraderie among its residents, explains Joey. “I left my family to come to a new family,” he says. “We all care for each other. Whenever I need anything I can walk over to anyone nearby… [At home,] I couldn’t be myself. Here, people love me for who I am. We feel comfortable being open with each other.”

Rabbi Shmulik Schneerson, the house rabbi of Hittoreri, explains that the staff works hard to create that special family atmosphere. They invite guest speakers and conduct special events, such as farbrengens, kumzits, and meditation hikes. Every Thursday night, Hittoreri conducts a “cholent recovery group,” where the residents talk about their struggles with addiction over a bowl of steaming hot cholent.

Yiddishkeit is woven into the atmosphere at Hittoreri, without putting any pressure on its residents. Rabbi Shais Taub, an addiction expert and author of a book on Jewish spirituality and recovery from addiction, gives a class to the Hittoreri residents twice a week over the internet. Rabbi Schneerson relates that at a recent class, when Rabbi Taub began speaking about the month of Elul, a young man objected that he had already learned enough about Elul in school and wanted to learn only about recovery. Rabbi Taub agreed and began to go through the steps of recovery. Soon, the same young man commented that the Torah says something similar. Rabbi Schneerson explains, “[Rabbi Taub] shows how yiddishkeit goes hand in hand with recovery.”

All the residents come from observant homes, but some feel resentful towards yiddishkeit, while others have left observance altogether. The familiar Jewish environment at Hittoreri helps them feel at home without pressuring them into any lifestyle changes. For example, the house rules require the residents to comply with Shabbos observance in common areas, but they are free to do whatever they like in their own rooms. “We don’t impose yiddishkeit,” says Rabbi Kalmenson. “Part of the solution is bridging the gaps, mending the relationships between them and the institutions they grew up in.” Hittoreri also helps its residents improve their relationships with their parents by providing family therapy.

For some young men, Hittoreri is the first place where they experience yiddishkeit in a positive way. Rabbi Kalmenson relates that in a conversation about the beauty of Shabbos, one of the residents exclaimed, “I’m so happy to hear that there is a different Shabbos than what I grew up with.” It turned out that his father was a chain smoker whose tension on Shabbos affected the whole family atmosphere. “We expose them to something nicer, richer than what they grew up with,” says Rabbi Kalmenson.

In addition to the twelve steps, Rabbi Kalmenson developed his own recovery curriculum, consisting of ten supplemental steps. Based on the Kabbalistic model of the ten sefiros, these steps help navigate the challenges of recovery.

Joey appreciates the Jewish content at Hittoreri and the opportunities to go out for Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. “You can be Jewish and grow spiritually and mentally,” he says.

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