Jews Work to Stem Opioid Abuse Crisis

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Rebecca Richman, Susan Wolfson and Ronda Goldfein, the women behind Safehouse, sit in a conference room
From left: Rebecca Richman, Susan Wolfson and Ronda Goldfein (Photos by Rachel Winicov)

Three Jewish women enter a nondescript conference room off 12th Street, determined to end Philadelphia’s opioid crisis.

Their organization, Safehouse, pledges to operate the first safe injection site in the United States. At an unchosen Philadelphia location (likely in Kensington), addicts would be able to inject heroin without legal repercussions, aided by free access to sterile needles and a medical staff trained to administer overdose-reversal drug naloxone.

Taking a seat at the center of the table is Ronda Goldfein, vice president of Safehouse. She is joined by staffers Susan Wolfson and Rebecca Richman.

With a hamsa hanging from her neck, Goldfein explains how Judaism drives Safehouse’s mission, which is “to save lives.”

“We were all raised with a strong Jewish identity, to recognize what obligation means and what it means to do mitzvot,” she said of her tablemates.

Her voice shaking with intensity, she added, “We can’t walk away. My Judaism tells me that I can’t walk away from this problem when there is something that I can do to resolve it.”

Richman agreed. “Simply stated, people are dying and Safehouse provides a very practical solution to saving lives.”

In addition to the supervised injections, that solution involves on-site “recovery counseling, education about substance use treatment, basic medical services, and referrals to support services such as housing, public benefits, and legal services,” according to the Safehouse website.

Safe injection sites, while new to the U.S., have been reported as effective at 120 locations across Europe, Australia and Canada. In the 30-year history of the venues, zero fatal overdoses have been reported.

“We’re not fixing the opioid crisis,” Goldfein stressed. “We’re offering one small solution to respond to this gigantic problem.”

Faith is an integral component to their solution, Goldfein said. “People find their comfort where they can. Having a nonjudgmental faith community to support you makes all the difference. For me, my center is my faith. That’s what keeps me grounded.”

Wolfson meditated on the history of Jewish faith.

“Jews are at the top of the list of people who know the harm when you categorize a group of people as ‘other.’ Once they are “other,” it doesn’t matter what you do to them or what they don’t have.”

City support for Safehouse is mixed.

In 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney piloted the Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic in Philadelphia, from which the suggestion of a site arose. Municipal leaders stipulated the site would receive no government funding.

City residents have publicly opposed the construction of a site. Goldfein said neighbors complain about the behavior of addicts yet are unwilling to listen to practical answers. She listed solutions in Safehouse’s initiatives:

Free access to clean needles will prevent the spread of disease. Sharps bins will house discarded needles and prevent hazardous litter on sidewalks. Bathrooms will decrease public defecation. Heroin will be tested to ensure the absence of the lethal additive fentanyl.

“Why wouldn’t you save lives? Jews are compelled to do that, to take care of the world,” Goldfein said.

Tikkun olam,” Richman concurred.

In February, U.S. Attorney William McSwain sued to ban the opening the site, arguing it would violate 21 U.S. Code §856. The code deems illegal operating a space that one “make[s] available for use … for the purpose of unlawfully … using a controlled substance.”

Safehouse claims the ordinance was intended for so-called “crack houses” during the 1980s-1990s crack cocaine epidemic and should not apply to “legitimate, multifaceted, medical and public health intervention[s].”

Earlier this month, 13 amicus curiae briefs were filed in support of Safehouse, with support from seven states. Local Rabbis Eli Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom and Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom were among the clerical signatories.

An evidentiary hearing set for mid-August will explore Goldfein’s plans for Safehouse, followed by oral argument in September.

“It’s important, not only as Jews, but as people, that we don’t turn our backs on people who are literally dying in our backyards,” said Richman.

Nodding, Wolfson added, “We need to embrace the people in our lives who need some support and not walk away from it.”

Richman’s backyard sentiment may evoke images of the needle-ridden streets of Kensington, but addiction is a growing problem in Jewish communities across the Delaware Valley.

The art studio where JFCS art therapy groups take place
The art studio where JFCS art therapy groups take place

Many parents are unaware of the choices their children face in deciding to use drugs, emphasized Lisa Ney, director of programming and community involvement for Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia.

“It starts early. It’s shocking. Kids are talking in normal conversations, and parents have no idea that they’re even talking about drugs.”

Last September, the Exponent profiled the families of AJ Solomon and Justin Wolfe, two addicted young adults from well-to-do Jewish families in South Jersey. Solomon is sober, after multiple stints in rehab. Wolfe died of an overdose in December 2012. He was 21.

To increase awareness of drug use in local communities, JFCS piloted its Addressing Addiction program last year.

With more than 100 attendees at each session, the series featured naloxone training kits, art therapy and a weekly support group for relatives of addicts.

A session for members of the Orthodox community impacted by addiction also garnered a large crowd. Ney said, “The Jewish community is definitely affected by addiction.”

“It exists. It’s out there whether you’re Jewish, Catholic, Christian. Our kids are getting exposed to it.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 6% of high school seniors had used opioids at least once. The number doubles to 12% for the 18-25 age cohort.

In an oft-repeated anecdote, a curious young adult discovers Percocet, left over from Dad’s knee surgery, in the bathroom cabinet. In seconds, it seems, she faces the throes of addiction. Her parents have no idea.

“This is why we’re focusing a lot of programs on parents. It’s important for parents to learn how to have an atmosphere of openness in their household so that children can come to you.”

Fittingly, the hallmark events of the series, in which recovering addicts share their experiences, are called “Unscripted, Radically Honest Conversations.” The hope is to reduce stigma and motivate audience members to seek help, encouraged easier by JFCS clinicians on-hand at each event.

Due to continued need for open conversation, Ney is solidifying plans for another year of Addressing Addiction sessions.

The weekly addiction support group will relaunch this fall. In November, guest speaker Jennifer Simon will share her struggle as a mom with addiction. A session on drug awareness for elementary school parents is planned for December. Additional programming for this year’s series will feature workshops on cannabis, vaping and suicide.

The need for such services persists, Ney said. “It’s an ongoing struggle. There’s so much to be done. We’re not done yet.”

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is available 24/7, 365 days a year at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Locally, JEVS provides clinical treatment for addicted adults and can be reached at 215-236-0100.

1 COMMENT

  1. The faith of these good women tells them they “…can’t walk away from this problem when there is something that I can do to resolve it.” But what will they do for the majority of Kensington residents who are NOT in addiction? We whose children can’t play in the street, who contact hepatitis from the filth of the addicted, whose homes are trespassed, whose property is stolen? We are unworthy of a mitzvot? There is no help towards resolution for us?

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