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Conversation with Rabbi Richard L. Eisenberg

Now an addiction counselor, a former Woodbridge rabbi talks about his new book on Judaism, addiction and recovery 

By Stacey Dresner

In 2007, after serving as spiritual leader  for many years at Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge, Rabbi Richard L. Eisenberg stepped down from the pulpit to become a certified addiction counselor, hoping to aid in the fight against chemical addiction in the Jewish community.

Now, Rabbi Eisenberg has written Judaism, Addiction and Recovery: A Spiritual and Faith-Based Approach, a book in which he shares much of what he has learned over the years about the social, medical and spiritual crisis of addiction.

In the book he discusses treatment and self-help models, not limited to 12-step programs, and shares practical suggestions and tips for anyone affected by the disease of addiction. Jewish texts and sources are interwoven throughout.

A native of Bridgeport, Eisenberg, received a BA from Duke University and an MA from Smith College and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). In 1982, he received rabbinical ordination from JTS and went on to serve as a congregational rabbi for 35 years. Prior to joining B’nai Jacob, he held pulpits in Columbus, Georgia and Wayne, New Jersey.

Rabbi Eisenberg received his Certificate in Drug and Alcohol Counseling from Gateway Community College and worked for 10 years as a rehabilitation counselor at The APT Foundation in New Haven, where he provided group and individual therapy for people diagnosed with substance use disorders. During that time he also served part-time as rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in Torrington, which closed its doors in 2017.

Eisenberg, 67, retired from The APT Foundation two years ago. In addition to his new book, he has written articles on intermarriage, Judaism and addiction and the opioid crisis that have appeared in The Forward and Tablet.

He recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about his book and the “fog” that he hopes it can help lift in the Jewish community that separates it from “an awareness of the challenges, risks and harsh realities posed by chemical dependence.”


JEWISH LEDGER (JL): A description of your new book calls it a “wake up call to the Jewish community.” How so?

RABBI RICHARD EISENBERG (RE): I use in the book the image of fog, which is another way of describing or picturing denial, or kind of existing in a shadow in some way. I don’t like to use the word denial often because it is pejorative, although I do use it a few times in the book. But the image of the fog, I think, relates to Jewish individuals, families and communities. I wrote about all three and how individuals can be in what are called earlier stages of change when it comes to addiction, starting out with what is called “precontemplation” – not yet being aware that there is a real problem. So, there may be some people who might read this book and might actually say to themselves, “Well, maybe I do have a problem.” And that’s a wake up call for them but also, even if they realize they have a problem already, it may be a little bit of a motivation or push to encourage them to seek help. 


JL: You mention that this also relates to families and communities. How so?

RE: As far as families go, the wake up call has to do with a variety of [things]. One is that Jewish families have a tendency to be enmeshed and overinvolved, and I am overgeneralizing here, but there have been a lot of jokes and movies about this, right? And parents or siblings or spouses very often are under the illusion that they can fix a loved one who is broken, in this case somebody who has an addiction problem. I talk about how families can learn to get support and help; to find a way to detach in a loving way. 

I also talk about the myth, “The Jewish don’t use.” In a way, [that myth] becomes a kind of problem in itself. Now that we are aware that Jews have addiction issues just like people in other cultures and religions there is no excuse to pretend that it doesn’t exist or not to do anything about it. So, as far as families go, I talk about Al-Anon, which is a 12-step program for family and friends and I push that sort of thing. 

When it comes to community I talk on several levels. I talk about synagogues and Jewish institutions that I feel need to do more to promote addiction awareness. I talk about how synagogues need to be more open to hosting AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. And on the other side of the coin, I talk about the Jewish world that is interested or evolved in addiction recovery and treatment, which needs a wake-up call, a reminder, that 12-step programs are not all there is. If you do a survey of Jewish treatment centers or books that have been written by rabbis, you will tend to find 12-step orientations pretty much across the board.

