JERUSALEM (RNS) — When she was 13 years old, Amy* began a downward spiral into alcohol and drug abuse that repeatedly landed her in therapeutic schools and rehab and ultimately forced her to drop out of college.
When, at the age of 19, she ended up in jail, she entered yet another 12-step program, but this time it took.
“After going to jail I was really terrified of what my life looked like. For the first time, I wanted to stop,” Amy, now 27, said of her addiction and first step toward recovery.
Sober for the past seven years, Amy — who requested a pseudonym — returned to college and eventually completed grad school. She cherishes her sobriety and wakes up every day determined to maintain it.
That’s why, when Amy wanted to learn more about her Jewish heritage, she chose a Birthright Israel trip tailored for people recovering from addiction.
Birthright, a 23-year-old American organization, has brought nearly 800,000 Jewish young adults on seven- to 10-day tours of Israel to connect with their Jewish roots. In 2011, it launched its first addiction recovery trip. Since then, there have been 16 such trips that together have brought 440 young Jews with substance abuse, gambling, food and other addictions to Israel.
Gidi Mark, Birthright Israel’s CEO, told Religion News Service that his organization “is very proud to provide such an experience to everyone possible, including people in recovery. Our slogan is ‘No one is left behind.’”
At the same time, Mark said, it respects the privacy of its recovery participants, some of them new to recovery. While Birthright encourages media coverage of its regular tours of Israel, until now, the recovery trips have taken place under the media’s radar.
To attend a Birthright Recovery trip, participants must be sober for at least a couple of months prior to the trip and commit to remaining sober and abstinent throughout the tour.
The tours include most of the same historical and religious sites as other Birthright visits, but on the recovery trips, each day begins with a meditation session and ends with a 12-step meeting and group discussion.
Among the encounters with Israelis that are part of Birthright’s experience, the people in recovery meet with Israelis who are also recovering from addiction.
Although the recovery trips are organized by the Orthodox Union and its Israel Free Spirit tour organizer, there’s no requirement to be religiously observant other than to respect Shabbat during the tour.
In fact, prior to Birthright, some of the participants had never stepped foot inside a synagogue, despite having at least one Jewish parent.
“We don’t dictate how to be Jewish. Our goal is that participants build and take agency over their Jewish identity, however they choose, to feel like valued members of the Jewish community,” said Yael Tamari, director of Israel Free Spirit.
Tamari said the recovery trips make connections between Judaism and the process of recovering from addiction. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the tour leaders use Jewish themes of forgiveness, survival, mourning and redemption as they appear in Jewish texts and Jewish history to talk about the value of sobriety.
In July, as Amy’s group visited the northern Israeli city of Safed, renowned for its Jewish art and mysticism, a local artist told the visitors that his creativity is fueled by Kabbalah, an ancient practice of Jewish mysticism, and how its teachings inspire him to reach higher levels of spiritual energy.
Amy said she felt an instant connection. “Everything he said aligned with my beliefs,” Amy said. “I consciously try to live with more light. For me, spirituality isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity central to my own recovery, but until now I hadn’t associated it with religion.”
In Safed, Ryan, 31, who has battled cocaine and alcohol addiction on and off for more than a decade, connected with Judaism’s belief in a higher power, which is also a central component of addiction recovery.
Ryan, who until his Birthright trip hadn’t had a bar mitzvah, said he had always felt that he “didn’t belong” in the Jewish community.
That changed when, in a small Israel coffee shop, he encountered an Orthodox family that seemed genuinely happy to meet a Birthright participant.
“The woman in the shop was from New York, and she asked whether I’d ever put on tefillin,” the small boxes containing verses from the Torah that Jewish men and some Jewish women wear during weekday morning prayers.
“When I said no, she called up her father-in-law to bring his tefillin.
“Throughout my addiction, the only time someone said, ‘I know a guy who …’ it was to sell me drugs. And here, someone called someone to bless me. Everyone in that little coffee shop was cheering me on.”
Brushing a few tears from his eyes, Ryan said that when a Hebrew song called “Uri” came on the radio during the encounter, he felt a higher power at play.
“Uri is my Hebrew name, and it’s the name of the rabbi who lent me his tefillin. I felt overwhelmed and grateful. Recovery is all about change and healing, and I feel like a changed man because of this trip,” Ryan said.
Henne*, a 28-year-old graduate student, said the recovery trip was the only way for her to safely visit Israel. Addicted to marijuana since 19, she became sober in 2021 but briefly relapsed earlier this year.
“I’m newly on my path again, recognizing patterns, working on the things I need to work on. So, I didn’t want to spend my nights in Israel barhopping,” she said.
In addition to satisfying her thirst to learn more about herself, Judaism and Israel, Henne said the Birthright recovery trip has given her a sense of belonging.
“Until now, I really haven’t found a recovery community I felt really connected to. I went to groups on my campus and they were great, but having the opportunity to visit my homeland with people with similar experiences, who are working on the same things and really understand my determination to change and live my best self …
“I couldn’t pass that up.”
*The names of some participants have been withheld at their request.