On a sweltering Wednesday night in July, on the top floor of a building that blends into the infinite strip mall of Coney Island Avenue, a small group of parents gathers to talk about the rawest of topics — surviving their children’s opioid addiction.
The members of the support group at the nonprofit Dynamic Youth Community (also known as Dynamite) residential rehab center are Russian-speaking Jews who left the former Soviet Union in search of a better life, and they are part of one of the most successful immigrant groups in American history. But amid that striving to “make it” in America, the opioid crisis has blindsided them, stealing away their sons and daughters.
“Addiction is a scandal for every family — let’s say it how it is,” admits M. (The parents met with The Jewish Week on the condition that their names not be used.) A cottage industry seems to be preying on vulnerable Russian-speaking Jewish families, the parents say, as con artists and for-profit rehab centers are bleeding them dry.
“There are a lot of Russian speakers that have programs in Florida,” Frida, whose son completed the Dynamite program, says. “I was told that [Florida] costs $18,000 a month, but because I know someone who is a relative who runs that program, they’ll get [my son] in for $14,000. … Israel is the same. Tens of thousands of dollars.”
“I guess they’re legit organizations,” she says. But, “it’s all about money. It’s not about treatment. Families get sucked in.”
One parent, who had nowhere else to turn, tells of taking her heroin-addicted son to a “mystic” once a week for two years. “She flailed with her hands,” the mother says, recalling the useless ritual. “I myself was crazy. … Ashamed to tell anyone, ashamed to recognize it.” Her son, she says, “needed to work. We didn’t know how to treat it.”
And so it goes for more than an hour. Propelled by the Dynamite program, the parents have become a tight-knit family, bound by heartbreak but focused on hope for their children’s recoveries. Compared to some, they are the lucky ones in the Russian-speaking Jewish community. More commonly, families bury their kids and avoid any mention of what killed them — kept quiet by shame. And that shame is amplified by the fact that little attention has been paid to the particular opioid epidemic among second-generation Russian-speaking Jews.
Other pockets within the Jewish community, such as the Sephardim and the Orthodox, have rallied to address addiction in their midst. But the epidemic in the Russian-speaking Jewish community is compounded by the feedback loop of stigma, lack of education about the problem and a deeply ingrained anti-communal mindset carried over from the Soviet Union.
As a result, such families are falling through the cracks, though a variety of legitimate recovery options, Jewish and otherwise, can be found in South Brooklyn, where many of them live.
“A lot of parents are in denial because for the Russian community, it’s something new,” said Yelena Sokolin, the principal of East Academy, an observant Jewish high school in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, and the mother of a recovering opioid addict. “We did not have that problem in Russia.”
There are no opioid statistics specific to the Russian-speaking Jewish community. Of the nearly 1,500 reported opioid overdoses in New York City in 2017, more than a quarter happened in Brooklyn, where a majority of the city’s 220,000 Russian-speaking Jews live. Studies have also shown high rates of opioid use or abuse among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, in a trend that cuts across all ages over the past two decades.
Anecdotally, most Russian-speaking Jews seem to know a family where a child has died of an opioid overdose. And the living addicts can’t seem to find the help they need.
“Today, they’re coming [in with] 10 to 15 different treatment episodes,” said Marina Nakhla, the intake director at Dynamite, which serves more than 30 Russian-Jewish families in its unique three-year treatment program. The facility helps addicts who range in age from 16 to 25, young people whose downward spiral usually starts with marijuana use, moves onto pills and then to heroin.
Nakhla continued: “Treatment episodes mean [addicts] were in detoxes in a hospital for five days, then they were referred to an outpatient counseling two times a week, then they were sent to a 30-day [rehab] program, then they were sent back to outpatient.” Nothing worked.
As teens and young adults fall further down the rabbit hole, families often don’t notice. Parents of recovering addicts, like Sokolin, say that parental work schedules leave youth in the community unsupervised. As long as the grades are good, behavior is OK, and there are no bad calls home from school, then nothing is wrong.
