Brian*, a recovering alcoholic, moved to Pittsburgh 15 years ago from the East Coast. After learning of the services provided to Jewish prisoners through the Aleph Institute in Squirrel Hill, Brian got permission from its executive director, Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, to host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at its building on Beacon Street.
A self-described “member of the Chabad community,” Brian sees a particular religious streak running through the ritual of the AA meeting and 12-step process.
“AA, to me, doesn’t have anything to do with drinking or not taking a drink,” Brian said. “It teaches you how to be honest, believe in a higher power, turn your will over to God. We take an accounting of ourselves and clean up the damage of our past. To me, it’s totally living the Torah.”
Brian, now 30 years sober and single, still struggles with addiction. On the Saturday that fell during Passover, in the midst of COVID-19 quarantines, he found it difficult to be alone — and almost broke Shabbat to pull out his computer and video chat with a sponsor.
If he had done that, he would not have been violating the Sabbath, according to Vogel.
Vogel cited the recent p’sak halacha (religious legal decision) from Harav Dovid Cohen, which allows certain individuals to use technology under particular guidelines in the event they need lifesaving mental health services.
Cohen told the Five Towns Jewish Times in New York that it is vital for people facing life threatening challenges to have continued access to those who provide them support, even on Shabbat and Yom Tov. With face-to-face contact prohibited at this juncture in order to limit the spread of COVID-19, the only way for those in crisis to get help is through digital means.
“It shows us how necessary these meetings are — we can’t be dismissive of them,” Vogel said. “We try to offer the support that’s necessary for these individuals. They should not feel alone.”
Vogel stressed it was difficult but necessary for the AA meetings at Aleph Institute to go to a video conferencing format because of social distancing mandates.
“It’s not the same as sitting in a room together but it’s a lot better than a phone call,” Brian said.
Neither man saw any particular trends in COVID-19-era attendance at AA meetings, though Brian said he noticed more alcohol consumption among colleagues and friends of his who do not attend AA meetings.
Karen Frank doesn’t battle addiction but a loved one close to her does. It was in the spirit of helping them that she started a regular Nar-Anon meeting at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills.
She said the Beth El meetings, which 17 people attended via video conference last week, are “exactly the same” as ones held in Christian congregations and settings.
“They do say ‘God,’ they use a serenity prayer. I personally wouldn’t mind it having a Jewish bent but there’s not another Jewish person in there,” said Frank, who lives in Mt. Lebanon.
Frank stressed, though, that the “higher power” in the meetings doesn’t have to be denominational.
Attendance at the Beth El sponsored meetings is up, Frank said, if only slightly, since COVID-19 stay-at-home orders went into effect in Pennsylvania. She attributed some of that to members who had moved outside of Pittsburgh and wanted to attend again. She said they are even considering bringing an iPad into future meetings when they start again in person.
“We all miss the meetings,” Frank said. “At the end of these meetings, you stand up and you hold hands — there’s something about being together.”
Beth El’s Rabbi Alex Greenbaum doesn’t run the Nar-Anon or Narcotics Anonymous meetings at his congregation, but he is very happy they take place there, especially in difficult times.
“The anxiety levels are much higher right now and help seems less available than it was before,” the rabbi said. “We worry now but I believe there is help.”
“Here’s the Jewish words of wisdom,” he laughed. “Historically, we’ve seen worse.” PJC
*Brian’s last name has been withheld to protect his privacy.
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.