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Orthodox Jews break through stigma to advocate for addiction education

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Orthodox Jews break through stigma to advocate for addiction education

Image: Elana Forman
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Elana Forman, 23, hit rock bottom near Palm Beach, Florida, where she stayed in motels for two weeks with someone she met in a recovery program.

"We left treatment to go shoot up heroin, pretty much," she said. "And we were running in the streets down here. It was the worst, like, two weeks of my life. The two of us kind of went to a motel. It got really bad. We were held at gunpoint at one point."

It ended, she said, with her "back in a detox center somewhere."

Forman fought her way toward sobriety. Now more than a year and a half later, the Teaneck, New Jersey, native who goes by Ellie is a vocal member of a growing movement trying to save the lives of addicts in religiously conservative corners of Jewish America.

"The more Orthodox Jews that, you know, end up seeking help, it just raises awareness in general in the community," she said.

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It's not easy, Forman said, for an Orthodox-raised woman to recall a dark and shameful chapter in her life. Particularly when her journey has seen her leave Orthodox Jewish life and observancy. Starting in her early teens, Forman was keenly aware that she didn't quite fit in with her peers.

"The Orthodox Jewish traditions and such felt constricting to me. I felt no connection to it," she said. "I was looking for whatever else there was in this life that would fill that hole that I felt."

That "whatever else" ended up being alcohol, weed, painkillers, heroin, and "anything offered to me," she said.

Breaking through the silence

Talking about substance abuse and addiction in the Orthodox Jewish world is a difficult endeavor that Rabbi Zvi Gluck is well acquainted with. He grew up in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn and said that, "any insular community likes to remain in their bubble so that they deal with things themselves and not have to mix in the outside world into it."

Gluck knew early on that helping others was his calling in life because, as he says, "at the end of the day, every time we lose somebody, no matter how old or young, you're not just losing that person. If we can even just save one life, as the Talmud says, you've saved an entire world."

In 2014, with the support of Jewish philanthropists and community leaders, Gluck created Amudim, a crisis support organization that has taken on two of the most controversial issues in the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish worlds: sex abuse and addiction.

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Since inception, Amudim has helped over 5,000 clients, from across the Jewish spectrum. They provide treatment and services for those that need help, whether they are victims of abuse or addicts. But there's another critical component of their mission: raising awareness, battling stigma, and education.

The people Amudim serves range from 13 to 71 years old, Gluck said. Traditionally, he said, the Orthodox attitude about drug problems is to stay quiet on the issue.

"You have kids to marry off," he said, noting that recovery is a red flag for arranged marriages. "But we are noticing that a lot of the younger generation of the rabbinic leaders and the spiritual leaders do get it."

More than three out of five drug overdose deaths involve an opioid, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. "Overdose deaths from opioids, including prescription opioids and heroin, have increased by more than five times since 1999," the CDC says on its website.

The epidemic is fueled by the over-prescription of painkillers, which can lead users to seek the cheaper and more potent opioid — heroin — on the street.

One family shares their story

Forman started her journey with addiction the night before her first day of high school, when she raided her parents' liquor cabinet.

"I just remember being really scared about high school starting, feeling like I wasn't going to fit in, feeling like nobody was going to like me there," she said.

What started as a moment of escape from worries and anxiety became an addiction. And that addiction progressed from drinking and smoking marijuana nearly every day in college to using cocaine, heroin, and popping prescription painkillers.

Forman said her parents probably were unaware of her drug use, but they noticed when the requisite skirts of Orthodox Judaism gave way to jeans.

The pattern of substance abuse did eventually reach a breaking point. Forman recalled a week straight when she would go to a subway platform: "I actually remember sitting down and crying, and, like, literally just dangling my feet over the subway station. I was ready to either kill myself or to get help because I just couldn't go on that way anymore."

She chose to confide in her parents, Etiel and Lianne Forman.

Elana Forman and her parents now advocate for addiction education in the Orthodox Jewish community.
Elana Forman and her parents now advocate for addiction education in the Orthodox Jewish community.NBC News

"By the way, I'm taking a lotta drugs, and I'm, you know, I'm struggling a lot," she said, paraphrasing her text message.

Her mother remembers that moment well. "Outwardly, we said, you know, 'we're here for you, we wanna help you.' Inwardly, we panicked," Lianne Forman said. "We've not dealt with this issue. We didn't know what to do, who to turn to."

During that time, her parents learned as much as they could about addiction, and they tried not to enable their daughter. The hardest part, Etiel Forman said, was warning relatives.

"If Ellie calls you and asks you for money, no matter how plausible her excuse is, you can't give it to her," he said he told them. "To have to come to grips with the fact that your own daughter could be that desperate for that high that she would reach out to family members and lie to them and manipulate them is incredibly difficult."

Forman said that the community's focus on virtuous behavior creates a blind spot when it comes to drugs, which are "associated with prisons, with the street. "It's not something that really coincides at all with the picture of what a Jewish Orthodox person should look like," she said.

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"So it's not something that's talked about in the community because people shouldn't be struggling with it," she said.

But Etiel and Lianne Forman are speaking publicly about the problem. They advocate treatment access and substance abuse education in the Orthodox Jewish world.

In April, as many as 700 people went to the Torah Academy of Bergen County, New Jersey, for an awareness event held by Amudim and Gluck. They were there to hear the Formans tell their story.

"It's not something that really coincides at all with the picture of what a Jewish Orthodox person should look like."

"I think inadvertently we've become the face of parents dealing with somebody suffering from addiction," Lianne Forman said.

Etiel Forman said the last few years have been eye-opening.

"Are you aware that high school kids are driving 10 minutes away to buy bags of heroin on the street for $3 to $5?" he said. "I think when we tell people that, it blows their mind."

The Formans didn't anticipate so much of a spotlight, but they say community reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Forman's parents hope that coming forward with their family's story would encourage others to do the same, and that's exactly what happened.

Lianne Forman recalled being approached that night by someone she'd known for a decade and had a child suffering from addiction.

"That person said to me, 'you know, I'm also dealing with this. And thank you so much for telling your story, because now maybe I can tell mine,'" she said.

Gluck has also noticed a considerable shift in community attitude since Amudim's been operational. "It went from everything being hush-hush under the carpet to people finally saying, 'This is real. Let's get people the help that they need.'"