The rabbi who saves Jews from sinking into world of drugs

HONOURED: Rabbi Sufrin receives his MBE from the Queen

Doreen Wachmann talks to a Lubavitch rabbi who founded a drop-in centre to rescue lost souls

THERE is often a massive dichotomy between the Lubavitch lifestyle with its chassidic garb and its segregated educational system which aims to protect its charges from all alien influences and the Lubavitch mission which is to go out into our increasingly promiscuous society and save Jewish souls from contamination.

Not all Lubavitcher emissaries have the necessary skills to perform that mission successfully.

But such can certainly not be said about Chabad Drugsline director Rabbi Aryeh Sufrin, who last year gained an MBE for his work, not only in the Jewish community but also in the non-Jewish and especially in the Muslim community.

Unlike those who go to Lubavitch as BTS (baalei teshuvah - returnees to the faith) who may have been brought up in a secular lifestyle, Rabbi Sufrin junior was reared in the strictly Orthodox London area of Stamford Hill where his Manchester-born father Rabbi Aron Dov Sufrin was Lubavitch education director.

Lubavitch schools, like the ones in Stamford Hill which Aryeh attended, place less emphasis on secular than on religious education.

Yet 20 years ago, when Rabbi Sufrin was confronted with a massive drug problem among secular Jewish youth literally on his doorstep, he did not shy away from it as many might have done but was savvy enough to get himself trained and gather a professional team around him.

But he admitted that it was far from easy.

He said: ""I noticed that on Saturday nights hundreds of youngsters, mainly Jewish, gathered in the streets outside Ilford's Chabad House until 1am, using drugs.

"I knew very little about drugs except that they were illegal.

"The world then was a very different place from what it is today. There was no public discussion about drugs in pre-university children. People didn't want to believe there was an issue.

"I began by fighting the cause because no one wanted to know about it."

Rabbi Sufrin took a multi-agency course on An Introduction to Drugs, run by the borough of Redbridge. Once qualified, he got together a team which included recovering addicts, psychotherapists, Samaritans and youth workers to work on a response to the growing drugs scene.

They came up with a crisis intervention telephone line for which they trained volunteers.

The number of Jewish kids using the crisis line increased, initially coming mainly from non-Orthodox families.

Druglines also developed a non-denominational drugs course for secondary school pupils.

Rabbi Sufrin said: "It was a tremendous opportunity to share Jewish wisdom with the wider world. Also, there is a lot to be learned from all communities."

In 1999, the scheme gained a three-year education grant.

He said: "We saw what can be achieved by educating. For a long time we went into mainly non-Jewish schools."

But over the years Rabbi Sufrin noticed that the drugs epidemic had spread even to chassidic homes like the one in which he was reared.

He said: "There have been major changes in the last 20 years. We always imagined that the drugs problem only affected those on the periphery, those not convinced of Judaism, those who had no experience of Shabbat or festivals and who received mixed religious messages at home.

"But today the problem has come into our own chassidic homes. We are living today in a very exposed world.

"I take my hat off to those who speak only Yiddish, wear the garb and are detached from the modern world in their own little enclaves in Manchester, London or Gateshead.

"But their kids have to walk in the streets and use the buses where they are exposed.

"We have to kit out these youngsters to see this world in which we live as one prior to that of the Messiah and at the same time to protect ourselves from all aspects of it like immorality, drink, drugs, gambling and all the vices that exist out there.

"Our Chabad philosophy is not to shy away from the world but to use it for good."

At the request of rabbis and lay leaders of the much more Orthodox community of North-West London, Rabbi Sufrin has had to open a satellite branch in Hendon to deal with the growing problems in this more Orthodox community.

And since its inception four months ago, the drop-in centre for users and their families has been very busy. Rabbi Sufrin said that frum parents went to the Hendon drop-in "very often tearing hair out, not knowing what to do with their kids in the house".

