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Chabad Confronts Opioid Epidemic: Wilderness Programs in Utah

Chabad Confronts Opioid Epidemic: Wilderness Programs in Utah

Salt Lake City rabbi also helps addicts’ families and those at risk

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As the opioid epidemic accelerates, many Jewish families have turned to Project HEART, which helps provide for the Jewish needs of teenagers in treatment centers and as part of wilderness therapy programs. Above: Benny Zippel, co-director of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah in Salt Lake City, counsels a group of teens.
As the opioid epidemic accelerates, many Jewish families have turned to Project HEART, which helps provide for the Jewish needs of teenagers in treatment centers and as part of wilderness therapy programs. Above: Benny Zippel, co-director of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah in Salt Lake City, counsels a group of teens.

The first in a series of articles on how Chabad centers and rabbis are responding to the opioid addiction crisis.

There is a storm surging through America, leaving devastation in its wake. But the torrential rain and severe winds are not overtly visible; this is not your typical hurricane. It has been labeled “The Opioid Epidemic,” and it affects millions of American families, many if not most of whom have had no experience or history of drug abuse and addiction. Jewish communities are no exception.

Rabbi Benny Zippel, co-director of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah in Salt Lake City, has in some respects placed himself in the eye of the storm.

The opioid epidemic is rooted in the legal use of prescribed painkillers. When no longer prescribed, patients often turn to raiding medicine cabinets or to illegal purchases of the painkillers, and then to narcotic substitutes like heroin. As such, this epidemic crosses over all demographic lines, impacting the young and the old, the rich and the poor, and men and women alike.

Utah offers the highest concentration of residential treatment centers of any other state, in addition to a myriad of wilderness therapy programs. Utah is unique in that the law does not require consent for youth to be admitted. Zippel runs Project HEART (Hebrew Education for At Risk Teens), which helps teens who suffer from a wide array of issues; emotional disturbances, eating disorders, and substance abuse, as well as providing for the Jewish needs of teenagers in treatment centers and undergoing wilderness therapy.

“My day-to-day activities with Project HEART involve interacting with past, present and future students, and dealing with parents,” explains Zippel. “Parents of kids who are struggling with drug abuse call me for advice. I was just on the phone with a woman who has a son who is an addict. She is at her wits’ end. People are usually overwhelmed when they find out that their son or daughter is an addict or a dealer. They don’t know how to react. I counsel them.”

Wilderness therapy is an intense eight- to 12-week program where troubled teenagers hike up to 10 miles a day, and learn everything from how to collect water to take an outside shower to how to build a fire from scratch. (Photo: Evoke)
Wilderness therapy is an intense eight- to 12-week program where troubled teenagers hike up to 10 miles a day, and learn everything from how to collect water to take an outside shower to how to build a fire from scratch. (Photo: Evoke)

‘Nothing Other Than Nature’

Zippel offers information on wilderness therapy programs as well as the many residential treatment centers. Wilderness therapy is an intense eight- to 12-week program where troubled teens hike up to 10 miles a day and learn everything from how to collect water to take a shower outside and to how to build a fire from scratch. Most don’t know that they’re being sent. Parents pack their bags, and they are taken to base camp without their consent. There, they undergo a physical exam and are given layers of clothing for protection from the weather. Then they go out into the wilderness.

In the first phase, they are completely alone except for the counselor assigned to them. This tests whether they are willing to comply with the program rules or are going to rebel. As long as they remain defiant, they stay on their own. It may take a day or a week, depending on the individual. After they have let out their initial anger and frustration, they begin to comply and are brought to meet their group, which usually consists of about 12 teenagers. As behavior improves, they are given more privileges, such as tarps, tents and sleeping bags. Wilderness programs accept both boys and girls, but the groups themselves are not coed.

“When I tell parents about wilderness therapy—that their child is going to be in the Utah mountains without a bathroom or bedroom—they say ‘G‑d forbid,’ ” says Zippel. “My answer is that the Jewish nation underwent a 40-year-long wilderness therapy program. That’s where we became a nation. In the wilderness, there is nothing other than nature and the individual. There are no trappings; no internet, phone, TV, or music. There is G‑d and the individual. This strengthens my belief, which is a central Chabad belief, that the individual at the very core is pure goodness. Unfortunately, most of the young kids today don’t get to tap into that because there are so many distractions and interferences.”

Effective recovery programs require the support of both the private and public sectors. Zippel, left, with Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah by the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Effective recovery programs require the support of both the private and public sectors. Zippel, left, with Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah by the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The crux of wilderness therapy is to take a teenager who is heavily addicted to drugs and put them out in nature, where they are forced to confront themselves. They confront their emotions head on, rather than numbing themselves through substance abuse. Withdrawal symptoms are dealt with by therapists and trained professionals who closely monitor program participants.

