As opioid crisis grows in Orthodox circles, those closest speak out

As opioid crisis grows in Orthodox circles, those closest speak out

‘The religious community only started caring once we started dying’

Chana Gibber at the grave of Faigy Grunwald last week. Grunwald died in September. Photos Courtesy Chana Gibber
Chana Gibber at the grave of Faigy Grunwald last week. Grunwald died in September. Photos Courtesy Chana Gibber

Five months ago, Chana Gibber, a 20-year-old recovering opioid addict, woke up in a hospital bed attached to a ventilator.

She had been hospitalized the night before after overdosing on heroin.

“I was homeless and panhandling [at the time],” recalled the Midwood, Brooklyn, native, speaking to NJJN in an exclusive interview. She grew up in an ultra-Orthodox enclave and attended a high school for troubled girls; she has since broken with the insular community. “I overdosed and flatlined for like 13 seconds…. They Narcanned [administered Naloxone, an opioid antidote] me like six times.”

Despite her unstable condition, she texted a friend from her hospital bed, asking for more heroin. Her friend smuggled the drugs past security and the nurse station. Propped up on the sanitized pillows, she injected herself again.

“Addiction wants us dead,” said Gibber, today in recovery. “It wants to torture our lives…. The battle of fighting against it is so crazy.”

Gibber — now more than 100 days clean, newly employed and living in Los Angeles — lost five friends to overdoses in the past year. Most recently was a close high school friend, Malky Klein, who, like Gibber, had left her chasidic community. She died in Brooklyn in June. She was 20.

The national opioid crisis — a combination of doctor over-prescription and patient misuse that has contributed to an epidemic of addiction and overdose — has not spared Orthodox communities, despite strict guidelines that attempt to shelter youth from outside influences. The crisis seems to be hitting home particularly hard for those who leave the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, self-identified as “off the derech,” or path. Since the beginning of June, 13 people under the age of 35 have died of overdoses among Orthodox and formerly Orthodox Jews; since January of this year, that number is more than 100, experts say. While 2016 saw an alarming spike in the number of ultra-Orthodox deaths by overdose — 65 in the past Jewish calendar year, according to Zvi Gluck, director of the Orthodox social service organization Amudim — this year’s death toll quickly surpassed those numbers.

While prominent members of the ultra-Orthodox community have begun to weigh in on potential causes and solutions, those even closer to the tragedies — friends, family members, and individuals like Gibber who have themselves narrowly escaped tragic deaths — are starting to talk.

“People are dying — this is not about religion anymore,” Mushky Z., a 23-year-old college student living in Crown Heights (She requested her last name be kept private). She was close friends with many of the young adults who recently succumbed to opioid addiction. Though she grew up in the Chabad chasidic community, she no longer considers herself part of it.

“They rejected me,” she said, recalling that she was “kicked out” of her all-girls elementary school because the school staff did not know how to deal with problems she was having at home. Though Mushky did not use drugs, she struggled with navigating a complicated family situation and in high school began struggling with alcohol addicition.

“When someone is acting out and going against the rules, people [in the religious community] step away — they are scared, they don’t want to deal with it.” The problem is that these “bad behaviors” — partying, drug use, alcohol use — are, she said, “a desperate cry for help.”

“By pushing these people away, the suffering only gets worse,” she said. “Open your eyes. Realize you can help someone.”

Although she has seen many friends struggle with addiction over the years, something has changed in recent months, she said.

“We’re not hiding it anymore,” said Mushky, referring to an increasingly active — and angry — group of young people who are leaving (or have left) the Orthodox community — either by choice or systematic exclusion. “We used to hide everything we did — not keeping religious rules, partying, doing drugs — we hid that from the community, because we were ashamed, or because of negative feedback. Now, we’re showing our faces.”

Perry D., a 22-year-old formerly Orthodox young woman (who requested her full name not be used for privacy reasons), recently posted on her Facebook wall: “The religious community only started caring once we started dying.” Her post received a flurry of comments and responses, most affirming the sentiment. (Her comment was reprinted here with permission.)

Demo M., 24, a friend of Meyer Green — an ex-Orthodox man in his early 20s who died in early June — recalled the experience of being expelled from an upstate Monsey religious community before the struggle with drug addiction began.

“Many of us were cast out — [we] didn’t have family support, or community support,” Demo said. “Maybe it’s the fact that we’re addicts. There are a lot of factors [that contribute to addiction]. One of them is losing community.”

Integrating more sports and creative outlets — like art and drama — into Orthodox schools could steer frustrated youth away from drugs, Demo suggested.

Though few studies compare the rate of mental health disorders in the Jewish community to rates in the general population, there is reason to suspect that those who leave the Orthodox fold have an increased risk of mental health disorders, said Dr. Isaac Schechter, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Applied Psychology, a 1,000-patient mental health clinic in Rockland County.

“When someone disconnects from a community, [the person’s] identity is lost,” said Schechter. Though the data is not “clear enough” at this point to draw conclusions, “falling out of hope” can lead to depression, overdose, and suicide.

Yaacov Behrman, a program director in the Chabad-Lubavitch community in Crown Heights, leads the drug-prevention group Operation Survival. He said the Orthodox community is no different than the rest of the population with regard to its struggle against opioids.

“We’re not angels,” he said. “We’re affected by the outside world.” Religious communities, no matter how insular, are not immune to this national epidemic, he said.

“It’s hard for any parent to imagine that their kid is capable of overdosing,” Behrman said.

But a challenge that is unique to the Orthodox community, he said, is an absence of awareness, exposure and education about these issues. The “mindset of protection” that pervades many Orthodox homes and schools is actually doing a disservice to its youth, he said.

“Parents don’t want their kids to be exposed to these ugly realities, but it is worth the exposure,” he said. Under Behrman’s leadership, Operation Survival has become the first Jewish program in New York state to register as an Opioid Overdose Prevention Training program; it aims to provide the Jewish community of Crown Heights not only with prevention education, but also overdose-response training.

“Awareness is important. It’s hard for parents to have a conversation with their kids about drugs. It’s harder not to,” he said.

Gluck of Amudim pointed to a 2016 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that found that drug use among high school students is on the decline. He attributes the shift to early education and intervention programs. Orthodox schools are slowly beginning to follow suit, he said.

“I am quite pleased overall with the way our Yeshiva systems are making subtle changes in different areas such as training and education,” Gluck told NJJN. “But sadly it is still lacking tremendously in the fields of addiction and abuse.”

Lou Abrams, a social worker specializing in drug addiction in the Orthodox community, said the gratuitous presence of alcohol at Jewish celebrations — bar mitzvahs, “kiddush clubs,” Purim parties — and a general lack of adult supervision increases the risk of addiction, particularly for young people.

“Alcohol is still a big gateway. Rarely does someone start taking opiates before they started experimenting with alcohol or marijuana.”

Still, for individuals like Gibber, the problem is deeper than one too many drinks, or one too many joints.

“Drug use is a response to a lot of pain,” she said. “If you leave religion, you are branded as an outcast and a rebel … you become a ‘bad person.’ [You] ask yourself ‘Why shouldn’t I do drugs if people already assume there’s something wrong with me?’”

The thought process is cyclical and self-fulfilling, she said. It is hard to fight off the despair.

Despite losing several close friends to overdose — and despite her own volatile journey, from relapse to recovery to relapse to recovery again — she plans to fight for life.

“Hope is everything,” she said.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer for The NY Jewish Week; Chaim Levin is an editorial intern.

Editor’s Note: Mushky’s last name originally appeared in the article, but was later removed at her request.

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