Dying to Recover: The Life and Loss of Avi Pincus

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This past Monday, we marked the shloshim of our beloved son and brother, Avi Pincus ע”ה, who just a few weeks ago – at the tragic young age of twenty-six – died of a drug overdose. Death by overdose is not uncommon in the Orthodox community, but when it does occur families often cover up the cause of death due to denial, shame, and perceived social pressure. This denial, shame and its subsequent whitewashing is not limited to the death of the loved one, but often extends also to that person’s life. And it is not only something of which the families of the addict are guilty. Our Jewish community as a whole looks down with derision and disgrace at the addicts among us.

We believe that this outlook and attitude are the wrong ones to take. We believe that such ostracization is a mistaken, destructive and often fatal force. We are not ashamed of Avi. We take deep pride in his life; we sympathize greatly with his pain; and we stand in awe of his heroic struggle to overcome his addiction.

We Take Deep Pride In His Life

It is a terrible shame that you will never meet Avi. For Avi was one of the most outstanding individuals – in terms of kindness, character, love of Jews and love of humanity – that we have ever known.

Avi was a perfect paradigm of generosity. If he had something, he gave it, no questions asked. He would empty his pockets without hesitation, and without any regrets. On numerous occasions, Avi would meet someone who did not have enough money for a Shabbat meal. Avi, without blinking, would set out to buy an entire Shabbat so those who wanted could partake. If he ran out of money, he would offer whatever he had – food, his bed, and, most significantly, his time. When a friend of his couldn’t afford an engagement ring, Avi sold his upright bass violin to fund it. Avi was willing to give his life to others, so it came as no surprise when he made aliyah and joined the Israeli Defense Forces.

Avi’s mission in life was to bring joy to those closest to him. And Avi had so many people who were close to him. It was impossible to walk one block with Avi without getting stopped by someone excited to see him who want to stop and chat. Avi was committed to his friends as if they were siblings. He would drop anything he was doing to spend time in person or on the phone with a friend who needed him. Recently, Avi went out to a restaurant with friends. His phone rang – it was a fellow recovering addict who needed help. Avi spent two hours on the phone with him, and ended up missing dinner.

At the shiva, we were told countless such stories from lifelong friends and people who had just met him a few times but who were touched by his love and care. One of the most striking stories: Avi saved up to travel to Tanzania to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. As he and his travel-mates began the trek up the highest mountain in Africa, one of his friends got ill. Avi insisted that he accompany this friend back to make sure he received the proper care. For Avi, friends were more important than even the greatest of mountains.

Most admirably, Avi was a counselor and advisor to literally hundreds who sought a voice of reason and sensibility. He had a rare ability to listen so that others would speak and to speak so that others would listen. Numerous friends told us that he was their conscience, that he would help them do the right thing when they were tempted to do wrong.

We Sympathize Greatly With His Pain

Avi experienced a horrible amount of pain in his life, including the loss of his mother during his teenage years. But this pain never expressed itself in anger or self-pity; it translated itself into caring and empathy. His hurt enabled him to understand the pain of others and to help them overcome it. Avi cared for everyone. He made friends with homeless people in Manhattan. He kept his fellow IDF soldiers entertained for hours. He played music for autistic children. We received a message from a man who was lost at an airport. Avi noticed he looked lost, and immediately offered him a ride and some food. That was Avi in a nutshell, always looking for ways to help others, whether it was someone who he knew and loved, or a person he did not know at all. For Avi, a person in need was a person to be helped. So many people told us how Avi helped them in times of pain and desperation – he was able to pull them out because he had pulled himself out.

We Stand in Awe of His Heroic Struggle to Overcome Addiction

We stand in awe of his heroic struggle to overcome addiction. And the more we learn about the trials and tribulations of recovery, the more respect and appreciation we have for him and those like him. Most people in our community think that drug and alcohol addiction is a choice. They think that when an addict realizes how destructive their addiction is, they should go to rehab and just stop. People who do not stop, they believe, lack personal responsibility. Such beliefs are simply in error.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Addiction is a chronic disease similar to other chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. No one chooses to be a drug addict or to develop heart disease. Addiction, like other chronic diseases, is a heritable disorder and genes play a role in vulnerability to addiction. As with all complex diseases, environmental risk and protective factors interact with genetics to determine the course and outcome of disease.” Recent evidence has confirmed that the use of drugs literally rewires the brain, making the already challenging task of self-control and will power infinitely more difficult, if not impossible.

If, God forbid, someone in your synagogue drops dead at age fifty from heart disease, would the family cover up the cause of death? Do you look disparagingly at people who suffer from diabetes, or who die after months of fighting cancer? Do you ostracize members of your community who constantly diet but never lose weight?

Given the realities of the science behind addiction, it is simply astounding to realize the difficulties and struggles of the lived experience of addiction. Recovering addicts are truly ba’alei teshuva in the literal sense of the term: they are masters of repentance. Though Avi ultimately succumbed to his disease, he had remained clean for almost an entire year. For that last year, he volunteered to work with addicts in the community, spoke at Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, inspired others to do what feels impossible to do. He saved lives along the way. For that last year, Avi daily reflected on how to change, daily sought to make amends with people he may have hurt, and daily prayed for help to overcome his weaknesses. How often have you engaged in such dedicated, intense and continuous self-reflection to change your weaknesses?

As Jewish and especially Orthodox recovering addicts renew themselves and begin rebuilding their lives, they often experience loneliness and isolation from a community that fails to understand them – precisely at a time when they need support and community the most. Our shiva home turned into a place where recovering addicts – those who have known Avi for a long time, those who knew him only briefly; men and women, Jews and non-Jews, from all walks of life – could talk freely and be listened to about the trials and triumphs of being in recovery, as well as the experience of watching so many friends and loved ones, like Avi, be destroyed by their disease.

There are good chances that you, too, have someone wrestling with substance abuse in your family or community. We urge you to reconsider the way you relate to them. Encourage them to seek help. But professional help is never enough – you must support them throughout the process. Take an hour and visit an Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Doing so, you will quickly realize why recovering addicts are our family’s heroes – and that they should be treated accordingly by the Jewish community, with the respect and dignity they deserve.

If only the Jewish community would learn a little from the life and loss of our dear son and brother, Avi – to be more caring of others, more sensitive to the pain around us, and more appreciative of the difficult circumstances in which so many find themselves – perhaps we would lose fewer of our sons and brothers.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.