The rabbi is in touch with Jewish teenagers in treatment centers regularly. In wilderness therapy, if a participant wants to have a connection, the programs have satellite phones and a weekly call or a crisis call is arranged. Zippel emphasizes that the best route for a troubled teenger is to go from wilderness therapy to a treatment center, but some parents see the incredible improvement in behavior after wilderness therapy and decide to bring their child home. That’s often a mistake, and the kids go right back to using drugs again. In wilderness therapy, participants are taught to face their emotions. But the nine to 18 months that they spend in a treatment center is where they learn how to apply those coping skills to daily life. The treatment centers also introduce them to programs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, where they can continue the recovery process.

“About 20 years ago when I was 16, I got myself into trouble, dropped out of school and was living with a girlfriend,” shares Akiva, a Project HEART alumnus turned prominent psychologist. “Substance abuse was also part of my story. I come from a religious family, so my situation was raising all the red flags. My parents made the decision to send me to a treatment center in Utah. I kept trying to resist, and felt lonely and abandoned; whether it was for my own good wasn’t relevant at that moment. My parents had reached out to Rabbi Zippel. I spent one Shabbat a month with him and his family during the six months I was there. On my 17th birthday, he came with a kosher cake and took me out. He was a dear friend, and it went a really long way towards my finding health. It’s one of the greater acts of chesed that I can possible imagine.”

“When I tell parents about wilderness therapy—that their child is going to be in the Utah mountains without a bathroom or bedroom—they say ‘G-d forbid,’ ” says Zippel. “My answer is that the Jewish nation underwent a 40-year-long wilderness therapy program. ”
“When I tell parents about wilderness therapy—that their child is going to be in the Utah mountains without a bathroom or bedroom—they say ‘G-d forbid,’ ” says Zippel. “My answer is that the Jewish nation underwent a 40-year-long wilderness therapy program. ”

‘Pursue Purpose in Our Lives’

“There has absolutely been an increase in recent years of kids addicted to drugs,” states Zippel. “When you are in the business world, the graph that you wish to see is an upward curve. In my line of work, the dream would be a downward curve, which is totally not the case.

“There is increased promiscuity and violence, along with a lack of any meaning among young people,” he continues. “What I see is such confusion. My approach is that we are going to work to change the reality around us. We’re going to pursue purpose in our lives. That is really transformative.”

In conjunction with a lack of meaning, many at-risk teenagers tend to rebel against their religious upbringings. Through Project HEART, Zippel offers a Jewish spiritual lifeline. In terms of keeping kosher, he ensures that all canned food sent to wilderness therapy participants is kosher for those who request it. When it comes to Shabbat, if a teenager wants to be observant, he explains and advises about the halachic ramifications of keeping the Sabbath in the wilderness. He provides prayer books, as well as mezuzahs for treatment center rooms.

And around this time of the year, for Chanukah, he provides menorahs and candles, and brings latkes. He also holds menorah-lightings at treatment centers. Every year, Chabad of Utah rents an ice-skating rink in downtown Salt Lake City with live Jewish music, hot chocolate, doughnuts and gelt. All treatment-center residents are invited to come celebrate; Jewish and non-Jewish alike. This year, Zippel is expecting about 200 attendees.

“Project HEART guides young men and women to acknowledge the gem within,” says Zippel. “I was with a group recently, and I asked if their mothers wear jewelery. I asked if they knew if those jewels were shining when they were mined. The answer is that they were not. They were dirty, lacking color, shape and shine. They needed to be polished to remove all the layers of dirt. Once you’ve done that, you get to the core that shines.”

Troubled young people are like those precious gems, says the rabbi: “Every single one of them is a diamond in the rough.”



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Bill Washington December 14, 2017

You are more of a patient person than I. I learned my addict nephew hated me all along.
“If an addict likes you, you are probably enabling them. If an addict hates you, you are probably trying to help them.
My G-d bless you Rabbi, you’re work is not easy.
Did you know that the fastest way to see an E.R. doctor is to deny any pain killers?
The medical community is too willing to give us addicting medications, making themselves feel more needed.
I dislike pain meds, and won’t accept them. I’ve lived this long without them. If we take better care of ourselves, we can tolerate pain better. Folks need to stop being so whimpy, on both sides of the prescription.
Everyone needs to grow a “pair” and man (or woman) up!
We as a society are too complacent, and too much of a baby. Nurture yourself and ya won’t need a Doctor.
I see addicts as weak, though I see the recovered as showing strength and just keep getting stronger.
What a test of Love addiction is! Much love to you Rabbi. Reply

nathan dunning elizabethtown/Australia December 13, 2017

G-d Bless you! We need similar programs in Australia for our youth.The Meth and Heroin epidemic is terrible with limited facilities and treatment programs.I love the wilderness idea great work. Reply

Leonid Zaslavsky Bethesda, Maryland December 6, 2017

Is it an FDA-approved treatment for opioid addiction? While wilderness therapy is known for years. For example,

Davis-Berman, Jennifer; Berman, Dene S. (1 January 1993). "Therapeutic wilderness programs: Issues of professionalization in an emerging field". Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. 23 (2): 127–134.

However, I am not aware of any FDA-verified study that it treats opioid addiction.

Could you please provide a reference? Reply

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