He said: "Last night, parents came to me about their 18-year-old who was living at home, never going out, just taking drugs, sleeping, eating and watching TV. They came in desperation.

"We started analysing what was going on. The father said I had given him the chizuk (encouragement) to face the challenge."

Rabbi Sufrin, whose Drugsline provided education last year for 47,000 pupils in mainly non-Jewish secondary schools, said: "We are not teaching chassidut. But we have to teach people how to manage this world rather than shy away from it.

"We do not just show what drugs are and what they do, but we deal with issues like peer pressure, expressing oneself, knowing who you are and making sure you do know how to say No, building the resource to tackle the problems."

He continued: "Only slowly are we getting into Jewish schools.

"Now we have started going into religious schools. We are making inroads, taming down the material and the language to the particular school and child.

"Every school is different. We go into the roughest schools. Ours is a unique service because it set up by Orthodox rabbis, but it is non-denominational, offering a broad range of services from drop-ins and education to counselling.

"We are open unsocial hours. When other agencies finish at 5pm and are not open at weekends, we are there. Other agencies can't make any inroads into the Jewish community."

Four years ago, the government asked Drugsline to work with the Muslim community.

Rabbi Sufrin said: "We have the same issues of shame and shidduchim and have lots of experience."

Drugsline drop-ins also hold weekly fellowship meetings for Cocaine Anonymous and Families Anonymous in North-East London where there are mixed Jewish are non-Jewish members.

Last year, Rabbi Sufrin gained an MBE for his drugs work. So why do kids, especially those from Orthodox families turn to drugs?

Rabbi Sufrin cited several reasons. Lack of self esteem, he said, was often a factor, especially in some Jewish boys' schools.

He said: "If they're expected to study Talmud and other Judaic studies and they find they are not fitting the bill or if they are asking questions in an environment which is all-accepting, these issues can be a major challenge for the staff.

"I have to be careful about making general statements about Jewish schools. But it is much easier for the school to push them out than to try to address the issues which may include drugs, gambling or alcohol to which they have resorted if they find they are not achieving, not fitting in.

"If they go somewhere else there will be further negative influences." Another factor, he said, could be their home environment if there was a breakdown in communication between the parents or between the parents and children.

In extreme circumstances frum drug users may have to go into rehabilitation. Rabbi Sufrin said: "There are no Jewish facilities in this country.

"But it's like an emergency operation. Our first concern for the users is not kashrut, because drug addicts of this level are usually no longer observant.

"But there is a void when they are taken out of their culture.

"Therefore we try to prevent crises. That is why if someone comes for help for only cannabis, for us it is still an issue."

Rabbi Sufrin said that a measure of Drugsline's success was the number of their volunteers who were first introduced to the service when they themselves phoned their crisis line.One of their success stories was the father of a boy whose barmitzvah Rabbi Sufrin recently attended.

He said: "The father was a serious drug addict, who divorced after his addiction destroyed his marriage. But he has now been in recovery for six years and has brought his life and his family back together. Before the barmitzvah he got together with the mother.

"They are not fighting each other for the sake of children, who now have two homes."

Rabbi Sufrin said: "I take my hat off to him. It takes tremendous strength to go from slavery to freedom on a daily basis."

For he emphasised that former addicts were always at risk. He said: "They always have to continually work on themselves. That is why if we can prevent addiction, we do everything we can."

Rabbi Sufrin would like to expand Drugsline outside London, aware that there are similar issues in the Jewish communities of Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham.

But because of funding shortages he has to be sure in advance that the service will work. He has already met involved agencies in Manchester Jewry and is prepared to train personnel if a local framework is set up.

Rabbi Sufrin has strong Manchester links. His late grandfather was Manchester Yeshiva secretary Leonti Sufrin. His late father, Aron Dov Sufrin, ran businesses in Manchester and Gateshead before he moved to London's Stamford Hill on his marriage to Dublin-born Hennie Sufrin (nee Woolfson), who died last year.

Drugsline can be contacted on 0808 1606 606.

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph