Experts in the field of addiction agree that a strong support system is one of the most important components of long-term recovery, but creating and maintaining an effective network is often difficult amid the daily demands of work, family and personal obligations. For Jewish individuals and families who struggle with addiction and its far-reaching consequences, the annual Jewish recovery retreat sponsored by the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House in Michigan provides a welcome respite that helps participants strengthen their connections to their recovery, their Judaism and each other.

About 40 people gathered last month at the Butzel Retreat Center in Ortonville, Mich., to enjoy the fourth annual weekend of workshops, nature walks, early-morning exercise and delicious meals in a setting surrounded by woods and wildlife. The group included couples, families with young children, and individuals of varying ages and backgrounds. Child care was provided so parents could take part in the various programs.

“We wanted to create a sense of community and fellowship in a relaxed setting,” explained Rabbi Benny Greenwald of Friendship House, who organized the retreat with his wife, Bluma. As the organization’s Friendship Rabbi, he spends much of his time reaching out and offering spiritual support and guidance to recovering addicts and alcoholics, as well as their families.

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While some of the attendees were new to the experience, some have been participating since the idea was launched by Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, part of the Friendship House recovery rabbi team. “The goal was to strengthen our [recovery] community, to give people time to connect and get to know each other, to form a basis for the rest of the year,” said Blumstein.

This year’s retreat featured presentations by Rabbi Shais Taub, a Pittsburgh-based scholar and teacher of Jewish mysticism, and author of the bestselling book G‑d of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery From Addiction.

Rabbi Shais Taub
Rabbi Shais Taub

‘Be in the Present’

Harry D.*, 57, who has attended all four retreats, talks about having an epiphany during one of the workshops led by Taub that included a discussion about holding onto resentments about past experiences. “He talked about being able to let that go and be in the present,” said Harry, adding that while he had heard similar ideas before, this time the words struck a chord. “It was something I finally heard after all these years of being around.”

Part of Friendship Circle of Michigan, which provides programs and services for children and young adults with special needs and their families, the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House helps those in crisis or isolation caused by addiction or other issues. The comfortable living room of the Friendship House, which also has a kitchen, library and office space, is home to a variety of 12-step meetings that include Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al Anon (for family members), Alateen (for teens), Overeaters Anonymous and a weekly Jewish recovery group open to members of all fellowships. Shabbat dinners, lunch-and-learn sessions, holiday programs and sober social events are also held there.

Stop and Breathe

It was the first retreat for Al Anon member Jennifer B., who decided to go after hearing rave reviews about previous years from her fellow lunch-and-learn classmates. She was touched by the welcome bag of treats that greeted participants when they checked in and the gifts they received throughout the weekend—personalized glass mugs and suede bookmarks.

“It brought out my inner child and made me feel very special,” she said, “and it was a great opportunity to let life stop and to breathe in air. ... I had a lot of fun.”

A highlight for Jennifer was a talking meditation led by Taub about the concept of “G‑d is everything,” discussed in the book by AA founder Bill Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous, the recognized textbook for the program.

“The time flew by,” said Jennifer, admitting that she was not previously a meditation aficionado. “All of his talks were very enlightening.”

Rabbi Greenwald led a class called “Journey of the Soul,” where he used a nigun (traditional Jewish melody without lyrics) to depict a letter the late psychiatrist Carl Jung had written to Bill Wilson about the nature of alcoholism. There were also discussions about Jewish aspects of the 12-step program and how the High Holidays relate to recovery, followed by a Havdalah ceremony and then bonfire—complete with storytelling and s’mores—on Saturday night.

“This was not just a Jewish retreat, or just a recovery retreat, but a Jewish recovery retreat,” emphasized Greenwald. “The point is to connect our Judaism and our recovery.”

* Names have been changed to protect participants’ anonymity.

Rabbi Benny and Bluma Greenwald
Rabbi Benny and Bluma Greenwald