The JACS Sober IFS Taglit-Birthright Israel Trip: June 2012

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05 Sep 2012

THANK YOU SO MUCH SHARON! This was the most amazing experience, and I am so grateful for everything you put into this!  I made you a little something to say thanks…it is sea glass and a shell from the Mediterranean Sea (at the perfect beach we went to).  I love sea glass because it reminds me that discarded trash can, in time, become beautiful treasures. And shells remind me that everything in our universe is created with unique beauty, down to the tiniest shell.  Take care and ‘til we meet again – Peace & Love!  Always, Ali     

P.S. Thanks for always having my back & picking up pieces I left laying around.

More than two years ago, Ali, a young woman from Brooklyn, would not have been able to take part in a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.  She was actively abusing opiates and combating an eating disorder. Ali struggled with the addictions that had overtaken her life for more than a decade. Due to the incredible support of various drug, alcohol and eating disorder treatment centers and attendance at AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)/ NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings, Ali is now a 26-year-old college student who has been able to stay sober for 16 months. In June 2012, Taglit-Birthright Israel and the Orthodox Union’s Israel Free Spirit made Ali’s dream to experience Israel sober come true.


For more than thirty three years, JACS, Jewish Alcoholics Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others, a program of Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (JBFCS), has been the central voice and support network in regard to alcoholism and chemical dependency in the Jewish community.  JACS has played a key role in putting these issues on the agenda of the Jewish community, advocating for the needs of Jews in treatment, and providing support, comfort, connection and guidance in the difficult times that addiction can cause.

Our Teen & Young Adult Network helps Jewish young people express their concerns about the use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and learn how to deal with these challenges, for themselves and/or a family member or friend. Taglit-Birthright Israel has given so many thousands of young people a great life-changing gift, and JACS has worked to make this opportunity available to young people who need a special Israel experience that provides a high level of safety and support in avoiding the risks of alcohol and other drug abuse.


We encountered many obstacles in trying to arrange for a JACS “Sober Birthright Trip.”  So it seemed bashert that in 2009, one of my dearest friends, Kim who lives in Israel, started a new position that was affiliated with the Orthodox Union’s Israel Free Spirit (IFS) Taglit-Birthright Israel program.  I finally had an “in” with Birthright Israel!  Kim understood our determination to find a Birthright Israel Sober Tour, and loved the idea.  Two hours after we spoke, her supervisor, Rabbi Chaim, called to discuss the details.

In March 2010, we held our first Sober Tour, with 42 young people from the United States and Canada and three staff.  I stayed home with my family and newborn baby, but watched a host of “sober miracles” online:  the participants opened themselves up to the spiritual, social, cultural and scenic delights of Israel, as well as its struggles and challenges, all without turning to drugs or alcohol!  We helped this happen by providing close supervision, assisting participants in coping with the up’s and down’s they encountered, holding frequent 12-step and mutual support meetings, visiting Israeli rehab and substance abuse programs, and making sure the participants had lots of opportunities for sober fun.

Rachel, a 25-year-old college student and waitress, was one of the first participants to register for our first sober tour. Rachel was a high school dropout from Florida who had abused alcohol and marijuana for more than five years. In that time, she became estranged from her friends and family. Rachel’s life hit bottom at the age of 22, when she could no longer deal with living on the streets and had been raped.  Rachel was so excited and nervous to be going back to Israel, now that she had been sober for three years. Because of her profound experience on the tour, Rachel made aliyah in Summer 2011. Since then, we have invited her to be a guest speaker for each of our subsequent tours.

Our second trip soon followed. We were proud that people across North America were hearing of our tour.  And we were so grateful that Israel Free Spirit believed in us and our mission, and supported this effort. IFS was so effective in helping us plan our tour because its staff took the time to meet our participants and listen to their stories of experience, strength and hope.


Sober Tour and other IFS/ Birthright participants share in a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony in Tzfat.

By the time JACS was offered its third tour, my husband decided I was ready to leave my family for a while to serve as a tour leader and experience firsthand what we had been working on for over three years.  After intensive preparation, the big day finally came; Monday June 4.  My husband and two children dropped me at Newark Airport, waving good bye.  It was sad, but as I walked into the airport, adrenalin was pumping through my body. I was nervous and excited that I would finally have this experience.

Thirty-two young people and three staff members boarded the EL AL flight.  The common bond all shared was being sober; some as little as three months, others up to seven years.  Our JACS and IFS team had learned about each participant’s special story of addiction, whether to drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, or gambling. Now recalling Ali’s metaphor of the sea glass and shells, I feel that each of our participants, over time, has transformed from a “piece of trash discarded by society because of his/her addiction” into a beautiful treasure.   Each one of these participants had found the right support, through treatment and recovery groups, that allowed her/him to grow into a functional member of society.