But if parents spot the addiction, then denial quickly sets in, with a script surprisingly common for many Russian-speaking Jewish families.
“Oh, no, it could not be that serious,” Sokolin remembered thinking when her daughter admitted to being an addict. “I said, ‘Come on. You probably did it one or two times. And you could probably stop.’ Yes, this is what I told her.”
Her daughter’s addiction lasted seven years, through a roller coaster of rehabs, relapses, kidnappings, private detectives and the police.
“Sometimes you just call to hear your daughter’s voice and say, ‘Let’s pray together,’” Sokolin said of those years. “And you know that she’s probably on drugs. But she’ll agree to [pray].”
Asked if she feels guilty about the denial of her daughter’s addiction, Sokolin gave a firm no. “I feel mad,” she said. “Not guilt [but] of not being educated appropriately as a parent.”
As if with one voice, Sokolin and the Dynamite parents charge that secular, and particularly religious leaders of the Russian-Jewish community, aren’t speaking out enough about the opioid epidemic, and need to be more active in providing education to the community.
“We speak about assimilation very openly,” Sokolin said. “We speak about people not being kosher. [Rabbis] speak about women wearing wigs.” She hit her office desk to emphasize every next word: “But nobody speaks about the drug epidemic in our Jewish communities.”
Nakhla, the intake director at Dynamite, also said that outreach into the religious Jewish community has been challenging. “The [Russian-speaking Jewish] community really relies on religious organizations,” she said, “so they should be speaking about this more. … Unfortunately, I don’t hear it often enough that [families] got here through a Jewish organization. … They’re frustrated that they weren’t told this option existed.”
After her daughter’s addiction, Sokolin took matters into her own hands. She now has a master’s degree in social work. At East Academy, the observant Jewish high school that Sokolin heads, she runs programming to educate students and families about the opioid epidemic. She is proud to say that the school is drug free.
But in reaching out to rabbis in South Brooklyn to offer education about the epidemic, Sokolin said the observant community is unresponsive.
“People, I know how to fix it,” she would tell them. “I know how to help. Ask me, I will come and help.”
But, she said, “I haven’t got a call.”
Sokolin also said that Jewish organizations should be opening long-term, Dynamite-type rehab centers in Brooklyn that are explicitly religious. Similar Jewish programs, she said, are too expensive. Sokolin, Dynamite parents and recovering addicts at Dynamite all say that 30-day inpatient rehabs and outpatient counseling aren’t enough for recovery.
There are “no Jewish [affordable] places,” Sokolin said. “Not as far as I know. I’ve been looking for it. Believe me. … Jewish organizations have enough money to run shuls. So then we should have enough money to run the treatments.”
A source close to the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Brooklyn, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Russian-speaking Jews need a more targeted response to addiction. The source added that attempts were made to approach several Jewish organizations to ask for help, but little came of the outreach.
“The cultural background of Russian-speaking Jews is not conducive for treatment, in terms of being secretive about mental health issues and drug use,” said Rabbi Aryeh Katzin, executive director of RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience), a group for millennials in the Russian community. “And a specific Russian-speaking Jewish educational approach may benefit families and especially the parents.”
Rabbi Katzin continued: “There are rabbis and Jewish organizations that dedicate themselves to save youth from the opioid epidemic, but an average rabbi in South Brooklyn is not a mental health professional to guide families through the crisis. We as a community have to learn more and work together as one to confront the problem: parents and children, therapists and rabbis.”
Complicating the picture for those who seek treatment options specifically focused on Russian-speaking Jews is the longstanding network of Jewish organizations, such as The Jewish Board (of Family and Children’s Services) and UJA-Federation of New York, which supports a variety of Jewish rehab centers in Brooklyn. Why ask for more options when they already exist?
“We have a network of agencies that are working day-to-day in a variety of communities around the eight counties that we serve,” said Deborah Joselow, the chief planning officer for UJA-Federation. “They work in all kind of spaces, with addiction, substance abuse, and they have been for decades. This is not a new thing for them.”
