Substance Use & Addiction in Jewish Communities: Rates, Attitudes, and Treatment


Addiction is an illness that affects people of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities. And the Jewish community is not an exception. Data on the occurrence of substance abuse within the Orthodox community is limited, probably due to some extent of denial of these destructive behaviors in it. Many Jews who need help are afraid to seek it because of the stigma. 

A rise in Jewish-related alcohol and drug abuse cases has caused many Jewish leaders to address the issue. They hope to encourage individuals struggling with substance use disorders (SUDs) to take action and enter a Jewish rehabilitation center

Views on Alcohol & Drugs in Judaism

The first mention of alcohol in the Bible takes place in Genesis (Gen 9: 20-27) and deals with the shaming of Noah and the following mockery by his son Ham. So, the practice of alcohol drinking is probably as old as human history. 

Though alcohol use is discouraged (e.g., it is forbidden for priests during the Temple services in Lev 10:9), it is allowed during religious feasts (e.g., while celebrating the Sabbath or the festival of Purim). So, alcohol in Judaism is not prohibited, if used in moderation. This can be one of the reasons why the general levels of drinking among Jews are low. 

Jewish and rabbinic views on mind- and mood-altering substances have appeared much more later. Some suggest that Jews have contributed to the outlawing of some types of drugs and medicines that can be dangerous and addictive.

Myths and Misconceptions

Some Jewish people may be surprised that SUDs are a real problem in their community. And while awareness of the problem is growing, a stigma around addiction in the Jewish community has yet to be overcome.

The stigma is based on several firmly held misconceptions:

  • People who practice Judaism don’t drink. If they do, they don’t become alcoholics. 

  • Only those who have lost their faith can turn into substance abuse.

  • Drinking and taking drugs are the signs of moral failure, and people who do it should feel guilty and ashamed of their behavior.

  • Since Jewish alcoholism doesn’t exist, there’s no need for a faith-focused recovery program for members of this community.

Because of the denial of substance abuse, by leaders in particular, and the stigma surrounding this issue, many Jews who struggle with addiction choose to keep struggling silently. And quitting drug or alcohol use on your own, without professional treatment at a Jewish rehabilitation center, is extremely difficult. 

Statistics on Substance Abuse in a Jewish Community

Statistics on alcohol and drug use among Jews are difficult to come by. Existing quite limited data provides the following numbers:

  • In Israel, there’s about a 13% lifetime prevalence rate of drug use, relatively the same as in many other industrialized countries. 

  • An estimated 20% of Jews with SUDs have a family history of addiction.   

  • About 41% of Jewish individuals know someone who abused alcohol or drugs in their community. 

The Director of Operation Survival (a substance use prevention program) Rabbi Yaacov Behrman admits that “No community is immune from drugs.” He says that Jewish young people with drug use disorders “starts off experimenting, or succumb to peer pressure, while older people usually start with prescribed pain medicine”. 

Fortunately, people are becoming more willing to seek and receive help for their SUDs. A survey made by Jewish Child and Family Services in Canada reported the following responses:

  • About 44% of respondents said they would seek resources like AA or social services in their community if they had a substance use problem or knew someone with the same problem.

  • Around 9% said they would consult a rabbi or priest for help with addiction.

Shifting Attitudes 

Discussing substance abuse and addiction in the Orthodox Jewish world has always been a difficult endeavor. Thanks to such community advocates as Abraham Twerski, famed rabbi and psychiatrist, the issue has been attracting interest for the latest two decades. 

“The idea of “We are a Torah observant family” shouldn’t lull anyone into thinking, “It can’t happen in my family.” It can and it does.”, said Dr. Twerski in 2005 while talking about alcohol and drug consumption among Jewish youth.

On March 27, the representatives of Jewish communities had a panel discussion at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in Pasadena, California. Dr. Michael Miller, an ex-president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, emphasized that addiction is “a disease of brain”, not a moral failure. 

Kate Loewenthal, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, stated that alcohol and drug use “do currently occur in Jewish communities”. And though rates are lower than in other groups, they are rising.

Also, the two goals of further work were outlined: battling the stigma that is a strong barrier to seeking treatment for SUDs and creating awareness. Jewish families and individuals should know there are many Jewish drug rehabilitation centers available. 

A Chance for Sobriety

A Jewish community is ready to help their brothers and sisters find sobriety. Jewish rehab programs incorporate spiritual beliefs and culture of Judaism and offer specific services for individuals of this faith along with the standard treatment methods that have been used in successful recovery programs. 

One of the services is the Jewish 12-Step. Practitioners of Judaism explain that their bodies belong to God. So, they try to avoid the substances that destroy the body. During rehabilitation, individuals engage in practices that nourish and heal the body and soul.

Standard protocols of SUDs treatment may include:

  • Medically-assisted detoxification

  • Prescribing medication if necessary

  • SUD therapy (usually, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) 

  • Treating other co-existing mental health conditions.

A SUD rehabilitation program works most effectively when they receive substantial support both from their family, friends, religious leaders and from addiction treatment specialists. Every Jewish person with alcohol or drug problems should know that he or she can receive the necessary help in their own community.