As Jews around the world prepare to celebrate one of the most joyous days of the calendar, local law enforcement officials, communal leaders and professionals are increasingly concerned about the impact of alcohol-laden festivities on the growing problem of Orthodox substance abuse.
A particular area of concern is the chasidic enclave of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where hundreds of young people from all over the city congregate this week for nightly singing and dancing during the week of Sukkot, culminating Saturday night with Simchat Torah. While alcohol is openly used at the gatherings, previous years have also seen accounts of covert trafficking and use of marijuana and such drugs as the designer amphetamine Ecstasy.
“We are concerned on this particular week because these celebrations bring in an influx of young people and teenagers,” said Avery Mehlman, first deputy chief of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Narcotics Bureau. “There has been an overall increase in drug-related activity among young Jewish men and women. … You get younger teenagers to see what’s going on, and that could raise concerns.”
The Crown Heights Jewish Community Council did not return calls seeking comment. But Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, who organized the celebrations until several years ago, when messianic factions of the Lubavitch movement took it over, said the events have sometimes attracted outsiders with dubious intentions.
“We’ve had some guys come in and try to sell things which were not appropriate, and we got rid of them,” said the rabbi. “Wherever there is a crowd, you have to watch who mixes in … We don’t take a blood test from people who come into the area.”
Rabbi Shmuel Butman, a leader of the Lubavitch Youth Organization, said he is unaware of any drug problems in past years, but said the open and inviting atmosphere of the chasidim made it impossible to screen the crowd.
“Because of the fact that we are an open community and celebrate the festival joyously, we have no way of policing that,” he said.
Ben Zion Twerski, an Orthodox psychotherapist who treats victims of substance abuse in Borough Park, said he has heard firsthand accounts of drug abuse at the Crown Heights celebrations.
“Many of the kids I have seen have been down there,” said Rabbi Twerski. “It’s unfortunate that they are using a place that is based on simcha and holiness for mundane things. This problem has extended to places and times where we least expect it.”
Mehlman said that while there are one or two cases in his office involving members of the Crown Heights Jewish community, there is no indication of a major year-round drug problem in the area.
“This is a concern about people from outside the area,” he stressed.
The concern over Simchat Torah festivities, which celebrate God’s giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, comes at a time when a growing number of leaders from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy are voicing public concern that substance abuse, although not approaching the levels of the outside community, is no longer a problem to be dismissed in frum circles.
“Society is no longer cloistered,” said Rabbi Shaya Cohen, director of Priority 1, an organization that operates a yeshiva in Lawrence, L.I., for teens who need special attention. “We have to be alert and realistic, and not naive.”
Rabbi Cohen launched an ad campaign last week in Jewish publications calling for vigilance on Simchat Torah against alcohol abuse and marijuana consumption.
“A first high on yuntif can lead to experimentation all year long,” warns the ad.
Rabbi Cohen called Simchat Torah a “gateway holiday.”
“There is free-flowing alcohol and the temptation is very great,” he said in a phone interview. “A kid who is not happy and needs something can find that through an artificial substance and get some temporary relief.”
That concern may be compounded by the example set by adults. In many synagogues, congregants openly enhance their festive spirit at the kiddush table through multiple shots of vodka and single-malt Scotch.
“Someone might say ‘Even the rabbi gets a little shikur [drunk], and if the rav can, so can I,” said Arnold Markowitz, director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services’ Project Breakfree, a substance abuse treatment program. “Parents need to be aware of this and certainly discourage it. It becomes a matter of where do you draw the line and what message do you give.”
After a meeting with some 40 Orthodox leaders earlier this year, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes was compelled to issue a public letter calling for moderation on Simchat Torah. Mailed to synagogues and Jewish media, Hynes’ message called for rabbis and other leaders to carefully monitor the consumption of alcohol by minors during holiday celebrations.
“I was taken by the real and genuine concern by various religious and community leaders,” Hynes told The Jewish Week. “The worst thing is that this community has for years been in denial. Now prominent chasidic leaders say they are having problems in their communities.”
The cause of this Orthodox upswing in substance abuse cases is unclear, and no statistics are yet available on the severity of the problem. The Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty is conducting a needs assessment survey, due to be completed this fall, which will paint the clearest picture yet of how many families are affected and how various organizations can best serve them.
“Our expectation and hopes are that this information will help the Jewish community better serve those youngsters who need our intervention, guidance and help,” said William Rapfogel, director of the Met Council.