Out loud and above ground about the opioid epidemic

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

I moved to St. Louis from Ohio. I saw on television that one of the neighborhoods there I used to hang around in is known now for what the news called an opioid epidemic. The newscaster asked a woman on the street: How many houses on this street had someone touched by this problem (meaning a death)? The answer: How many haven’t? The implication was it was easier to talk about homes that had not been touched than ones that had. 

That story got my attention not only because I know the neighborhood but because I’ve been inside this story, so to speak, since I lived around there, and I haven’t lived around there for 36 years. That seems like a long time to track a problem that in many ways has gotten worse.

When I moved to the St Louis area in 1981, nothing was in place for Jewish people struggling with substance abuse. Nothing. It was one of many things we did not talk about, not because we didn’t have problems but because we were timid about confrontation. Not us, not in our community. We didn’t suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction, or mental illness for that matter.

There are two problems with that last statement. The first is  that although we have the same incidence of such problems as the general population we, as Jews, have the shanda barrier, which means we have shame about it. Shame keeps us from proven paths of recovery. The second problem is the notion of community. If we’re a community, we ought to act like a community and take care of one another. 

About the shanda barrier: We Jews don’t like to be out loud about these sorts of problems. In the early days, even the literature taught in the treatment facilities supported this attitude. We changed the literature and the video resources used in treatment facilities.

About the community: It takes some vision and commitment and more than vocabulary to make community. Rose Mass, of blessed memory, a family therapist in private practice, tagged me when I moved here and told me: We are going to take on the shanda around substance abuse, and we’re going to start meeting and we’re going to start talking about it and we’re going to go above ground on these problems. 

We found someone in the community bold enough to sponsor us. Bill Kahn, of blessed memory, with a background in Jewish community that included the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the Jewish Community Center and social work skills, secured for us a room in the Chai building that was later used as an adult day care and today is my synagogue. You can have this room, Kahn said, meet here all you like because it’s right and it’s time and if anybody complains, I’ll run interference for you.

I called this the af tzu lokhes attitude of social and personal transformation, a Yiddish phrase that means we’re going straight ahead in spite of (sometimes because of) all resistance because it’s right. It takes that kind of attitude because there has not been much community support.

We meet twice a week now. It’s called Shalvah on Addictions (serenity in Hebrew), Thursdays at Neve Shalom and Mondays at Central Reform Congregation. Lives are saved in our space, but it feels to me that we’ve just started. I don’t need the television news to tell me that. We’ve lost people, too, and that’s how we end every meeting, by remembering those who are no longer with us.

We have to be above ground and out loud. The time for secrecy is over; we have to rethink even the concept of confidentiality. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. As we say in our meetings: Secrecy is part of the problem. 

We have to be out loud and above ground and you may take this short message as another holler into the well to wake up and be a community. Be bold. Save lives.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and is founder of Shalvah on Addictions (serenity in Hebrew), which meets Thursdays at Neve Shalom and Mondays at Central Reform Congregation.