South Florida Sun-Sentinel

May 30, 2008

When Rabbi Meir Kessler set up an Orthodox synagogue in Delray Beach three years ago, a certain type of person consistently walked through the door: Jews seeking help with alcohol and drug abuse.

Little did the 30-year-old rabbi realize that his rabbinic specialty was about to be born.

Working with Chabad of Boca Raton, he began leading support groups and organizing Torah study sessions for addicts. He also helped open a halfway house for women and, with his wife, Frumi, organizes Sabbath dinners in his home for 40 people in recovery each Friday night.

Kessler hopes to open a halfway house for men this summer and is looking for a Boca Raton storefront to start a gathering place, to be called the Jewish Recovery Center.

It's an unusual calling for a rabbi, especially one who has never been an addict. But it's also a growing field of interest among Jews in South Florida, where the nation's first synagogue support network for addicts was started last year by Mindy Agler, a Boca Raton mental health counselor.

"People in the Jewish community are opening up to people in recovery," said Kessler, a father of two. "We are giving [the addicts] a positive feeling so they can nourish their souls and have a reason to stay sober."

Some observers say synagogues have been slow to understand the frequency of Jewish alcoholism. According to rabbi and psychologist Benzion Twerski, who has written extensively on Jews and alcohol, Jews are often ignorant of or in denial of the symptoms of alcoholism.

South Florida rabbis said they have become increasingly aware of addiction problems among their members. Boca Raton Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation, and Temple Bat Yam, a Reform synagogue in Fort Lauderdale, now serve grape juice instead of wine at most ceremonies after watching congregants abuse the alcoholic drink.

Avi Bernstein, 29, a former alcohol and drug abuser whose parents sent him to a Delray Beach rehabilitation center three years ago, said he is among the people who benefit from these alcohol-free events. He attends Sabbath dinners at Kessler's Boca Raton home and said Kessler has never judged him, even though he wears tattoos and piercings forbidden by Orthodox Jewish law.

"He always welcomes me to his house," said Bernstein, who works in a Delray Beach delicatessen. "He never asks for anything in return."

Kessler said he is learning as much as his congregants about addiction and recovery. He said he used to be quick to offer them money or other material aid, but learned he could be deepening their dependency problems.

"He's had to understand what is helpful and not helpful," said Sharon Carter, former co-owner of a Boca Raton treatment center who assists Kessler as a volunteer. "If he is having people over for dinner, he can't have alcohol or medicines around. He can't get into triangles with families."

Kessler said he doesn't wait for addicts to approach him. He seeks them out at local recovery centers and plans to expand his work into other addictions, such as gambling and eating.

"It's been challenging and tiring, especially the 'tough love' element," Kessler said. "You want to be kind and helpful. The most fruitful part is seeing people recover. People come in so sick and down, but then you see a complete transformation."