My feeling is that the 12-step programs are great for some, but there are others who do not benefit from them and are looking for other kinds of support. So it’s a wake-up call to the Jewish community also in the sense that not only do we have a problem but lets stop trying to prove that 12-step are consistent with Judaism. We already know that they are consistent. Let’s put that aside for now and just look at other ways that families and individuals can find help.


JL: Can you talk a little about the opiod crisis that seems to have overtaken so many community in recent years?

RE: The wake up call also has to do specifically with the opioid crisis. I have come to the conclusion over the past few years that medication-assisted treatment such as Methadone and Soboxone, in addition to other forms of treatment, are for many people with severe opioid dependence necessary for their recovery and for their safety in order to prevent relapse and overdose. 

If you look around at Jewish treatment centers or other Jewish programs that endorse recovery and addiction awareness, you don’t find enough of a push for medication-assisted treatment – MAT – for people with moderate or severe opioid use disorders.


JL: In your experience as a pulpit rabbi, did you find yourself having to deal with many cases of addiction in your work?

RE: From time to time people from the congregation would come out of the woodwork and seek my support. I didn’t know very much about it in those years. I was one of the people who I address in this book who needed to learn more in order to help more people. Again, I think it was a deep, dark secret among many families and there were many who were embarrassed to come forward. I talk in the book about parallels to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s…about similarities with the stigma and how once the stigma is reduced and begins to dissipate more people feel comfortable and encouraged to come out of the closet, as it were, and admit that they have an issue.


JL: How – and toward what end – do you bring in biblical texts? 

RE: The biblical texts that I bring in have to do more with understanding the potential perils of alcohol. I bring in some texts to describe; just as a way of illuminating points that I make. For instance, one discussion I bring in is about Moses and God on Mount Sinai where God fails to prepare Moses adequately for what’s going to happen when Moses gets back down to the people that are building the golden calf. 

I use that as a way of drawing out the example of the addicted person who goes away for treatment – just like Moses was up on the mountain for 40 days – and then has to go back to face his or her community eventually. If they are not adequately prepared for that in treatment then they have a lesser chance to succeed. It’s the same for families. When somebody is away for treatment, or even of somebody is in an intensive outpatient program, families need to find more ways to prepare for the inevitable so that they are better equipped to handle what could be a confusing and even risky situation once the person returns.

Another bibilical example in the book is of Noah planting a vineyard after the flood, which was his way of coping with the trauma of the flood, but he coped with it using a maladaptive coping mechanism of excessive drinking.


JL: Is this book only intended for a Jewish audience or can others benefit from it?

RE: The book is really designed primarily for the Jewish community, but can be read and appreciated by people in other faith communities or faith-based cultures. Because even though it is specific to the Jewish community, there are many parallels with other faith-based cultures. It might be useful to anyone who is learning in the counseling field who wants to gain more of an expertise in what we call “cultural competence.” A counselor can make terrible mistakes because they don’t understand someone from the Asian culture or Latino culture – we can make certain assumptions that don’t hold in those cultures. In that case a counselor can really do some harm.


JL: What is the one thing you would want the community to really understand about addiction?

RE: What I wish everyone would be able to understand is that addiction – and I focus on chemical dependence, but it could also include pathological gambling, sex addiction, eating disorders and other kinds of things – is a condition or a disease. That it is not a moral flaw or failure. That the language we use in our Jewish terminology should reflect that in order to remove the stigma of addiction, so that people and families would feel comfortable coming forward to seek help.

Because help is there. Treatment works. Even when somebody gets treatment and God forbid they relapse, it doesn’t mean that the treatment episode was a failure or that that person is a failure. It means that certain seeds are planted each treatment episode and hopefully eventually the affected person will find their way to sustained recovery.

Someone could go to three, four, five or 10 treatment places and still struggle, but the 11th one might do the trick or they may find recovery on their own. But they are not going to get there by cajoling, or pressuring from other family members.

Of course, this does not apply to teenagers. In the case of teenagers parents need to pull out all the stops and intervene in any way they can because the adolescent brain doesn’t complete formation and maturity until the age of 25. So until their children are 18 and they have jurisdiction, parents need to do whatever they can do to arrest the problem.

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