Faith offered as path to addicts’ recovery

Soul-searching Jewish rituals explored in drug rehabilitation


Herald Staff Writer

From the depths of his soul, Evan Kaiser would like to apologize to his sister for missing her wedding. His passion for crack — a habit that stuck after years of pot-smoking and Quaalude- popping — got him arrested on a parole violation. He was a disappointment to his family. Again. His path to recovery: Passport to Freedom, a Jewish-centered program based on the soul-searching rituals of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The program helps addicts to conquer their demons by accepting their mistakes and turning to God to make amends so they can begin anew, sober and wiser from the experience. On a recent afternoon, tales of remorse flow from four addicts who sit in a circle in a Coral Springs apartment. Stuart H. regrets the time he humiliated his ex-wife on an international flight: He boarded the airplane drunk, hurled obscenities at her, and insulted the crew when they refused to serve him free beer. To nurse his buzz, he broke the rules — he drank a bottle of duty-free Smirnoff Vodka. He was an alcoholic spiraling toward rock bottom. For many of the addicts in Passport, this Yom Kippur will be the first time since childhood that they have explored their faith. One of the things that goes out the window in a big hurry is an addict’s Jewish connection because they can’t stand the guilt and shame of what they have done with their lives, said Lynn Kesselman, author or Recover with Me and founder of Passport to Freedom. This is a holiday of returning to God’s good graces through the eyes of humility and forgiveness.

That’s why Kesselman, a Conservative Jew, will do something some rabbis have told him is way too radical: He will officiate a service for recovering addicts when Yom Kippur begins on Sunday. The special observance will be free to Passport’s members and addicts of all faiths at 7:30 p.m. in Deerfield Beach. It will be abbreviated, only about an hour and a half long, to fit a recovering addict’s short attention span and packed with prayers crafted and sung by Kesselman. (He consulted with four rabbils for the occasion.) The service is best experienced not when it’s an obligation but when it’s an opportunity for healing, said Kesselman, a recovering alcoholic. Tradition won’t be left out totally. Kesselman will sing the Atonement praryer in an ancient Semitic language. Testing his Faith Though Kaiser hasn’t thought much about Judaism since his bar mitzvah, he will be at the observance testing out his renewed faith in God. I’d like to say I’m sorry to all the people that had hope and faith in me, he said. ?I failed them. Before he gave up drugs, Kaiser, 39, a mortgage banker, lost a $100,000-a-year-job and convert- ible red Mustang. He went to jail for a year in January 1997. Kaiser’s record is filled with arrestor drunken driving and theft. When he had money to support his habit, he blew $36,000 in three months. I had a morning guy, an afternoon guy bring me crack. It was like Pizza Hut, they’d deliver to your door, he said.

SEEK TO BE WELL: Evan Kaiser, seated, and Stuart H. meet at Passport to Freedom, founded by Lynn Kesselman, right.

A user since age 13 Michael Weiner, 43, can relate to Kaiser’s story. He has been using heroin since age 13. He and his wife developed a habit that grew so costly, they lost a choice apartment in New York City, separated and had to pull their daughter out of school while they fought their addiction.

Before their recovery, the High Holy Days meant nothing to the couple other than a chance to use. God never played a role in my adult life. I was empty spiritually, Weiner said. But this time, he and his wife will work at forgiving each other so they can be strong for their daughter. God willing, it will be a day of making peace, he said. Nearly 100 drug and alcohol abusers statewide have graduated from Passport since the program was launched two years ago, Kesselman said. Rooted in the Kabbalah, the Talmud and the Torah, the program is funded by Kesselman, a $33,000 grant from a Chicago foundation, and dona- tions to Kesselman’s nonprofit Recovery Management Services. Passport differs from programs like Alcoholics Anonymous because it stresses Jewish methods instead of Christian paths to faith. It allows addicts to come to their own conclusions about the root of their addictions as they journey through the highs and lows of their lives. First we see how unpowerful we are compared to the Creator, Kesselman said. In experiencing this humility, we are ready to forgive ourselves.

Flight ruckus Stuart H. can’t begin to find the passengers he wronged on the flight from Manchester to Atlanta, but they are in his thoughts. He remembers telling the flight attendant You’re getting too old for this job, aren’t ya’, honey? And insulting the pilot by calling him a bus driver. I made such a ruckus for nine hours that 11 passengers missed their connections to write a report on me, he said. An FBI agent led him away in handcuffs that day. His charges were later reduced to a $500 fine. Stuart’s’ yearning for alcohol started modestly with friends mixing concoctions from their parents’ liquor cabinet. With age, he was taking straight shots.

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He carried grapefruit juice in his car to disguise the vodka he stashed in a glove compartment/wet bar. And when he heard Frank Sinatra drank bourbon, he gave it a try. After years of trying recovery programs that shamed him into sobriety momentarily, Stuart, who has a degree from Cambridge University, feels he now has a reason to stop drinking: He has plugged God into the void in his life. People get tired of hearing a 53-year-old drunk say ?Sorry.’ The thing is to change. The best way I can make amends and atone for myself is to do the right thing now, said Stuart, who celebrated one year sober Sept. 1. I am the one I had to forgive more than anyone else.

Appealing to non-Jews Passport’s teachings have also appealed to non-Jews. Heidi Christakis, a Christian, said the program allowed her to feel comfortable in my skin. I was broken down and I had to return myself to my maker.

No matter how unconventional, for Jews in recovery, Passport fulfills a key goal of Yom Kippur — to take time to learn from mistakes of the past. Such an assessment is essential to growth, says Rabbi Solomon Schiff, executive director of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. Each of us is like an artist as we go through life. If we don’t take time to examine what we are doing and where we have come from, we will continue the same errors and we can’t improve, Schiff said. Clean since July 10, Kaiser says he is eager to learn more about Judaism with Kesselman. I’m not a very religious person, Kaiser said. How a recovery guy with messed up hair came into my life and made me laugh and [rediscover] God is a miracle.