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Recovery Blog

Time to Remove the Mask

March 5, 2009

There were seven of us sitting around the table. The room was quiet, and Danny walked in. It got even quieter; you could almost cut through the silence with a knife. We were in the middle of an intervention; we were trying to save a life. His Dad and Mom, his sister and brother, his therapist and friends were all there to tell him how much they loved him and cared for him.

On the other side of the room (which is in fact our Chabad Community Center), hundreds of Purim baskets were waiting to be delivered. They were decorated and assembled earlier in the day by young children to be distributed to Holocaust survivors.

I was contemplating the irony. A 32-year old handsome attorney who came from an affluent home, who had all the pleasures of life that many could only dream of, paced up and down. He occasionally glanced at his own image in the reflection of the memorial plaques on the wall commemorating Holocaust survivors. He yelled: “Why are we having this conversation now? Who called for this?” And someone replied: "We can gather now, or at your funeral. It is either here or at your grave." Young Ahron Friedman and Rosa Zajac, whose names were on the memorial plaques never had the luxury of an intervention that could have saved them. We were giving Danny a chance at life, by offering him help to stop his abuse of drugs.

When I got home, I reached for one of my favorite books, Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning." He shows us how in the darkest hour, when all else seems lost, one can find hope. A person can survive; he can reach out and find the hand of G‑d. As usual, I opened at a random page and this is what I read:

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain… but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy makeup often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.

…In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.

What more can I say? As Frankl suffered the greatest atrocities that ever befell a people, he found hope and salvation by remembering the people he loved.

Perhaps if we strip ourselves of all the materialism around us, unmask ourselves from the darkness that has amassed around our hearts, retreat to our inner self, look up to the sky and ask G‑d for help when all seems lost, we may find answers. And believe me, G‑d always answers you. More often than not, the answers come in the form of those who love you and care for you. When they reach out to you, just give them your hand back.

Now, this is quite a depressing thought for Purim — but here lies the joy. On Purim there is a custom of getting dressed up. I remember as a kid the adults would say: "This is when their true colors come out; this is what they really want to be." So here is my challenge: This Purim let's uncover our inner selves and dress up like the real us for a day. Let's uncover that inner love that we all have to those that love us back — those that wish to help and protect us. Let's seize the feeling, grasp the sensation. Something tells me that you will feel great in your new costume. Then try it again the day after Purim, and the day after that. Keep coming back.

As I was finishing this article, I received the sad news that my dear friend Shua, age 19, overdosed and passed away. Shua was a great kid, who loved us and was loved back; but for him, there will be no dressing up this year. He was helping to plan a sober Purim party, but he won't be showing up. Shua will be sadly missed by his friends. I am blessed to be one of them.

So, this year I will dress up for Shua. I will love for Shua. I will bring joy to more friends in recovery in the hope that they will reach back and use the love to keep them sober.

My Non-Alcoholic Purim

March 3, 2009

As the Youth Director for Chabad of Pittsburgh, I work with Jewish youth from all walks of life. A dear friend, Mr. Chaim Reisner, introduced me to Mr. Michael Pasternak, the Director of Transition, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for young Jewish men. Transition does its good work quietly, and even many in the Jewish community of Pittsburgh have never heard of it. In response to Michael’s invitation, I have been visiting with them weekly at their facility.

Purim was approaching, and I asked Mike if my family and I could host the group for an “alcohol free” Purim celebration. These boys deserved to celebrate Purim just like all other Jews around the world. If serving wine and other alcoholic beverages (in accordance with the tradition of Purim) would put the boys in danger of relapse, then we would say L’Chaim and celebrate with grape juice. Mike was thrilled with the idea, and my wife began planning the menu for the event.

About two weeks before Purim, I received a telephone call from Mike. He told me about a young man who had just entered the program. Brian (as we will call him), was a Kohen and was raised in a chassidic home in Brooklyn. Until his Bar Mitzvah, Brian was the normal chassidic kid, long payos (sidelocks) and all. Presently, in addition to being an addict, Brian claimed to have converted out of the Jewish faith. He wore a necklace with a cross to show it.

When I met Brian the next day, he seemed like a nice guy. We started talking, and Brian confided to me that he was thinking of committing suicide. His past was full of horrors too overwhelming for him to face, and he wanted his life to end. He knew, however, that according to Judaism suicide is forbidden, and in fear of the torture he might suffer in the next world, he was hesitant to take his life.

