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The sober side of Birthright

JACS uses Israel trip as a way to reinforce recovery from dependencies

 
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The JACS so ber Birthright trip includes some davening.

Birthright Israel is meant to make people fall in love with Israel.

There is nothing hidden about that goal, and most of the time it works. It offers its 18- to 26-year-old participants a free trip that engages all their senses, engages their emotions, and very often captures their hearts. It accomplishes its task in a whirlwind of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, colors, and experiences, often fueled with the short-term rush of adrenaline rather than the longer-term comfort of sleep.

Very often, it is also fueled by alcohol. Not officially — but the drinking age in Israel is 18, and strictures against visible drunkenness and loutishness do not stop more restrained adult drinking.

That’s fine for most Birthright participants. It’s not fine for travelers who have had substance abuse problems.

That’s why JACS runs a sober Birthright Israel trip twice a year. The most recent trip left on December 24 and is scheduled to return today.

JACS is the acronym for a group called Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically dependent persons, and Significant others. (It is an acronym if you squint at it selectively, at any rate.) It is a project of the Jewish Board of Children and Family Services of New York, funded in part by UJA Federation of New York, but its reach is region-wide, and it offers weekly meetings in Teaneck.

Sharon Darack, JACS’s program director, lives in Teaneck. She has helped facilitate the group’s trips since its first one, in March 2010. “We felt that Birthright tours were not sober and they did not feel safe, so we applied to Israel Free Spirit to do a 12-step tour,” she said. (Birthright Israel is an extraordinarily complicated program. There are many so-called trip providers — travel agencies, basically — that take care of trip logistics. Once they have been accepted by Birthright and by the trip providers, many different organizations, each with a slightly different slant, vie for and attract would-be participants, who also have to be accepted by Birthright. Many more people apply than can be accepted.)

The first trip was an experiment. Darack had no idea how many applicants she could round up for the trip, so JACS decided to open it to anyone who was interested in a sober tour and otherwise qualified for Birthright — not only people in 12-step programs or otherwise in recovery, but also people with illnesses that did not allow them to drink, as well as others who simply did not want to have to deal with drink or drunks. “Between 60 and 70 people applied,” she said.

Since then, the trip, now only for people recovering from addictions, has run every six months.

It tends to affect participants deeply, according to Darack, who led one such trip last year.

“A lot of them are sober for the first time in years, even though they’re babies, really,” she said. “They’re in their mid-20s, on average, and they’ve been active drug addicts or alcoholics since they were 12 or 13, some of them. And they’re clear now.” In fact, she said, one 26-year-old participant had been sober for nine years.

“It’s beautiful to see,” she continued. “It was very emotional for me, to see them put on tefillin — to see someone who’s never done it before learn to put on tefillin — someone who a year ago was a heroin addict, living on the street. It’s life-changing.

“Most of them have come back from using opiates or alcoholism, and through that homelessness. Their lives had become unmanageable. They fell apart. And then they go to treatment.” And then they go on Birthright.

The result is raw emotion.

“It’s mind-blowing. It’s breathtaking,” Darack said.

“It is my understanding that Israel Free Spirit loves our tour, because it is so meaningful. Every person on it is in a place of profound gratitude. They say things like ‘I never thought I’d come to Israel. I never thought I’d be alive and be able to come to Israel.’ They have overwhelming feelings of ‘I’m in Israel. I’m a Jew. I’m alive. It’s a miracle.’

“Some of them cry. They’re excited. They’re happy; they’re sad, but happy. It’s a 10-day emotional rollercoaster.”

This is not entirely unlike what many Birthright participants feel, but it is more intense because so many travelers on the sober trip are so vulnerable and have not yet rebuilt their defenses. They also are forced to face questions of identity more baldly than their peers. “They have to figure out, ‘Where do I belong in this world?’” Darack said. “‘Where am I as a Jewish person?’”

Not only do the participants struggle with these existential questions internally, in the middle of the night, riding on a bus, or walking through Jerusalem in blinding light, they also ask them out loud in the 12-step meetings that are part of their itinerary. “They get to share,” Darack said. Because the group goes to two 12-step meetings for English-speaking Israelis and also holds its own during the trip, participants are able to talk about their emotions instead of burying them with drink, drugs, or even the whir of constant motion.

Daniel, who is 22 years old and lives in Brooklyn, was on the sober Birthright trip last spring. (JACS participants, like many other recovering alcoholics and addicts in 12-step programs, ask that their last names not be made public. If they can be identified, the thinking goes, and if they relapse, the failure can reflect on the entire program.)

Daniel is articulate and seems to be both smart and self-aware. His history is sobering.

“I’d been using drugs since high school, and then it continued into college,” he said. “I never made any attempts to stop, even though I knew it was a problem.

“At first, I was at McDaniels, a small school in Maryland that you’ve probably never heard of. There was nothing to do there, so I did a lot of drugs. Then I transferred to Temple in Philadelphia, which you probably have heard of. There were a lot more drugs there, so I did a lot of drugs.”

Eventually, he was unable to continue with school, took some time off — “I was really struggling, really depressed” — and ended up in a seven-month treatment program. Six months into the program, he went on Birthright.

