By Rachel Holliday Smith DNA Info
The first opioid overdoses in Yaacov Behrman’s neighborhood happened more than a decade ago, around 2005, he remembers.
At the time — a period when accidental overdose deaths were rising in New York, according to data from the city’s Department of Health — he said many in his community of Lubavitch Crown Heights thought the “first kids we lost” were exceptions.
“It was a one-time thing,” he recalled. “It was a fluke.”
But in the years since, at least 10 young people in the Hasidic Jewish community have died using drugs, usually prescription painkillers, according to Behrman, program director of the Chabad-Lubavitch-founded drug prevention group Operation Survival.
“When it happened over and over, people started to realize it was a real issue — a real epidemic,” he said.
Now, Behrman and others in the Crown Heights Jewish community are trying to raise the alarm about the dangers of opioids, which have hit New York hard, as they have all over the country.
Last year, the city was on track to see more than 1,000 accidental overdose deaths for the first time ever, according to the most recently available health department data. Of the overdoses tracked through November of 2016, 83 percent of all deaths involved an opioid, the agency said.
Many of those overdoses were due to prescription painkillers, such as those that have ravaged families on Staten Island in recent years. In the past two years in particular, an uptick in the use of a powerful opioid known as fentanyl — commonly mixed with heroin or mixed with handmade prescription pill look-alikes — has pushed the number of deaths higher, according to the DOH.
It’s unclear which drugs exactly are killing young people in Crown Heights since no data is available on overdoses by neighborhood or religious group. But Behrman most commonly sees overdoses, both fatal and nonfatal, caused by pills taken recreationally and sold by dealers “all over” the area, he said.
That’s what killed a close friend of Eli, a 30-year-old Crown Heights resident who spoke with DNAinfo using only his first name. The friend, who was 25 at the time of his death five years ago, used opioids from time to time, but “wasn’t a drug addict,” Eli said.
But one “bad-batch drug” caused an overdose and killed his friend, a trauma that left Eli “broken,” he said — and wanting to increase awareness of the problem.
“It’s happening way too much in our community,” he said. “I felt it was important to let the parents and the community members know what’s going on.”
Last fall, he partnered with Operation Survival to lead an event educating Jewish families in the neighborhood about opioids and drug use. About 650 people attended, he said.
“Family members and parents of people in the community are slowly becoming more open to the realization that this is something that’s real,” he said.
But he also acknowledged there are still many “who are in denial” because either they’re scared for an addicted relative or because “they don’t want to believe that in their community, an Orthodox Jewish community like Crown Heights, it’s such a problem.”
“That’s unfortunate because if people don’t want to believe it or don’t want to hear it, they’re not going to become knowledgeable about it,” he said.
To push the conversation, Operation Survival, founded in 1988 by members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, has made an effort to get their anti-drug message into the hands of locals — literally.
In honor of National Prevention Week, the group handed out shopping bags emblazoned with the words “Teach kids to refuse to use” all along Kingston Avenue last week, the main shopping district for the Lubavitch community.
And for more direct overdose prevention, Behrman has been training teachers, emergency response volunteers, parents and young people how to use naloxone, a drug administered by nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Since beginning the state-run naloxone training program last summer, he has taught over 100 people how to use it in Crown Heights, he said.
“It’s free of charge. We’re happy to train anybody. It’s worth it because you could save a life,” he said.
The whole Chabad community all over the world is all about reaching out to people, with problems, people who otherwise do not ‘fit in’ who are are far from ‘ideal’. Indeed all of Torah is about that. Why do you think Moshe Rebbeniu said to H-sh-m that when H-sh-m told him he would make him into a great nation after wiping out the rebellious Jews, Moshe told H-sh- that if he would so so then to erase his (Moshe’s) name from his book as well. H-sh-m did not create Torah only for perfect people. If he had, then Torah would… Read more »
talk radio shock jocks who make money from saying crazy things? or sikrikim who force women to wear burkas and throw rocks at cars on Shabbos? This is not the Torah way of darchei noam
how can someone even think of throwing out a fellow yid
Hmmm – don’t we learn not to judge another til we are in their shoes ( Gd forbid ).
Wow. There’s so much you don’t and I hope you don’t learn the hard way. Some people get addicted to drugs because they had a medical emergency that required strong pain killing drugs, to which certain people get addicted. (So not all addicts started recreationally). And some people opt to take pain killing drugs on their own because they feel like they don’t belong and have intense psychological pain. Like facing many people with an attitude like yours. Some addicts are over 50 years old (So the discussion isn’t just about youngsters). And do you really think by “throwing them… Read more »
No one told these youngsters to try drugs, and no one forced them to buy pills, and don’t give me stories about getting hooked because of a legit prescription, these guys shouldn’t have started this.
In my opinion, throw them out, it rids the community of the problem.
This is great. There is but one answer for drug addicts and that is NA. People who work the 12 step program and go to rehab are the ones who witness the miracles. Being an addict I can say first hand it’s the only answer. You can make events and get speakers and put up flyers etc which is helpful for awareness but the goal of all this should be to get them in to a 12 step program. Because even if you get an addict to stop using for a little while they won’t be able to hold off… Read more »
Although you may have a point that it’s important that people welcome, support and help (and not shun) those who are in recovery, why do you have to add “what does he know” and “you guys worry about the wrong things? He knows what he knows, and does what he does and it’s some of the necessary steps towards addressing today’s addiction crisis. Drug addition is a multi-level problem requiring a multi-level solution. 1. Awareness and acknowledgement that there is a problem. 2. The problem is not solvable easily nor with one approach. 3. People should have and know how… Read more »
what does he know you guys worry about the wrong things how about shunning addicts in recovery
It’s extremely important to bring awareness and speak openly about it. Perhaps schools should have some awareness teaching about the dangers of drugs. Why not?! It could literally save lives!
10 years ago there was a drug incident in a yeshiva and unlike the Hanhola, Yaakov even as young bochur had a real interest in the big picture of where it came from and how big of an issue it was. He’s continuing his father’s legacy in combating drug addiction and abuse.
Were can i get a nalaxone kit?
This is amazing, is there any way people can volunteer, this is such important work.
Thank you for your brave work. We are 100% with you!!!
Yasher Koach to Y. Behrman for saying it like it is & having the courage to devote himself to solving this unfolding tragedy in our community. May he be blessed with 100% success.