Joselow says UJA approaches the opioid epidemic by borough rather than by ethnic group because addiction cuts across all ages and communities.
“At least three of the agencies we work with have large communities of Russian speakers,” Joselow said, “so we have regular communication, ongoing relationships with those agencies.” But, “there isn’t a tailored [rehab] program that I’m aware of for Russian speakers.”
In Brooklyn’s Sephardic community, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions are treated by the SAFE Foundation, a state-licensed outpatient program that grew out of local roots.
“When I first started SAFE, nobody was doing drug treatment in the Jewish world,” said founder Ike Dweck, a Sephardic gambling addict in recovery, who started the organization almost two decades ago.
SAFE is one of UJA’s local partners, and Dweck has seen wide-ranging success in its work. Now, “the stigma really has been broken” in the Sephardic community. He emphasized that SAFE treats anyone who asks for help, not only Sephardic Jews.
SAFE is also supported largely by the Sephardic community both in its funding and its community resources, in a powerful example of what happens when an entire community rallies to address addiction.
“When it comes to drug treatment … I don’t know where [Russian-speaking Jews] would get help if there’s not one central place where somebody opens some kind of facility,” Dweck said. “Usually … each community would build their own little infrastructure.”
But, Dweck added, “If each community doesn’t have people to lead the efforts to want to request help … it’s hard for places like UJA to understand that these people need help, and we have to get out there.”
When asked about the communal responsibility to respond to addiction, Russian-speaking Jewish parents in the Dynamite support group were at a loss for words. “The [Russian-speaking] Jewish community doesn’t exist like a community,” M., who is part of the support group, admitted.
‘Removing the stigma is a huge, huge thing,” said James, 28, a former heroin addict and another Russian-speaking Jewish graduate of the Dynamite program who now volunteers there. “I’ve heard of so many stories where people just wouldn’t get help because they were too ashamed to say it; the families are too ashamed to say it.”
It’s a scenario that Sue Fox, executive director of the Shorefront Y in heavily Russian-Jewish Brighton Beach, has witnessed. “It’s something that is handled very privately and quietly. Part of that communal ‘solve your problems by yourself, and keep them to yourself, and not reach out to others publicly and air out dirty laundry,’ is part of the challenge, especially in the Russian Jewish community.”
For James, Dynamite had been his last hope for recovery. But more help may be on the way. A number of local groups, like the Be Proud Foundation, have sprung up to educate Russian-speaking Jews about the opioid epidemic. Dynamite, with the help of program graduates and parents, continues to reach out into the community, but is constrained by the need for family confidentiality and privacy.
And soon, Dynamite won’t be the only local, affordable residential rehab center available to Jewish families in Brooklyn. With the help of private donors and UJA-Federation, the T’Shuvah Center, a pluralistic, kosher, Jewish residential center will open next month in Bedford-Stuyvesant in north Brooklyn.
“The time is now to bring the T’Shuvah Center,” said Alex Roth-Kahn, the managing director of UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission. “We feel it’s a huge accomplishment to be able to launch this location.”
The T’Shuvah Center is a sister organization to Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, and is based on the West Coast Jewish residential program. Rabbi Igael “Iggy” Gurin-Malous, who previously worked at Beit T’Shuvah and is seen as a charismatic leader, will head the center here.
And while the center will not have outreach specific to Russian-speaking Jews, the rabbi says he’s “going to offer a Jewish response to recovery, to addiction, to the opioid epidemic, and help the people of my community not die. People are literally dying because of this. And there’s a way to make this stop.”
Ultimately, Russian-speaking Jewish parents of addicts in recovery have a well-honed sense of exhaustion. Many are just relieved to see their children sober and happy. But addiction, and the communal isolation that comes with it, is not easily beat. Educating Russian-speaking Jewish families about effective drug rehab options continues to be an uphill battle.
“They’re not seeing it, they’re not hearing it,” Nakhla of Dynamite said. “Nowadays, even Russian television has been talking about the opioid epidemic, but they’re still not being given the resources the way they should.”