Our tour guide made sure we didn’t miss a beat.  We started most days with a short meditation and ended with a 12-step meeting or group processing. This gave us the opportunity to reflect on how we were feeling spiritually and emotionally.  Most of our group was experiencing Israel for the first time; others had been there previously, but only while intoxicated, so this was truly their first sober visit.  Our leaders had also been to Israel, through Taglit-Birthright Israel, or as casual visitors. I’ve been many times, for five years as a young child and as a student intern in college.  I call Israel my second home, the one I get all my chutzpah from. With such diverse experience, we had fun sharing our favorite Israeli chocolates, foods, Hebrew sayings and, on a deeper level, the roles we play as Jews and our core beliefs.


One of our first shared experiences was on our first day in Tel Aviv.  We had free time to wander, shop and eat lunch in Nachalat Binyamin, a trendy outdoor market.  As I arrived at the square where we were to meet up, I saw one of our participants, Jacob, approach a table covered with tefillin and speak to a man standing next to it.  He then started to put on a set of tefillin and say the accompanying prayer. As this was happening, some of the other young men in our group watched curiously. Once Jacob finished, he explained the details and meaning of what he had done. Something unbelievable followed: helped by Joshua, each of our young men decided to also put on tefillin, most for the first time.

I watched with tears in my eyes, knowing that a year ago, Joshua a 23-year-old from California, had been in the throes of his addiction to heroin and opiates. How did a “nice Jewish boy” from a “nice Orthodox family” end up like that? But now, at this moment, I knew I was watching a miracle happen, and that this would be one of the key spiritual moments we would share on this tour.

Our whirlwind pace took us to seven cities in ten days. Looking back, I’m amazed we did it all.

One of the highlights of our tour was being warmly welcomed by Matrix Reloaded, a modern inpatient treatment center in Herzliya. The residents of the center were all Jewish and international, ages 18-40, each one on a personalized treatment plan.  I had asked 23-year-old Daniel from Atlanta, who barely made it through high school, to be one of the speakers. Daniel was 11 months sober and had graduated from a rehab program. He shared his story of abusing heroin and opiates, his experiences of how, by the age of 21, his life became unmanageable from these drugs, and how important his treatment had been.  The atmosphere was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. Daniel had opened the way to a dialogue between our group and the residents, so inspiring that it overcame the language barrier, as they all shared the common bond of struggles with addiction.


Shabbat in Jerusalem was magnificent! We started with a short tour of the Old City. The group split, with the men heading straight to the Kotel for Shabbat services, while the women went to my friend Kim’s home. Kim had invited the women to light candles. It was especially meaningful, as Kim was our original link to having these sober tours. We arrived to find a big welcome sign on her door. Kim greeted everyone, leading to sisterly hugs and tears.  Kim and I shared some background on how this tour came together. Kim shared her personal story about finding her role as a Jewish woman, and how she came to be living in the Old City.

Many of us shared experiences of what Judaism means to us. We lit Shabbat candles together, saying the prayer out loud, some for the first time. We met up with the rest of our group by the Kotel, the first time many of the tour participants had been there.  Hundreds of people were singing and dancing.  I won’t ever forget the excitement in our participants’ eyes as they walked through the Kotel Plaza holding hands and taking in the vivid sounds and breathtaking view.

The exchange between our tour participants and the mifgashim (IDF soldiers) was also a profound experience. For the first time, these soldiers had met recovering alcoholics and drug addicts their age. For five days, they learned about addiction and recovery. Our tour participants, in turn, learned more about Israeli culture and saw how proud the Israelis were of their roles as soldiers or students. We were all sad to say goodbye to our Israelis, but it was incredible to see the group come together emotionally for this farewell.


As our last day approached, some of the group were making plans to extend their trip. Our last night ended with a very loud cheerful summary session, complete with our own insider jokes as we enjoyed our newly formed friendships and shared tour experiences. What really stands out about this night were the gratitude all expressed for being on a sober tour. We stayed up late and woke up early to leave for the airport. Everyone parted with hugs and tears, filled with all we’d shared. Thank you, Israel Free Spirit and the Orthodox Union for giving JACS the opportunity to be part of Taglit-Birthright Israel! Your vision shows through so brightly in the success of our tours.

To learn more about JACS and its upcoming winter 2012-13 trip, please click here,

Sharon Darack is the JACS Program Director.

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