April is Alcohol Awareness Month – a public health program organized as a way of increasing outreach and education regarding the dangers of alcoholism and issues related to alcohol use. The program was created in 1987, with the intention of targeting college-aged students who are especially at risk for alcohol-related issues. It has since become a national movement to draw more attention to the topic.
As part of Alcohol Awareness Month, the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD) says local, state, and national events will be “aimed at educating people about the treatment and prevention of alcoholism, particularly among our youth, and the important role that parents can play in giving kids a better understanding of the impact that alcohol can have on their lives.”
Alcohol and the Jewish Community
It may be uncomfortable to face the truth that Jews, like anyone else, are not immune to the disease of alcoholism, but we must accept this as fact. The first step in addressing the problem is awareness. As long as we believe this is not “our” problem, we will do nothing about it. Recognizing that alcohol use disorders are prevalent among the members of our community increases our awareness and sensitivity to those battling this disease.
According to national data, approximately 14.1 million adults (ages 18 or older) suffer from an alcohol use disorder and an estimated 95,000 people die from alcohol-related causes per year, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. There is nothing about being Jewish that makes us immune from these issues. In fact, one could argue that the role that alcohol plays in our rituals, observances, and culture puts us at a greater risk, particularly as our youth are exposed to alcohol at very young ages as seemingly being a normal and intrinsic part of being “Jewish.”
We find alcohol in so many aspects of our rituals and holidays – weekly Shabbat kiddush, Purim and Simchat Torah where it seems to be ingrained that part of observance is drinking, Pesach and the 4 cups of wine, at a shalom zachor or l’chaim (engagement party), and even at a bris where we give a newborn baby boy some wine at his naming.
Which leads to the next question: If we treat alcohol as an inherent part of being Jewish, then how do we prevent alcoholism?
Alcohol remains the number one choice of drugs among our youth, and the Jewish community is no exception. National surveys indicate that over 4.2 million “underage” drinkers report binge drinking in the last month. By 12th grade, 16.8% of students engage in binge drinking (at least) monthly.* Add on the fact that nearly 100,000 youth in America between the ages of 12 and 17 are diagnosed each year with an alcohol or substance use disorder, and these become terrifying statistics.
The good news? Our children do listen. Although it may not always seem like it, children really do hear their parents’ concerns. When parents create a strong and nurturing relationship with their children, it can influence them to make healthier decisions around drug and alcohol use. Having open, honest, and non-judgmental conversations with your children is one of the most powerful ways to help them develop into healthy adults.
Another important aspect of prevention is modeling. As Lewis Abrams, ACSW, LCSW, CASAC, CSAT, recently said at a community event hosted by CCSA, “What we tell them is less important than what they see.” Modeling appropriate behavior – having one drink instead of 3, pouring one glass of wine Friday night and putting the bottle away, not treating alcohol as something to be venerated (“look at this $200 bottle of scotch!”) – are all appropriate ways to demonstrate to your children that drinking can be done responsibly and in moderation as an adult.
It is also important to explain that the introduction of substances when their brains are still developing (our brains are not fully mature until the age of 25) can cause irreparable harm and significantly increase their risk of an alcohol use disorder in the future. This can help them understand why adults are able to drink and teenagers are not.
Eliminating Stigma; Increasing Sensitivity
A big part of our work at CCSA is centered on eliminating the stigma associated with substance use and addiction. We tend to be secretive around struggles within the family, which means we may avoid seeking help for our loved ones or ourselves due to fear of exposure or shame.
Alcohol Awareness Month is designed to highlight the stigma that still surrounds alcoholism and addiction in general. For many, denial is a common trait among those struggling. They often underestimate how much they drink, the impact it has on their life, or overestimate their ability to control their drinking. Denial is also common among friends and family members who are uncomfortable acknowledging the seriousness of the situation and the need for intervention and help.
We often say that addiction is a communal disease and, therefore, deserves a communal response. It is incumbent on all of us – rabbis, lay leadership, educational institutions, and the Jewish community at large – to face issues like alcoholism and substance use disorders head-on. The other benefit to increasing awareness and to educating ourselves is that, by doing so, we increase our own sensitivity to those among us who may be struggling.
In particular, when we are at a shalom zachor, a Purim seudah, or even making kiddush on Shabbat, and we are serving alcohol or, worse, urging others to drink without knowing their circumstances, having this knowledge may make us sensitive to the fact that we could be (unwittingly) undermining someone who may be struggling. Recognizing this as a possibility should result in our modifying our behavior accordingly.
What Can You Do?
Addiction is a medical disease and we are not immune. Approximately 46% of Americans report having a close friend or family member who struggles with substance use or addiction. When we expand this to include neighbors, colleagues, peers, or even members of our shul, chances are everybody knows somebody facing these issues, whether they realize it or not. So what can one do to help?
On April 18, 2021, at 10:30 a.m. EST, CCSA is addressing the issue of “Now What?” by hosting a virtual event that includes a panel of Jewish leaders and professionals to address the various obstacles, strategies, and options for getting someone help with an addiction. Panelists include Rabbi Dr. Benzion Twerski, Dr. Audrey Freshman, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, and Dr. Moshe Winograd. Collectively, they will address halachic concerns, communication strategies, and treatment options.
Communities Confronting Substance Abuse (CCSA) was founded with the mission of creating stigma-free Jewish communities through programming and services focused on education and prevention, and increasing communal awareness around the issue of substance use and addiction. Our goal in hosting this event is to continue eliminating the stigma that persists around addiction, shattering misconceptions, and giving our community the tools necessary to combat addiction on all fronts.
We look forward to seeing you at the event. Pre-registration is available at: https://www.jewishccsa.org/upcoming-events
*SAMHSA 2019 National Survey of Drug Use and Health; University of Michigan Monitoring the Future Survey 2020