We chatted for a while, and Brian shared some of the alternative ideas with me that he was toying with. “Perhaps I will join a combat unit in the army and take an enemy bullet, thereby dying as a hero.” He had come up with a number of such "creative" ploys.

Despite having run from Judaism, Brian obviously had a high regard for many of the basics tenets of our faith. After our chat, he accepted my offer to wrap Tefillin and say a prayer.

Purim day arrived. Our fridge was stocked with varieties of “sparkling grape juice,” and my wife set out a meal fit for royalty. The boys showed up and the party began.

I had spent much of the weekend thinking over the messages I wanted to impart during this unique Purim party. I began by sharing the following story in honor of Brian.

A number of years ago, a fellow approached his local Chabad rabbi and asked for his blessing to commit suicide! The rabbi suggested that before carrying out this life-altering (indeed, life-ending) decision, the fellow should consult first with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The young man traveled to Brooklyn, and at his first opportunity, he approached the Rebbe and stated his request.

The Rebbe told him that through suicide, he would not accomplish the goal of ending his suffering. The pain that he is running from in this world will be replaced with spiritual pain and suffering in the next world as a result of his actions. The man then challenged the Rebbe and blurted out, "But Rebbe, where is G‑d?"

Pointing at the man’s heart, with a solemn expression the Rebbe replied, "Bai dir in hartzen - in your heart."

I concluded the story by saying that the young man now has a wonderful family and is a shining light in the Jewish world.

Since we had no live music, we began to sing generic Jewish songs. Gradually, everyone joined in. We were singing a particularly lively tune, when Brian got out of his seat. He took off his coat and began to dance, a classic chassidic solo dance. Looking at his face, it was clear that this young man was experiencing intense emotion.

Shortly thereafter, Brian stepped outside. I assumed he needed a cigarette. Out of view of the rest of us, Brian took off the cross, which hung on a chain around his neck, and slid it into his pocket.

The party came to an end amidst high spirits all around. We said our goodbyes, and I went outside to see the group off. I was standing around chatting with a few of the guys and Brian came over to join us. Fiddling with something in his hand, he remarked, "You know, this cost me a good couple of bucks."

Before we quite caught on what he meant, he swung his arm back and threw the necklace, cross and all, as far as it would go!

"Guys," he said. "It’s gone!"

In disbelief at what we had just witnessed, the guys and I took him by the shoulders and started to dance. Growing up, I’ve heard numerous incredible stories where the spark of a Jew bursts forth to express its connection with the Almighty.

As shluchim (Chabad "emissaries") we are taught to act. It is not every day that we see the fruits of our labor. On this night we were witnesses to a miracle as "Brian’s" neshama leaped forth and embraced the beauties of our heritage.

Anonymous G-d

March 1, 2009

Have you ever heard the expression that G‑d is in the fog?

I have a friend who is recovering from a gambling addiction. He lost his job, his house and now his family. He is broke and broken. He told me that he has trouble getting out of bed and even more trouble looking into the mirror. He says that when he does look he sees a face he barely recognizes: There is a dark cloud that surrounds it. I told him that G‑d is there — in the fog. With G‑d’s help, time and work, the cloud will lift.

The Purim story happened at a time when the sun seemed to be hidden. The threat from the enemies of Israel darkened the day. In this darkness the Jewish people persevered, stayed connected and overcame the enemy. So let’s feast — right? Not so fast! During other holidays, G‑d performed revealed wonders to save our people. Not so with the Purim story. There is no mention of G‑d in the Megillah. "Esther" means hidden. The victory can be argued to be due to high-placed lobbying. So why isn’t G‑d’s role more obvious? Why was G‑d so hidden? Where was the sea splitting type of revelation?

Although at Sinai the Jewish people chose G‑d, it is only at Purim that they proved their loyalty. It is by marching forward despite the fog that one can see that the sun is there. The darkness is there at times - to bring out a deeper commitment to the relationship. It’s by being squeezed that the true nature of the connection is exposed.

Therefore the celebration of Purim is part of this ongoing love story between G‑d and His people. Because of G‑d remaining anonymous He gave us the chance to shine. Okay, now let’s feast and drink – unless, of course, you’re one of my friends who happens to be blessed to be an addict in recovery. Blessed? Yes, blessed, because they know for a fact that G‑d is there — in the fog.


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