Inside Chabad's 'Jewish Recovery' Movement
ALEX COHEN, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand. The Orthodox Jewish movement Chabad is known for its outreach to nonobservant Jews. Chabad is also quietly creating another identity for itself. It's trying to become a spiritual home for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. Monique Parsons reports.
MONIQUE PARSONS: A party is just warming up at the University of Illinois in Chicago. There is a hot buffet, a rabbi dressed like an elephant and signs promising a cash bar. It's a costume party for the Jewish holiday of Purim. The bar never materializes, but there's plenty of food to go around. The party is cosponsored by Chabad and it's a classic Chabad event - festive, tied to a holiday, and open to everyone, religious or not.
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The Lubavitchers, as they're also known, believe that any time they help a Jew do a mitzvah - celebrate Purim, say, or light Shabbat candles, everybody inches closer to God. An 18th-century charismatic rabbi inspired their mystical theology. But a 20th-century self-help movement is giving it a new direction.
Rabbi SHAIS TAUB (Chabad House, Milwaukee): You need your biceps (unintelligible). Let's get it on. Let's get it on. Yeah, yeah, yeah, all right. (Foreign language spoken)
PARSONS: Rabbi Shais Taub teaches at a Chabad house in Milwaukee. He's an expert in Jewish mysticism and the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Rabbi TAUB: There is nothing the 12 steps that contradicts Jewish teaching. Person in recovery, when they start to study their Judaism in depth, they find themselves already familiar with those ideas. You know, humility, personal accountability, acceptance, faith, trust in God.
PARSONS: Today, Taub is helping one of his students, a recovering alcoholic, put on tefillin, an ancient daily ritual that binds little boxes of Scripture to the head and arm during prayer.
Rabbi TAUB: (Foreign language spoken)
PARSONS: Last year, Taub started a weekly support group for Jews in recovery. Mike Pi(ph) is a regular.
Mr. MIKE PI (Student): I came from a good family. My dad is president of the Wisconsin Medical Society. I had everything I wanted and I ended up in a broke-down rooming house in filth with nothing but a bag of clothes and police looking for me.
PARSONS: Mike says some Jews associate AA with Christianity, but they shouldn't. Many meetings are held in church basements, but AA teaches that addicts should turn to any god that works.
Mr. PI: My sobriety is about church basements. I've sobered up. My home group is a Baptist church basement. My Tuesday night - my Thursday night group is in a Lutheran church basement.
PARSONS: Chabad's dozen or so recovery rabbis from Boca Raton to Detroit and L.A. want fellow rabbis to know that AA is - well, kosher. Taub emphasizes that they don't want to replace programs like AA.
Rabbi TAUB: When I meet a Jewish person who is in active addiction, I do not offer them to go synagogue and pray. The first place I'm going to send them is to the appropriate 12-step group.
PARSONS: The message is in keeping with Chabad's general approach to modernity. They may read ancient texts and dress like 18th-century Eastern Europeans, but they don't live in that world.
Rabbi TAUB: So whatever tools there are, available to us in our day and age, Torah says that we should use those and use those as God had intended them to be used. God gave us penicillin. God gave us AA. God gave us the Internet so that we could disseminate our message.
PARSONS: Once a Jewish addict is in recovery, Taub believes Hasidus, the mystical spiritual teaching and practices of Hasidic Judaism, are a perfect match for their spiritual yearnings. But Chabad isn't the only Jewish group doing this sort of work. Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski is an Orthodox chaplain with the Jewish Healing Network in Chicago. He's glad to learn of Chabad's outreach, but he's cautious.
Rabbi JOSEPH OZAROWSKI (Orthodox Chaplain, Jewish Healing Network): Drinking is very much a part of Lubavitch culture, and I think they'll be the first people to tell you that's a reality. Part of the way that they reach out to people is they bring out the schnapps.
PARSONS: A bigger problem, he adds, is addiction within the Orthodox Jewish community. Batya(ph) is an Orthodox Jew who says her alcoholism started as a girl when she snuck sweet kosher wine from her parent's kitchen. Now in her 50s and sober for three decades, she questions whether Chabad might be missing the mark.
BATYA: I think even most Chabad rabbis think that they don't have a problem in their community. So it's nice that there's some Chabad rabbis that see what alcoholism is and understand it, but are they reaching out to their own? That's my concern.
PARSONS: So far, Chabad's recovery rabbis have focused outside the Lubavitcher community. But in Milwaukee, Rabbi Taub says he's not in denial. He's writing a book on recovery and Hasidic mysticism that he hopes will be a resource for all Jews who struggle with addiction. For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons in Chicago.
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