By Dr. Judy Belsky

When I was a small child, our neighbor just across the street, a Shomer Shabbos Jew drank. Before he drank himself into cirrhosis of the liver and an early death, his wife was alternately cherished and battered, his daughters escaped similar pain by using drugs, which in those days meant a descent into the depravities of the African American drug culture.

When I turned 11 my parents decided it might be a good idea for us to move away, to a new neighborhood, in order to shelter me from this novel form of education.

They had my best interests at heart. But it was too late to shelter me. I had seen and experienced it already. Later when I heard the myths, there are no substances and alcohol abusers in our community, there are no battered wives or abused kids, there are no teenage pregnancies, I knew them to be untrue. I had already glimpsed the deep pain that accompanies these phenomena. I experienced one family in deep trouble. I knew if there was one family visible to me there were others who were invisible to me, who were not my neighbors, who were in hiding.

I lost this piece of my innocence long ago. As a community, we are just beginning to awaken at last. But there is always a great reluctance to give away one’s innocence.

Last year Retorno hosted its first Yom Iyun. I remember during the breaks, while in discussion with colleagues, I heard remarks such as: this is high impact. This is hard to take in.

A year and a half ago I assumed the leadership of MASK in Jerusalem. I am a trained psychologist. I know how to keep appropriate boundaries in a group, how to join with them but how to keep the necessary distance. I know they need a strong ego that can contain the pain and not drown in it. I know what transference issues to look out for. I know when new members are in denial. I know what to do. But unlike any prior clinical and addictions experience I had in general, non-Jewish mental health settings or veteran’s hospitals in the US, these people are my people. They could be ME. Any of them could be my friend. Now the professional distance is harder.

I mean that it is tempting to flop from one extreme or another. To over-identify. To see addictions behind every tree, so to speak. To obsess about my own family. Or, on the other end, to be horrified by the stories of family pain, and when horrified, to take at least three steps back and say: Not me. Not me. Not me.

So, no matter how well prepared I am, it’s high impact. It IS hard to take in.

We all have a layer or more of denial to work at. – So work!

At the heart of the denial is a desire to hide. – We can’t!

At the heart of denial is the idea that problems are bacterial. – They’re not!

At the heart of denial is the belief that nasty things don’t happen to nice religious families. – They do!

At the heart of denial is the need to pretend we are perfect. – We are not!

When we can get away from the polarities, when we move away from both the fear and denial, we can see more clearly. We can be effective agents of change. We can become more alert rebbeim, teachers, professionals, and parents. We will be more likely to see the problems and less likely to be blind-sided by them. We will be in a better position to offer guidance, treatment, and support. to make referrals to addictions specialists, to become addiction specialists and to work against the system that ostracizes a kid or family with problems.

It is also true that only when we become alert can we notice problems in their earliest stages, and act to strengthen kids and families, and help prevent problems in the first place.

But first of all, we need to accept people in pain rather than keep them at the end of ten-foot pole.

What is needed is Compassion.

“Com” means with, and “passion” refers to feelings of empathy. To be with, we have to accept not only the person before us, but we have to accept our own weaknesses and inner conflicts. We have to look into our own hearts and acknowledge both the jungle and the oasis. In Tehillim 84:6 it says; “Ashre Adom Oz Lo Bach Misilos Bilvavam”. Rav Shlomo Freifeld Z’L said, we all have them – these wild unpaved jungles in the heart. The work of the Jew is to know Hashem, to know that “oz lo bach”, our strength is in Him, and then He will plow those jungles for us to make straight, beautiful pathways that lead to Derech HaYashar.

But we each have our own jungle!

We have to accept the complexities of being human, how hard it is. Then it will follow that we can widen the latitude of acceptance for those “nasty problems”.

Compassion is not pity. Compassion is defined as a deep feeling of sympathy for someone in misfortune, accompanied by desire to alleviate the pain and remove its source. This defines for me the work of Rabbi Eckstein and Retorno. Don’t look around for him, because you will not see him here this morning. He is too busy to join us. The “busyness” is Pikuach Nefesh. He is at this moment plea bargaining for the future of a troubled Jewish child. Even the Yom Iyun and chasheve visitors could not come first.

I am grateful for the groundbreaking work he and Retorno do as a religious residential rehab for youths and adults. I am grateful they are here struggling to do the work, struggling to get the funding, struggling against the tough layers of denial, against the cocoon that the religious community is still wrapped in.

It is true that our problems have reached epidemic proportions. It is also true that as a community our denial is in epidemic proportions. It is fair to say that addictions are flourishing in a culture of denial.

I am grateful Retorno is here to open our eyes, so that we can open our minds, so that we can open our hearts.

When our big Jewish hearts and minds are open we can get to work.

There’s lots to do.