“It all started for me when I was 16, after I was raped by a guy that I met over the Internet,” N. reports. “Immediately after the rape, I began smoking drugs, because I believed that they would be good for me in the situation that I was in. I thought to myself that God created it, so how bad could it be?
“I started smoking grass once every few months. When I discovered that nothing terrible was happening to me, I continued smoking more and more, until I reached a point where I was literally smoking every day, and the grass had messed up my brain.
“I spiraled down into a total depression, and I attempted suicide. After they pumped my stomach, I realized that I have a problem. Here I am, a girl from a good observant home, addicted to drugs.”
According to N., she is not alone.
“Many of our crowd experiments with drugs,” she says. “Most observant families have a son or a daughter who became secular, and they also bring drugs into religious society. I know many religious people who smoke, and the problem is that despite the extent of the phenomenon, people try to deny that it exists.”
Rabbi Eitan Eckstein, who knew a businessman who died of an overdose, decided that this widespread denial must end. Six years ago, he founded Retorno, a rehabilitation center near Kibbutz Tzora. Most Retorno patients come from the Orthodox and haredi communities.
When life is empty
There are no signs over the entrance indicating that the facility is an addiction treatment center. In fact, many of the patients found it necessary to fabricate cover stories about their supposed whereabouts. For instance, N. told her acquaintances that she is studying in a faraway seminary; another patient led his friends to believe that he is visiting a Chabad House in New York.
Retorno houses 120 patients, but the Welfare Ministry only funds 36 beds. Thus, most residents are forced to shell out 7,000 shekels a month from their own pockets in order to pay for their treatments.
“Multiply that amount by the necessary six to eight months of treatment and you can see how hard it is,” Eckstein laments. “Hospitals receive thousands of shekels for each day of hospitalization from the State, but they would rather not deal with addicts. The State doesn’t believe that addiction is a disease, even though anyone can fall victim to this disease.”
The disease may be universal, but within Orthodox and haredi societies, the effects are particularly devastating.
“The fact that an Orthodox family has an addicted family member can harm the family’s good name as well as the other family members’ abilities to get married,” Eckstein observes. “This is the reason that people prefer to silence the matter and not to talk about the phenomenon.
“When I founded the Center, observant society viewed us with much suspicion. I received threatening phone calls that this isn’t an issue that needs to be dealt with, that it is forbidden to let outsiders know that these things happen to us. They threw rocks at the site and threatened that they would hurt me. They were very angry that we were revealing a phenomenon that Orthodox society wanted to sweep under the carpet.”
However, the situation has vastly improved in recent years. “The Orthodox also realized that the problem must be dealt with and that, after all, we are only trying to rehabilitate people,” Eckstein explains.
Over 800 patients have passed through Retorno’s doors. According to Eckstein, most of them overcame their addictions. Retorno’s treatment plan is based on Alcohol Anonymous’ twelve step program.
“It’s true that the method’s origin is Christian,” Eckstein concedes. “But we are very closely associated with it because it contains a good deal of spirituality.
“Men and women are separated in our program, and everyone – even the secular patients – accepts an Orthodox lifestyle upon themselves. They pray three times a day, learn Gemara, and study the Bible. There is no difference between the secular and the Orthodox who come to us.”
The evil inclination
R., a yeshiva student from central Israel, is a married father of eight. For years, he hid his gambling addiction.
“Every time that I saw the state lottery sign, I was convinced that I was this close to hitting the jackpot,” R. recounts. “I loved the high. On some level, I even enjoyed the pain of losing. Any money that I earned would immediately disappear from my pocket. I would gamble with the money that was meant to feed my kids at home.
“I would go through all kinds of machinations in order to get money for gambling,” R. continues. “I took money from the parents; I borrowed from friends. I promised everyone that I would return it all, but inside, I knew that I was going to lose the money. At first, I thought that it was the evil inclination. Later, I realized that this was an addiction.”
How can it be that no one noticed that you have a problem?
“At first, even I didn’t realize that I am addicted to gambling. So what if there is never money at home? In haredi society, one can always manage. There are free-loan societies and many people that can help.
“I didn’t want to tell anyone what was really going on. I convinced myself that I would earn a lot of money from gambling. I would become a rich man, and then I could distribute money to the needy. Today, I realize that the whole thing was a cover story to justify the high that I had while gambling.”
Occasionally, N. claims, the rehabilitation process conflicts with religious tenets.
“Every day we say, during the prayers, that ‘for the informers, let there be no hope.’ But, in the end, we have to report other patients to the counselors if they did something that is forbidden for them to do. This really is opposed to the Torah and to what I believed in, but, in the end, we understand that only this type of behavior will succeed in removing us from the difficult situation that we are in.”
N.’s parents pay thousands of shekels for her stay at Retorno. What about patients who can not afford the fees? Unfortunately, they fall through the cracks. Rabbi Eckstein blames the state for refusing to recognize addiction as a disease.
Inbal Yaakovs, Health Ministry spokeswoman, notes that the Ministry focuses on drug addiction treatment and is trying to add the treatment to the so-called “health services basket”.
In addition, the Ministry develops and oversees drug addiction treatment frameworks. Other addictions are recognized as emotional disorders, and the health funds are currently responsible for these conditions.