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Healing Our Community: CCSA, Refa’enu Team Up

Sarge, Eta Levenson, Rabbi Larry Rothwachs and Dr. Tzachi Rosman presented at the webinar. (CREDIT: HARRY GLAZER)

On Sunday, October 18, Communities Confronting Substance Abuse (CCSA) and Refa’enu: Healing Our Community From Within, two community organizations dedicated to helping members of the frum community navigate mental-health and substance abuse struggles, hosted a webinar entitled “Finding Mental Wellness and Recovery Together.” The tremendous response demonstrated the intense communal interest in these topics, with likely well over 200 people in attendance.

CCSA is a not-for-profit organization founded by two Teaneck community members with the goal of creating stigma-free Jewish communities through awareness, education and programming regarding substance misuse and addiction. Refa’enu is a Bergen County based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization formed as a means to provide the Jewish community with education about and support for those affected by depression and bipolar disorder as well as other behavioral health issues.

Community support for people facing these issues could be seen in the prominent organizations and individuals who sponsored the webinar—Strive Health; Transformations Treatment Center; Cross River Bank; Center for Anxiety; Yosepha and Yitzie Solomon; Meister Seelig & Fein LLP; Recovery at the Crosswords; Huntington Creek/Pocono Mountain Recovery Center; Jan Meyer and Associates, P.C.; Relief Resources; Valley Health, and Moskowitz & Book, LLP.

After a welcome from Etiel Forman, co-founder of CCSA with his wife Lianne, the webinar began with a humorous and inspiring talk by Sarge, a recovering addict who offers his “comedy therapy” to different groups and settings of people struggling with addictions. Sarge stated that he sees his addiction as a gift that has enabled him to find solutions that benefit himself and others.

Sarge shared his addiction story, which included abuse of multiple substances, a bout of homelessness when he lived under the Manhattan Bridge, and a theft from his last good friend. Fortunately, that friend (Todd) helped Sarge get into a recovery program that began to turn his life around.

In his journey of sobriety, Sarge has found that the best approach recovery programs can take is not to focus on the causes of addictions, likening the situation to a fire department responding to a fire: The best approach is to focus first on rescuing people, then on putting out the fire. The investigation into causes of the fire is put off until afterwards. He suggested that most people would do well to handle recovery from addictions in the same way, because everyone can find potential causes in their life.

Sarge said that an essential part of his recovery has been meditation, affirmation of the gifts in his life, and prayer. He stated that he uses these tools a few times each day and they help him stay on track. He also suggested that humor can be a vital part of the work in staying sober and directed in life.

Following Sarge’s presentation, the webinar offered two sessions of concurrent 40-minute sessions on six topics: mood disorders, alcohol and Jewish ritual; self-harm and suicidality; substance addiction and addiction and recovery; behavioral addictions (such as technology and gambling), and ADHD medications and their relationship to substance-use disorders.

The session on self-harm and suicidality featured three panelists with considerable experience in this topic: Eta Levenson, a clinician in West Orange whose son Eric took his life at age 28 after a long struggle; Wendy Dolin, a Chicago licensed clinical social worker whose husband Stewart had a strong adverse reaction to a prescribed anti-anxiety drug and took his own life; she subsequently founded Missd (, which highlights the dangers of akathisia: severe adverse reactions to antipsychotic medications; and Miriam Ament of Chicago, who, after struggling for many years with debilitating depression, founded No Shame On You (

After sharing their personal stories, the panelists took questions from viewers. In response to the question “What is the most important takeaway from your experiences?” Levenson said that parents must be very vigilant, to know their child and be his/her best advocate, and love them even when they hate you. Ament said that those suffering from depression should realize that they are never alone and that there are qualified professionals and good resources to help. She added that if a person has a friend suffering from depression, the best assistance they can offer is to stay in touch and offer simple acts of support, like sending them dinner on a difficult day. Dolin urged people not to be judgmental about people who have committed suicide. She added that those planning to start or stop taking an antipsychotic drug should tell a buddy who can watch for adverse effects and call 911 if needed.

“This breakout session gave me the perfect combination of topics, resources and presenters, providing an excellent overview of the world of suicidality,” said Ruth Beyer, chairwoman of the newly formed Mental Health Commission in Highland Park. “I was impressed that the presenters have lived with these challenges and have used their experience to educate others. Their stories and links to their organizations left me feeling wrapped in support.”

The session on alcohol and Jewish ritual featured Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck; Tzachi Rosman, a staff psychologist at a VA hospital in the New York metro area and a psychologist in private practice in Teaneck, and Arnold Goldfein, a past president of JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others) and a New York State-certified peer advocacy specialist. The panelists shared perspectives on the dangers of alcoholism in the Jewish community, urging viewers not to glamorize alcohol’s use and to consciously consider the role of alcoholic beverages in any holiday or simcha observance.

Rabbi Rothwachs pointed out that Halacha never necessitates excessive use of alcohol. He added that since our communities have (commendably) adopted an awareness of the dangers of nut allergies (which affect one in 200 adults and one in 50 children), they should also be more vigilant about alcohol abuse (which affects 1 in 8 people).

“Our goals in organizing this event were to reach as many people as we could and bring greater awareness to Jewish communities about these critical issues that impact us all,” said Lianne Forman. “When communities open up about the issues of mental health and addiction and address them, it creates dialogue and enables us, as a community, to better understand and care for those who struggle, as well as allowing people to come forward and ask for the help they need. The more we talk about these issues, the more we eliminate stigma and save lives.”

CCSA and Refa’enu stated in a post-event email that community members facing any of the challenges discussed in the webinar are welcome to contact Dena at [email protected] or Lianne at [email protected]. Recordings from all six sessions and the keynote are on the website:

By Harry Glazer

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