The college years represent a time of intellectual advancement and personal growth. They also present some unique social opportunities that will inevitably put young men and women face to face with alcohol and other substances that could potentially be very dangerous.

According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, binge drinking and other forms of substance abuse remain serious problems on college campuses, with about 20 percent to 25 percent of students meeting the medical criteria for substance abuse and dependence.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism takes it a step further, with research showing that “more than 80 percent of college students drink alcohol, and almost half report binge drinking in the past two weeks. Virtually all college students experience the effects of college drinking—whether they drink or not.”

These effects range from poor academic performance to injury and even death resulting from intoxication. It is estimated that every year, approximately 1,800 college students die as a result of drinking.

To address the many issues surrounding substance and alcohol abuse, Chabad on Campus International Foundation is organizing a nationwide speaking tour featuring rabbis and other experts to provide guidance to students and staff on these issues.

Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus International Foundation, explains that “Chabad on Campus provides for the social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual needs of college students. Our focus on addiction awareness and education is another way Chabad on Campus provides the knowledge and support these students need to deal with the challenges they face away from home.”

Alex, a student who was hospitalized after his drink was spiked at a college party in February of 2011, knows of this need firsthand: “I think it is important to educate people not to allow themselves to be harmed by peer pressure or by taking something without researching what it is.”

“These things aren’t reserved for the movies,” he says. “People are still going to make mistakes, but education can help them make informed choices.”

Alex, currently active with his Chabad on Campus center, adds that he welcomes any initiative to support students either before or after drinking comes into play.

Rabbi Hershey Novack chaired a session on alcohol and substance this summer at the Chabad on Campus International Shluchim Conference,
Rabbi Hershey Novack chaired a session on alcohol and substance this summer at the Chabad on Campus International Shluchim Conference,

Rabbi Hershey Novack, co-director of Chabad on Campus in St. Louis, Mo., has long felt the need for a more organized response to substance abuse on college campuses across the nation.

“It is more than just telling students that drinking too much is bad for you,” he insists. “We need to help students make the lifestyle choices that are right for them in both the short and long term.”

Novack chaired a session on alcohol and substance this summer at the Chabad on Campus International Shluchim Conference, an annual gathering of leaders of Chabad centers on university and college campuses around the world.

“The fact is that for many students—away from home for the first time in their lives—the college experience brings a dizzying array of choices, experiences and consequences that they are only beginning to understand,” he says. “And it is our imperative to help them face these challenges in a healthy way. We need to be able to help students make wise choices when it comes to alcohol and drugs, and be able to provide guidance and referrals quickly as needed.”

A Serious Problem on Campus

One of the tour’s lecturers will be Rabbi Shais Taub, an acclaimed author and speaker on addiction and recovery. “The first thing we need to do is define that there are two separate messages for two different crowds: those flirting with abuse and those battling addiction,” he explains. His book, “G‑d of Our Understanding,” finds commonalities between Jewish tradition and the well-known 12-step program, a set of guiding principles outlining a course of action for recovery from addiction, compulsion or other behavioral problems. The book, published in 2010, has been a best-selling Jewish title on

“Knowing that their issue can be identified—and that others have the same problem—can help take away the isolation and the feelings of ‘terminal uniqueness’ that addiction brings.” –Rabbi Shais Taub

One problem, says Taub, is the immediate damage that can occur while the abuser is under the influence. That can be followed by the emotional and material damage a person who is out of control can cause to oneself and to others.

The good thing is that occasional use—even in the extreme—often ends when it’s no longer fun. Experimentation can turn out to be a phase, adds Taub, who emphasizes the importance of dealing with a problem before it becomes an active addiction, which is far more intractable.

His advice: “To people who abuse substances or even casual users, we need to help them see the realities of the damage that these substances cause—to themselves and to those around them—and help them understand the points at which use is heading towards abuse, and finally, addiction.”

Addiction, the second stage, is less prevalent, according to Taub, affecting about 10 percent of the population. But it’s also much more devastating.

“An addict cannot stop, even when it is no longer fun. They are still drinking too much long after they have left the frat house and gotten a job,” he says. “To them, I describe the dynamics of what they are going through as a spiritual malady. I’ve found that this message resonates with people, giving them an ‘aha’ moment. Knowing that their issue can be identified—and that others have the same problem—can help take away the isolation and the feelings of ‘terminal uniqueness’ that addiction brings.

“Working with students, I hope that if I can supply this perspective for a person in the early stages of addiction or even before, we can help them recover before they hit rock bottom.”

Taub comes highly recommended by Dr. Gary Ostrow, an osteopathic physician from New York who says that Taub’s book helped him in his own journey to recovery.

“I hope he enlightens the rabbis and students about the opportunities available,” says the 62-year-old, whose road from addiction also prompted him to rediscover Judaism. “There is a common solution to these problems, and that is a process of great spiritual recovery.”

Ostrow, a member of the Chabad on Campus international advisory board was instrumental in bringing Taub to this summer’s Chabad on Campus International Shluchim Conference, where he spoke along with Novack. He even went a step further: Ostrow made sure that campus shluchim were mailed a copy of Taub’s book for research and reference purposes.

Giving Students the Right Tools

Rabbi Yosef Lipsker, pastoral consultant at Caron Treatment Center in Pennsylvania, applauds the initiative. He notes that he often counsels older adults who have been abusing alcohol and drugs since college. "It is those formative years—when the young people leave home, and find parties and all kinds of other attractions—that it is so fundamental that they be given the tools to deal with substance abuse and addiction."

The rabbi, also co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Berks County, Pa., says “it may start out as fun, but unchecked, it can develop into a life-destroying addiction. Chabad on Campus is at the cutting edge of helping students through crises, and identifying their struggles and helping them come out on top.”

His sentiments are echoed by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, founder of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, Pa.; the author of more than 60 books; and a renowned pioneer in addiction and recovery. “Substance abuse, alcohol and drugs are a scourge of modern society,” he says. “Unfortunately, youngsters seeking a ‘high’ may fall into the trap of addiction, which can ruin their lives. Rabbi Taub has experience in working with both young and old, and his message may save lives and families.”

As early as 1972, Chabad’s involvement with preventing and helping beat substance abuse resulted in the founding of the Chabad Residential Treatment Centers in California and created chapters of Project Pride (Prevention, Resource, Information and Drug Education) at universities across North America.

“Chabad has many resources,” says Novack. “Now we are bringing them to campuses all over.”