As Jews around the world prepare for Passover and look forward to sharing their seders and cups of wine with their families, the holiday season can be an especially lonely and difficult time for some; namely, those dealing with drug and alcohol addictions.

But for Jews at the Caron Treatment Center in Wernersville, Pa., near the city of Reading, that won’t be the case, thanks to Rabbi Yosef Lipsker and his family.

On March 25 and March 26, the rabbi will hold “sober seders” for Jewish residents of Caron, certain family members and a few staff members from Caron at the Chabad Center of Berks County. About 60 people are expected, with the four cups of wine being replaced by four cups of grape juice.

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How did all of this come about?

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native, who will turn 47 next week, arrived in this small Pennsylvania community in the late 1990s. Along with his wife, Chana, he directs Chabad-Lubavitch of Berks County.

The call that changed the course of his life came in 1999. A man at a rehab center, sounding distressed, asked for the rabbi to come see him.

Lipsker recalled thinking that the man must have had a broken leg or other injury that required rehabilitation with physical therapy. Instead, he met a 60-year-old drug addict at Caron. They spoke for two hours.

For Lipsker, it was the start of a new path — one that takes him frequently to the treatment center to spend time with Jewish residents, talk with their families and supervise the preparation of kosher food for those who request it.

“It lifts my spirits every day and helps me put things in perspective,” the rabbi said. “I feel blessed that I can help others. I cry with people, and feel their pain.”

The dinners began in 2000.

That’s when Lipsker and his family opened their home to Caron patients for Friday-night Shabbat meals. First, there were seven or eight people for a monthly gathering. Then it became twice a month. Then weekly.

More than a decade later, those dinners are still going strong. A typical Shabbat dinner will see about 20 people from Caron, their families and a couple of staffers.

That translates into more than a thousand meals a year. Chana cooks all them all, and their kids — they have nine, ranging in age from 3 to 21 — are a constant presence as well, talking, laughing, running around.

Rabbi's Family is Enriched

Yosef and Chana Lipsker and their entire family opened their home to Caron patients. Their daughter Zeldi, right, has been working with her father at the rehab center.
Yosef and Chana Lipsker and their entire family opened their home to Caron patients. Their daughter Zeldi, right, has been working with her father at the rehab center.

The family atmosphere is an intricate part of the evening. Lipsker hopes that clients take the energy and the conversations of the night back with them to Caron.

“This has changed my life and my children’s lives,” said Lipsker. “Thank G‑d my children feel enriched by what we do.”

Lipsker’s 19-year-old daughter Zeldi said that growing up, the family always had guests for Shabbat dinner. So when drug and alcohol addicts entered the mix, she didn’t notice anything different.

As she grew older, Zeldi said, she saw spending time with them as a real opportunity. “You learn so much. Everyone is the same; everyone has their struggles. We’re all in this world together.”

And she realized that drug or alcohol addiction could happen to anyone.

The Friday-night meals offered a chance for people to connect to their Jewish heritage, according to Zeldi. Getting to know the people that came to her house on a weekly basis also made her a better person, she said.

She also has been working with her father at Caron, shadowing him and talking to patients about their roads to recovery.

“Addiction is an ugly disease, but most of what we are dealing with is people on a path of hope and rebirth,” she said. “They are finding a connection to themselves and G‑d.”

‘Proud to be Jewish Now’

In the summer of 2011, Manhattan resident Matthew Stock overdosed on painkillers; he lay in a coma for 10 days. That December, he entered treatment at Caron and stayed there for a year.

Stock had long ago given up on Judaism. Then he met Lipsker.

Stock told him that he didn't believe in G‑d. Lipsker said he just wanted to know how Stock was doing. The rabbi told him about the Shabbat dinners, and Stock figured he’d give it a try.

“Everyone was so warm and friendly,” Stock said. “I needed that spirituality in my life, and the rabbi brought it out. I couldn’t have stayed clean without his assistance.”

Stock started to call Lipsker daily, and even returned to Shabbat dinners after he’d left Caron so he could talk to and support current patients.

Stock has embraced his Jewish faith again — and also Chabad.

“I’m proud to be Jewish now,” he said. “What helps me stay sober is the Jewish lifestyle and belief in G‑d.” And Lipsker, he said, “ignited that.”

On his part, Lipsker said he never had any worries about having addicts in his home.

“People know when they walk in the front door that they are at a rabbi’s house, that they need to be respectful. I don’t tell them what to do. They do it themselves,” he said.

He also spoke of the human need of belonging, of connecting to Judaism and not feeling isolated. “These are powerful messages,” he said.

David Rotenberg, vice president of treatment at Caron, said Lipsker has had a significant impact on Caron clients over the years. He agreed that the rabbi’s consulting work helps connect clients to their Jewish roots.

“Any recovery needs a spiritual component,” Rotenberg said. “And he does so in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way. People feel very welcome.”

These days, according to Rotenberg, it’s not unusual for 15 percent of Caron’s beds to be filled with Jewish patients. Many find the treatment center via word of mouth, which he said is clearly attributable to Lipsker’s work.

“What’s going on is we’re creating a community of people that need to be in a community,” attested Lipsker. “We’re finding a pathway, a journey to help them heal.

“You know, when someone shouts for you on the campus, ‘Hey, Rabbi,’ you are connected to a greater existence. It’s a blessing.”