Heart to Heart: Addiction Within our Community

In the past few weeks, I have received numerous phone calls from the family members and friends of five individuals whose lives were cut short at the hands of addiction. As an individual in recovery from drug addiction for over thirteen years, as a survivor of sexual abuse and as someone who has worked in this field for more than a decade I would like to make something very clear. Addiction is not a choice, nor is it a moral failing. It is a disease and it needs to be treated as such.

We all know someone who suffers from it. Whether it’s the individual themselves or their family. We all know a mother who cries herself to sleep every night thinking that this might be the last night her child will walk this Earth. We have seen the tear drenched tehillim at their house. We have schmoozed with the father after davening. Too often we try to keep these things behind closed doors but we all know.

We know who robbed the tzedaka box at shul, we know who took the schnapps from the cabinet and who took the silver menorah in the box next to the bimah. So why were we, why are we, as a community, still silent? I am not talking about calling the parents and having the child reprimanded, I am speaking of dealing with the source of the problem. Did you ever stop and ask yourself what is going on inside this child that is causing them to act out, or do you immediately reprimand them? Have you ever even asked them what’s going on?

In a recent interview the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, put it very well. He spoke about his mother who had been a smoker from a very early age. She had been told her whole life to quit. Everyone knew it was bad, she knew it was bad, but she just couldn’t quit. In her mid-seventies she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Nobody said to her “we are sorry that you have cancer but we told you so and you didn’t listen, now you need to deal with this on your own.” Rather the community banded together, helping her to raise the necessary funds for treatment. They visited her in the hospital and sent her meals, love and prayers. But where is our community when one of our children is suffering under the grips of the disease of addiction?

Many people like to take the stance that addiction is a moral failing, a choice that an individual makes.  Something that if they want to stop, they could.  But the truth is, they cannot just stop. They need help.

When I first heard of these overdoses I was filled with so much pain, sadness, and anger. I posted a status on Facebook sharing what I felt, with the hope of opening the eyes of the world. The responses was heartbreaking. Several individuals came forward saying that they had tried to help each and every one of these people. Unfortunately, they didn’t know what to do or they didn’t have the proper support. Others said they had turned to various community leaders asking for support but were given the cold shoulder. My question is why? Why do our children need to die? Why do our friends, families, and neighbors need to deal with this alone? Why the shame and secrecy?

Years ago, when my child was in the hospital for pneumonia, our friends and neighbors got together to help watch our other children. Food was brought over and we received many kind phone calls all with the intention of helping to ease our burden. How come no one provides the same sympathy for the families of those sent to rehab or in an even worse situation? Why does everyone wait to band together until it is too late and we are meeting to bury our children?

I have experienced too many families mourning children who died from this disease to count. What do you say to the parent of someone whose death was avoidable. No parent should ever have to bury their own child but yet we let it go on. Week after week the phone rings and the messages pour in. Since Rosh Hashanah, fifteen of our children, that I know of, have been taken from us. Where is the outpouring of support? Where are our leaders, rallying their communities together to help battle this insidious disease? When I ask this question, everyone else seems to be waiting for someone else to do the job.  So many of us lament the situation but we continue to be unwilling to “get our hands dirty.”  Why haven’t we done anything yet? Why haven’t we found a way to make a difference? What more will it take for each and every one of us to take charge in our communities and make the changes necessary?

I go to work every day knowing that the numbers are against me. Statistics have shown that only ten percent of people that go through proper addiction treatment will achieve long term sobriety. I fight for each and every neshama that Hashem puts in my path, putting my heart and soul into every attempt to save their lives. I strive to make sure that everyone who walks into my office falls into that ten percent. I have spent many sleepless nights working with individuals and families who are suffering, crying, reaching out for help. The question for you is, What are you and your community doing to help?

Get creative. Work with the schools in your area to set up early prevention programs. Hand out flyers with facts about drugs and alcohol with numbers that families, friends and people in crisis can call. As parents, get educated. Learn what to do in these situations. Most Communities nowadays have some sort of drop-in center. Volunteer your time, efforts and money. There is so much to be done. These ideas are just a beginning.  Meet with professionals and other parents, come up with even more ideas and turn them into actions.

The hard facts are simple. If we as a community don’t step up and do our part, if we continue to be closed minded to addiction, then who is really responsible for the next death?

There is a solution. Thank God we live in a time where there are many outpatient and inpatient programs, professionals, drop in centers, etc… the help is readily available. It is time to break the silence and band together. It is time to take it personally and to help each and every child in our community to get the proper care that they so desperately need.

My program, The Jerusalem Sober House is founded on all of the best parts of each program that i was ever in, saw, worked with or was a part of.  In my work I have seen the best and the worst of the treatment programs that are out there. We took all of that and created something unique. It’s something that even today, no one else is doing. It just took a little bit of thinking outside of the box. And Baruch Hashem, we have had a lot of success.  Our program has been open for almost 4 years and 75% of our graduates are still sober. Try doing the same for your community. Think outside of the box. What works in Brooklyn may not work in Lakewood, each community has its own way of doing things. But the bottom line is, do something.

If I can leave you with one thought this is what it would be; never underestimate the power of love. When we care for those who cannot care for themselves,  our work gets payed forward. Those people can then begin the process of healing which we hope and pray leads to a healthy and fulfilling life.

If you or someone you know needs help, don’t hesitate. Email Mike at: Together we will make a difference.

About the Author
Michael “Big Mike” Gondelman is the Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Sober House. After a long battle with Drug and Alcohol addiction Big Mike turned his life around and has made it his life’s work to help others struggling with addiction. Mike holds a Certified Addictions and Substance Abuse Professional (CASAP) international certification from the IC&RC and a Bachelors Degree in Judaic Studies from Ohr Somaech Yeshiva. To find out more about the Jerusalem Sober House, visit us online at: To contact Mike, please email