The national network of Jews in 12-step recovery now known as Zehyom began in 1993 as an informal, loosely connected group of people. There were just a handful of these people back then, mostly men and mostly Orthodox and affiliated with either NA, AA or both. Several had been clean or sober since the mid-1980s and were well versed in the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. There were pockets of people in Jerusalem (primarily at the English speaking NA group there, still in existence), Chicago, New York, LA, Florida, Silver Spring, and Baltimore. For the sake of anonymity, we cannot give the details of the paths these people chose, but suffice to say that this loosely connected group of recovering addicts formed the spiritual hub of an ever-widening network that has saved or dramatically benefited the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Jewish addicts in North America and Israel.
There were others out there waiting to be found, some of them finding each other at retreats held by a New York based organization called JACS, and forming informal networks of their own. For years, this ever growing series of overlapping networks seemed to work fine as a conduit for carrying a message of hope to addicts whose connection to Judaism would otherwise keep them away from 12 Step groups. A call would get made from Lakewood, for example, to Jerusalem – to the only person the caller knew of who might be able to help in a certain situation. The person in Jerusalem would reach out to a friend in Passaic, who would call a friend from Baltimore, who would call a friend in New York who would call a friend in Lakewood to go talk to the person in trouble. A bit convoluted, perhaps, but it worked — but not well enough.
Ever-present throughout all of this evolution were the groundbreaking works of the remarkable Rabbi Abraham Twerski and a number of homegrown organization initiatives. As you can imagine, however, Jews in recovery tend to be extremely anonymity conscious, so with these few exceptions the informal system of communication was where most of the action was.
It should be mentioned that there were also a few angels who stepped out publicly to help struggling addicts. Some of these very special people understood the unique needs of this segment of the community and cared enough about carrying a message of recovery that they put themselves out there to help translate the 12 Step message into a cultural language that Jews, including Orthodox Jews, could accept. There were and still are ever strengthening centers of laypeople, Rabbis and addiction professionals who are serving the Jewish Community in various parts of New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Silver Spring, Baltimore, Passaic, Monsey, Toronto, Los Angeles, South Florida, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago and numerous other places.
As Rabbi Twerski’s prolific writings became increasingly well known and Roshei Yeshiva across America thawed to the possibility that there was a problem, we seemed to have gotten as far along as we needed to. Jews with streimels and pais, could be spotted chatting amicably at occasional recovery retreats with Reconstructionist Rabbis. Jews could be saved from addiction, with a warm and fuzzy sense of Jewish unity coming along as an unanticipated side treasure. All was well with the world.
And then something terrible happened.
On the first day of Sukkos 2006, a young man named Yehuda Aryeh ben Yehoshua Yakir was found dead of a heroin overdose at his parents’ home in a well known Jewish suburb of a city on the east coast. One of our co-founders, Tzvi, was among the members of that group of addicts in Jerusalem in the early 90s. He was marking his own father’s yartzheit that day, so he was in an especially emotional frame of mind when he got the horrible news about Yehuda. Tzvi had been clean for about 20 years at this point, and had lost numerous friends to addiction over the years, but he was absolutely shocked that day. In addition to the fact that one never gets used to addiction’s cunning and powerful ways, the shock came from the fact that Yehuda’s father was well known to him. They had davened in the same shul for a number of years, spoken on many occasions, even learned Torah together a few times. “How could it be,” he wondered, “that I make myself available to so many strangers while someone in my own ‘family’ needs me and I am in hiding?” Remaining anonymous was certainly not wrong, but was this the cost? Yehuda’s father and Tzvi only ever saw each other as neighbors. Tzvi had no way of knowing of Yehuda’s suffering and Yehuda’s father had no way of knowing that Tzvi might have been a good person to turn to for guidance. Would it have made a difference? Only Hashem knows that. But a decision was made that day, and Zehayom as a formal entity was born.
Today, Zehayom’s 24 hour helpline gives Jews who are in recovery a way of being accessible to Jews who need help without compromising their own anonymity. There is almost no recovering addict who won’t reveal himself or herself if it will benefit someone else directly. But going totally public – which is almost always a bad idea for a variety of reasons — was often the only way to find out about who is in need. The Zehayom Helpline is changing that. It gives those who need recovery and those who need to give recovery away a place to connect.
The Zehayom Helpline is a natural extension of the organic network that was growing long before the organization was created. It is a tool, a means more than an end. A meeting point.
To borrow language from the introduction to NA’s Basic Text, may Zehayom be truly be G_d’s work, not ours – in order that no addict, anywhere, need die from the horrors of addiction. And may the lives of those who are touched by this project contribute to aliya upon aliya of the blessed Neshama of Yehuda Aryeh ben Yehoshua Yakir, whose untimely death startled us out of hiding.
Our Team is comprised of:
- More than 100 amazing volunteers, each of whom completes a specially designed training program when they start with us
- A national Board of Directors who oversees policy and raises funds
- Management company that coordinates logistics and administrative functions
- Consulting professionals, including social workers, addiction counselors and rabbis
- Carefully vetted partner agencies and independent professionals with whom we consult and to whom we refer when appropriate.