“Being in Israel was really cool,” Daniel said. “I’d been once, when I was 7, but I didn’t remember anything, so it was a really new experience for me. I was just blown away by how beautiful the country was. Everything about it was amazing.

“I think that if I hadn’t been sober, it wouldn’t have been such a great experience.

“I didn’t feel much connection to Judaism prior to the trip,” he continued. “I’m not very religious. But the trip made me feel connected, and not in an artificial way. I felt a strong connection to my historical roots, and to the land itself.

“When I got home, I felt the emotional impact of it. When I was there, I was kind of in the moment. Seeing the desert, these amazing different structural landscapes, just blew me away.”

Daniel has strong political views that are to the left of those he felt expressed on Birthright, but he learned from that. “When I was there, my views definitely changed,” he said. He felt some tension. “I definitely see it differently now. We saw places like Sderot,” a town that faces nearly constant bombardment from Gaza, and whose residents live in a debilitating state of constant alert, “and you see that it’s such a complicated issue.

“Birthright presents everything in a one-sided way, which is understandable, so I was able to use that, and add it to my preconceived notions, and get a well-rounded perception.”

Lisa Auerbach, a learning specialist who lives in Brooklyn, is president of the council of volunteers that oversees JACS.

She was a leader on the first sober Birthright trip.

“It was pretty intense,” she said. Some of the participants had been to Israel already — Birthright’s rules are that the trip cannot have been with a peer group, but people who have visited with family are eligible — “but the majority of the kids who had been there had not experienced it fully. This gave them an opportunity to come back.

“There was an incredible moment when we touched down in Israel, and one of the participants had a difficult time getting off the plane. She got very emotional, because Israel was the place where it all fell apart for her.

“She was afraid of what it would be like to come back sober.”

This story has a happy ending. “It was really wonderful for her,” Auerbach said. “That was what I witnessed. I watched these kids really experience something, really be present in way they weren’t before, in a place that meant a lot to them.”

It meant so much to the participants, in fact, that a few of them have made aliyah and now live in Israel.

Prospective travelers on JACS/Birthright Israel trip have to meet both Birthright’s and JACS’ specifications.

“We have very specific requirements for applicants,” Darack said. “They must have been sober for a minimum of three months from drug or alcohol addictions, or other 12-step programs, such as eating disorders or gambling. Most of the time when it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, there is a crossover to other addictions — eating, gambling, sex, the Internet.”

The application process is intense. It begins with a phone screening. “We start to learn who they are,” Darack said. “They have to tell us about their recovery, their mental health, who sponsors them, any criminal reports, any probation requirements.” Because some of the applicants are still in what she calls “early recovery,” they tend not to be particularly well organized; when it might take someone else “five hours to get everything together, if they’re in early recovery it could take five months,” she said.

“And about half of our population is on medication. Part of the process is getting a note from their doctor. It freaks them out, needing a doctor’s note, but the reality is that it’s just a precaution.

“Actually, almost all of the applicants make it through the process,” she added. “They might be wait-listed, if they’re not sober enough.”

JACS also screens the Israeli soldiers who join the trip for a few days. They are not recovering addicts, but they must be comfortable around people who are. “They have to understand the nature of what we do, and we have to make sure that they can stay sober for five days,” Darack said.

Although the Birthright trip may be JACS’s most visible project, it is far from its only one. JACS is not only for young people, either. It offers educational programs and meetings, works in schools, runs a speakers bureau, and holds a retreat where recovering addicts and congregational rabbis who will find themselves counseling addicts and their families can learn from each other.

Everyone active in JACS at one time or other has to face the deeply held belief — which, in fact, is a myth — that Jews do not drink or do drugs; that the problem is endemic in other communities, but has spared this one.

That is not true.

“It’s typical Jewish denial,” Darack said. Moreover, that particular denial is not unique to Jews. “It happens in many cultures,” she said. “Italian, Spanish — it’s a way of saying that doesn’t happen to me.

“Jews don’t want to air our laundry in public,” she continued. “We want to keep it in house, to sweep it under the rug, and then say that it doesn’t happen here. We have to explain that it’s okay to speak out and get help. People are so ashamed.

“In more religious settings, the worry is, ‘What will other families say? How will our other kids get a shiduch?’ In more secular families, the worry is, ‘How will my kid get into college? Will this be all over Facebook?’”

Auerbach agrees that JACS can save lives.

“We had a young man who came to us; he was about 16,” she remembered. “He had heard us speak at his school.

“He told us that he had planned to go home that day and kill himself, but he heard one of our members speak and went up to him instead.

“And that young man? We went to his wedding. We walked around and kept saying, ‘Our baby’s getting married! Our baby’s getting married!’

“We have many success stories. I feel incredibly blessed by them. These kids have been a gift.”

 

More on: The sober side of Birthright

 
 
 

Church basement or shul, the goal is recovery

The people JACS help, like its staff and volunteers, represent the full range of Jewish life in North America.

And that is a good thing, according to Susan, a recovered addict, who says it helps to have a specifically Jewish way to recover from it.

“I went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — this was about 32 years ago — and another woman and I were the only two Jews in the group. The group was incredibly loving and supportive, but it was in a church basement,” she said.

“They’d end the meeting with the Lord’s Prayer, and people would cross themselves.

 
 
 
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