(lubavitch.com) Next Wednesday, 100 recovering addicts will celebrate the holiday of freedom in Boca Raton, Florida. Like Jews everywhere, they’ll raise their glasses four times in the course of the evening.
Unlike most others, the glasses will not contain wine: at the “Sober Seder” only grape juice will be served.
In the Recovery Capital of America, finding an AA meeting is not hard (there are 190 in Boca Raton and neighboring Delray Beach). Fortunately enough for Jewish addicts, finding one in conjunction with a Shabbat dinner or Pesach seder is also easy.
Rabbi Meir Kessler moved to this Florida city 40 miles north of Miami, in 2005. When he realized that many of his neighbors were struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, Kessler decided to devote his efforts to their recovery. As a chaplain for the Renaissance Institute of Palm Beach, Kessler is able to assist Jewish addicts from around the world, who have come to Boca Raton specifically for this purpose.
His Jewish Recovery Center hosts three AA meetings a week, including a popular Friday night dinner for 80; operates two recovery homes for “highly motivated” male and female addicts who have completed rehab; and refers people to appropriate emergency treatment and counseling.
But it is on Passover, the holiday of freedom, when JRC’s premise is fully recognized.
“The seder has a whole different meaning for a recovering addict who is trying to leave his own personal Egypt,” explains Kessler.
With compulsions towards drugs, alcohol, food, or gambling, these addicts focus on “freeing themselves from the bondage of self.” Guests go around the seder table sharing stories of their personal “exodus.” Though the stories can be inspiring, there is sadness present as well.
“People who come to us are often very hurt and in a lot of pain,” Kessler says. “They are hurting because they cannot be with their family during the holiday. We tell them that being separated this year will enable them to be together with family in years to come.
“At the end of the night,” he continues, “the addicts tell me how powerful it is that they are not alone. They are not having this ‘freedom’ discussion in a church basement, but at a Pesach seder with fellow Jews.”
Andrew S. who has been involved with the Center since 2007, told Lubavitch.com that to him, “Freedom means having the ability to make choices—in my case, to choose not to pick up a drink. I can choose to be of service to someone else instead of being enslaved to the need to serve my own addiction.”
The last of AA’s 12 steps instructs a recovering addict to give back to others, and today the Montreal native serves as the resident manager of the JRC’s recovery house for men. In that position, he “maintains the house and its integrity, making sure that it remains a safe, supportive, and sober community.”
“Last year’s seder was wonderful,” reminisces Andrew. “The rabbi tied in a lot of the story of Passover with what we are going through in recovery. He drew many parallels between the bondage of an alcoholic and that of an enslaved man.”
“One aspect we discussed at length was the idea that matzah represents humility,” explains Kessler. “That is a big portion of recovery. We also explored how ‘Kadesh’ [the first part of the Seder when Kiddush is recited] means holy. We are all infinitely holy. One can’t use the excuse that he is a bad person and can therefore do bad things. We are holy—anything we do is secondary to that.”
No wine is served at this unique seder (or ever on the Kessler’s Shabbat table), so as not to “tempt or trigger people.” Kessler encourages everyone to serve a bottle of grape juice at their seder, as an alternative for those who can’t or won’t drink.
“At a family seder there is a lot of pressure to drink wine and when it is in front of me, I really wish I could,” Andrew reveals. “But when we are here, all together, we are all in the same boat.
“Before we shared a common problem, we now share a common solution.”
Sharon Carter is a certified alcoholism counselor and volunteers for JRC, answering the Kessler’s clinical questions. She believes that the “enriched Jewish environment” allows recovering addicts to be part of a “safe and supportive community.” The Kesslers, she says, “have worked very hard to understand what is helpful and loving” for someone in early recovery. Tough love, agrees the now-veteran rabbi, was his hardest lesson.
“I am really looking forward to the Sober Seder,” states Carter. This is her first year attending, and she hopes to gain a “deeper understanding of Passover, especially as it relates to our struggles with addiction.”
“Pesach,” she says, “is a very significant holiday for the recovering addict. It is all about our personal exodus.”
Here are more of Chabad's Sober Seders:
Los Angeles, CA: 3rd Annual Sober Seder
Join us for a night of recovery – the journey of our people!
Thursday April 9, 2009 – 8pm at the Westside JCC
5870 West Olympic Blvd
For more information or to RSVP call Chabad on Olympic 323-965-1111 or visit ChabadOnOlympic.com
Boca Raton, FL
Join us as we journey together on a spiritual exodus from personal limitations!
Wednesday April 8, 2009 – 8pm at Chabad of Boca Raton
17950 Military Trail
For more information or to RSVP call the Jewish Recovery Center 561-450-5503 or visit SoberJew.com
New York, NY Join us for a spectacular evening as we celebrate our festival of freedom!
Thursday April 9, 2009 – 8:30pm at the Chabad Loft,
182 5th Ave. between 22 & 23 streets
For more information or to RSVP call Chabad Loft 212-627-3270 or visit ChabadLoft.com
6th Annual Sober Seder
Serving the Jewish patients at Caron Foundation and all recovering addicts!
Wednesday April 8, 2009 – 7:30pm
at Chabad House 2320 Hampden Blvd.
For more information or to RSVP call Chabad-Lubavitch of Berks County 610-334-3218 or visit l-chaim.org
This Passover you will know a new freedom!
Wednesday April 8, 2009 – 8:30pm at Chabad Queen Mary
4941 Queen Mary Road
For more information or to RSVP call Chabad Project Pride 514-485-5121