For Jewish Recovering Addicts, 12 Steps Plus Shabbat

For Jewish Recovering Addicts, 12 Steps Plus Shabbat

Rabbi Lipsker in conversation withe counselors at Caron Treatment Center.

by R. C. Berman - Wernersville, PA

February 20, 2007

Drug and alcohol addiction are often symptoms of spiritual hunger. At one treatment center, Jewish patients have the opportunity to connect in a way that complements their recovery.

Karen Z. just doesn’t fit the stereotype of an addict, but when the crisply articulate New York City professional needed help breaking her use-abuse cycle, she checked into the Caron Treatment Center in out-of-the-way Wernersville, PA. There she found – of all things – a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi waiting to invite her to his family’s home for Shabbat dinner.

For seven years, groups of fifteen to thirty drug and alcohol addicts at various stages of recovery and, sometimes, their families, have been guests at Rabbi Yosef and Chana Lipsker’s Friday night dinner table. On average, Jewish patients comprise about 10% of the 214-bed Caron Treatment Center’s population. Some stay for 30 days, others for months, giving them ample time to connect with the Lipsker family. As a result, hundreds of lives changed, but it has not been easy.

A fellow Jewish patient raved about the Lipskers’ hospitality and warmth, but Karen wasn’t sure she wanted to go.

“As a Reform, secular Jew, I felt a little queasy about going to a Chasidic rabbi’s house. I didn’t think I belonged there,” said Karen.

Skeptical and cautious, Karen boarded the Caron Foundation van that took her to Shomrei Habrith, an orthodox synagogue, where Lipsker officiates. After the abridged song and story filled service, she went next door to the Lipsker home, took in the scent of Chana’s homemade challah, and things began to change.

“Rabbi Lipsker and his wife make you feel so wonderful, and their kids are just a delight,” she said. “I can have conversations with Rabbi Lipsker that I cannot have with anyone else on the planet.”

Clearly attached and joyfully devoted to their unusual Chabad outreach activities, the Lipskers don’t sugarcoat the challenge of hosting a table-full of troubled teens and adults each week. Everyone around the table is asked to share a thought during the meal, surly, cynical adolescent heroin addicts included. Many R-rated topics – the underbelly of addict life - have surfaced as the seven Lipsker kids, ages 14 to 1, listen intently.

“My kids realize that these people are at a low in their lives, and we talk about the choices they made. Instead of looking for something productive to do with their lives, to make themselves feel better by doing for others, they chose a destructive path,” said Chana.

Caron patients influence Chana’s parenting. “I am so much more aware of how one incident or bad experience can change a kid for life,” and she is careful to avoid the dangerous pattern of dependence engendered by parents who present their kids with all of life’s goodies on a silver platter.

A Reading, PA, resident once challenged the appropriateness of a rabbi hosting drug addicts for Shabbat meals. Rabbi Lipsker answered with a question: “What if it was your brother or father, would you feel the same way? I don’t have addicts at my table. When I look around I see beautiful Jews.”

Naïve at first to the weaknesses of recovering addicts, the Lipskers have since tweaked their Shabbat dinner environment to keep everyone on the right road. Rabbi Lipsker is the only one who makes the Kiddush blessing over wine, and there are no wine bottles on the table. Guests sip Kiddush grape juice from 3 oz. cups, a rather large size chosen after a patient said the Lipskers’ other Kiddush cups reminded him of shot glasses. There are no poppy seeds, opiate cousins of heroin, on the challah and no medications in bathroom cabinets. Smoking, the one vice permitted at Caron, is off limits at the Lipskers’ home because it marred the Shabbat atmosphere.

Caron Treatment Center counselors lay out a set of expectations that patients must follow to participate at the Lipsker Shabbat. A privilege Caron limits to Jewish patients, the dinners are so popular that some recalcitrant clients have been known to upgrade their behavior to merit a spot on the van. Tom McDermitt, a counselor assistant supervisor at Caron, said the Lipskers play an important role in the patients’ recovery process. Central to Caron’s 12-step oriented program is identifying a higher power.

“A lot of clients have lost touch with their religious, spiritual backgrounds, and Rabbi Lipsker really helps them connect,” said McDermitt. “Anybody who can make a spiritual connection while they are in treatment, and work on it in treatment, it will help them when they leave.”

One patient, long out of touch with her Jewish roots, decided to wear a Star of David necklace during her time at Caron. Rabbi Lipsker saw her and invited her to Shabbat dinner.

“Through that whole experience, she realized there was meaning in the spiritual side to the program for her and it turned her treatment around completely,” said McDermitt.

Four months after leaving Caron, the woman has remained sober. 

Dinner is but one slice of the Lipskers’ involvement with Caron patients. Rabbi Lipsker visits the facility throughout the week. “Jews and non-Jews sought him out, just to talk,” Karen recalled. They have hosted Chanukah celebrations and provided electric menorahs  for display around the 110-acre large campus –  and other holiday celebrations at Caron. Parents and spouses of patients share Shabbat meals with the Lipskers, furthering Caron’s family counseling efforts. Last year, officers of the Caron foundation offered Rabbi Lipsker a formal position as a spiritual advisor. After considering the invitation and consulting family and fellow rabbis, famed addiction expert and author Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski among them, he turned down the offer for now.

As an unofficial spiritual guide, Rabbi Lispker maintains contact with Caron alumni long after treatment is over. The Lipskers’ quiet network of Jewish Caron graduates – CEOs, doctors, rabbis, soccer moms – stretches across the east coast. Karen and her friend Rick had dinner with Rabbi Lipsker at a kosher restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side last Thursday. Talk of a post-Caron Torah class came up.

“I would be glad to be part of Torah study. Because of my exposure to the rabbi, I am a little more open to hear about the traditions,” said Karen. “It may be a doorway for me to learn more about Judaism.”

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