A mother’s calling to destigmatize addiction in the Jewish community

In 2006, Marla Kaufman and her husband discovered their 16-year-old son was suffering from addiction. It came as a shock to the family. 

To find support, Kaufman reached out to the Jewish community she was actively involved with in Orange County, California, but found the response lacking. Because of this, Kaufman became unaffiliated with her synagogue for four years, a notion that seemed implausible to her before. 

Eight years into her journey, and still feeling the vestiges of shame from her son’s substance use disorder, Kaufman read Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Paul Steinberg, which she said completely changed her life and set her on a new path to be an advocate. 

She began to work locally by speaking to the board of rabbis in Orange County, and piloted programs to end the stigma around substance misuse and addiction in the Jewish community. 

That year Kaufman founded Jewish Addiction Awareness Network (JAAN). The organization has created a wide range of programs to educate the Jewish community and acts as a resource for anyone who has been impacted by addiction. They provide education on addiction and recovery, and give assistance for individuals and families who need help finding resources for those who are struggling. 

The organization also offers online programming and community partnerships with rabbis, synagogues, organizations, Jewish leaders, and professionals to host quarterly recovery meditations, book studies, conferences, and guest speaking. 

The impetus for starting JAAN came from Kaufman asking, “what would have been really helpful for me?” The network has become a place to ensure other Jewish families do not feel as marginalized as Kaufman did. 

I spoke to Kaufman on the phone to gain more insight into her journey and the importance of destigmatizing substance use disorders in the Jewish community. 


What do you think within the Jewish community specifically—you could speak to personal experience here—allows for more stigma of substance use disorders than the broader community? 

It is specific but then we’re also not an island, so general stigma does come into the Jewish community. But in the Jewish community there has been a myth that is still around for some people, that Jews inherently aren’t as vulnerable to addiction, especially addiction with alcohol and drugs (because there are so many other addictions). This myth has really kept us back in the Dark Ages. A rabbi once said to me, “we don’t really have that problem” . . . either they are in denial or they haven’t addressed the issue so much, so somebody in their community wouldn’t speak out if they had a problem. Also, our immigrant experience in North America and our desire to assimilate means we don’t want to show our personal problems outwardly. Now, this is a generalization across the group but we are a very educated, professional demographic. We get a lot of nachas from our kids’ achievements, so when this goes the other way we really struggle—this is in a lot of other communities too, where children feel pressure at a younger age. 

I’m curious to know if intergenerational trauma and the higher rates of anxiety and depression among Jews are also talked about when you go out into the Jewish community? 

I think mental health in general—in the Jewish community, and our general society—is being spoken about more. But substance use disorder and addiction is a mental health issue, and I feel like it’s at the bottom of the barrel. In my opinion, it’s still the most stigmatized mental health issue. People are starting to understand depression, anxiety, and bipolar, a lot more. For example, there is a high school in my community in California that did a PSA about mental health. It was really good, but there was a Q&A and they asked someone, “what is it that you would want someone to know the most about the struggles you have with mental health?” and she said, “I just don’t want a bunch of people to think we’re drug addicts.” And I thought, there we have it. Like that would be the worst thing you could label someone. But there’s a lack of education around it, because it’s scary. People don’t understand that others sometimes self-medicate with substances to escape their pain, because who wants to be in pain. 

Is there a moment you can recall where your work with JAAN was first being recognized by the Jewish community? 

It was our first Serenity Shabbat, where the services focus on addiction awareness and the importance of Jewish tradition and wisdom as it relates to the spiritual practice of recovery. The first synagogue we went to was reform and the rabbi acknowledged the work I was doing. They asked me to light the Shabbat candles on the bimah, and as I walked up, the rabbi then asked for anyone who had been affected by addiction—whether it was a friend, colleague, family member, partner—to come up with me. I watched as about half the people got up from the congregation to join me. All these people around me said “yes, me too” and as more and more people came up they got the confidence right there. That’s healing. 

What advice or words of wisdom do you have for parents who have been in a similar position to yourself? 

First thing I would say, even though it’s counterintuitive, is take care of yourself. Nothing really prepares you for it. For my family, our son was getting good grades, was doing well, but kids can really hide it. I once read a statistic that said it can take up to two years for parents to find out sometimes. I remember being in the car when I found out everything that happened [with my son]. I remember thinking I would never smile again and that my life was over. Someone said to me, if you can’t take care of yourself, for yourself, then do it for your son, because that’s the best thing you can do for him. Part of taking care of yourself is going to a support group, so you can get educated. What people need is support and love from their family, just like [when someone you love is suffering from] any other disease. So get educated and take care of yourself. 

What are your greatest feelings of accomplishment with JAAN, but what are also the hardest aspects of the job? 

I’m proud of everything. I feel like this is the most meaningful work I have ever done in my life. Any professional job or any experience or skill in my life was all leading to this. I feel it is a privilege and honour to do this work. Sometimes people thank me, but you know what? It’s part of my own healing. It’s a calling. I can’t not do the work. I am really proud of the communities and people I’ve been able to work with. I’ve met some of the best people. I never thought I’d be friends with so many rabbis in my life! The challenge is we’re an all volunteer-run organization, but I want this work to outlive me. I want to pass the baton on. 

In an ideal world how would you like to see addiction discussed in the Jewish community? 

I would like to see it discussed the way any other disease is treated. If my child had cancer the head of the community would be all over it. They’d say let’s provide meals, transportation . . . I would like to see the same response for addiction. I would like to see more education programs consistently. Many families are affected by this. It’s so comforting to know your rabbi is educated on this, that it’s a safe space, that you can go to your community. I would also really like to see more Jewish spaces like synagogues open up to recovery meetings. This is where we really differ from other religions like Christianity. Almost all of the 12-step recovery meetings are in churches. In my community there were zero recovery meetings in the synagogues. We’ve now helped them create those spaces but it’s an uphill battle. Jewish spaces should also be trained on overdose reversal with naloxone and have it on hand. 

Do you mind me asking how your son is doing today? 

My son is in recovery and he’s going back to school to finish his teaching credential in special education. You know, people in recovery are freaking awesome. They’re people who have done so much self-reflection and have worked on their character. There are no better people. 


The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.

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