Putting faith in recovery

Religion: Since 1996, a recovery program for Jewish men has filled a treatment gap created by shame and stereotypes.

February 25, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

As the sun sets on a Friday night, an extended family gathers around the Shabbat candles in a house at the edge of Park Heights. A young man prays. Loaves of challah bread are torn and passed, along with plastic cups of grape juice.

In this house, there is no place for wine.

The Shabbat dinner takes place every month at House of Hope, one of a handful of addiction recovery houses in the United States devoted exclusively to Jewish men.

The family is not biological. Rather, it is stitched together with fragile threads of desperation and shared experience. Every month, friends, board members, wives, children and parents join the 12 men who live at House of Hope to observe Jewish tradition as they put their lives back together. The house on Reisterstown Road opened four years ago at the behest of Jon Singer, a Baltimore businessman who once used it as an office.

Singer had sold his building maintenance company for a hefty sum several years earlier and was looking for a cause. He found it in the experience of a friend whose son was an addict. "His father was devastated there was no place Jewish for his son," he said.

Singer decided to strike out on his own, seeking donations from friends and putting his money and work into renovating the space. "Jon's got a three-letter name in this house," said Jerry Sutton, the house's assistant manager.

"It's called God."

Lou Jacobs, executive director of the Jewish Big Brother & Big Sister League of Baltimore, said the recovery house fills a crucial niche for Jewish addicts. The league runs Jewish Addiction Services, an outpatient treatment program that sometimes refers clients to House of Hope.

"The spiritual side of recovery is very important, and it's something that many Jews have a hard time with," Jacobs said. "While AA [Alcoholics Anonymous]and NA [Narcotics Anonymous] aren't inherently Christian, sometimes [Jews] come away with that feeling."

Maxine Uttal, executive director of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others Foundation (JACS) in New York, said she knows of a few other recovery houses in the country with programs for Jews.

Few such programs exist, she said, in part because people won't seek them out. Orthodox Jews, in particular, are afraid of running into someone they know at such a place, she said.

Singer said shame and a stereotyped view that substance abuse is not a problem for Jews sometimes make it difficult for House of Hope to reach people.

He calls the men there "Jewish boys," and some are not much more than that. One is 18 and learned about the house on the Internet.

The young man's parents, who attended a recent Shabbat dinner at the house, are thrilled with his progress. "This is a wonderful place for him," said his mother, who asked not to be identified. "He is like he used to be."

Sutton, 33, struggled with his addiction to alcohol and marijuana for more than 10 years. After he got clean, he couldn't find a Jewish program in New York City, where he lived. Finally, he called House of Hope.

"I was raised in an observant home," Sutton said. "I'd been to a couple of drug rehabs. I had been placed in situations where I had lost a lot of my identity. I had felt that [a Jewish house] might have been the missing link."

So he packed up his belongings and drove south to start over.

The first person he met was Sam Bondroff, a former insurance agent who had been introduced to cocaine at age 51 by a business associate.

Bondroff had lied to his family for a time, telling them he was depressed, before he decided to admit his addiction at a Hanukkah party in 1998.

From there, he made the rounds of hospitals and halfway houses, traveling far from his Baltimore home to a treatment center on the Eastern Shore, then back to an inner-city house.

He called the man who had introduced him to cocaine only to find that the man, also Jewish, had gone into recovery and was living at House of Hope.

"Once I came here, being with Jewish guys, I had a paternal feeling," Bondroff said.

Part of the feeling was relief at seeing that people who were like him suffered from the same problems, even though those problems often were hidden. "There's a lot of denial among Jewish leaders," Bondroff said. "It happens plenty."

Bondroff, who "graduated" from the house after about eight months, comes back for the monthly Shabbat dinners. He is getting a divorce and is working a lower-paying job as a courier. "I don't make half as much money as I used to," he said, "but I'm so much happier."

House of Hope recently received a $15,000 grant from the Baltimore section of the National Council of Jewish Women to hire a licensed addictions counselor.

The house runs on a peer system, with a manager and assistant manager chosen from among the group.

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