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Sober Birthright for Recovering Jewish Addicts

A NYC-based non-profit sponsors sober heritage trips to Israel for young Jews in recovery.

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Birthright doesn't have to be boozy. Photo via

By McCarton Ackerman

01/04/13

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Birthright Israel is a non-profit that sponsors free trips to Israel for young Jewish adults (ages 18-26), and its reputation often includes plenty of drinking and partying in the promised land. But for young Jews in recovery, there's now an option to take part in a free trip to Israel that celebrates both Jewish heritage and sobriety. Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically dependent persons, and Significant others (JACS), which serves NYC and the surrounding areas, has been running sober Birthright trips twice a year since 2010. The 10-day tour is founded on 12-step principles, with daily meetings a part of the itinerary. And Israeli soldiers, who typically join Birthright trips to speak with participants, are asked to refrain from alcohol or drug use when they do. “We felt that Birthright tours were not sober and they did not feel safe, so we applied to Israel Free Spirit to do a 12-step tour,” says JACS program director Sharon Darack. Over 60 people applied to the initial sober trip, which was also open to people who couldn't drink due to illnesses. Applications have since soared and the program is now limited to people who are in recovery. “A lot of them are sober for the first time in years, even though they’re babies, really," says Darack. “They’re in their mid-20s, on average, and they’ve been active drug addicts or alcoholics since they were 12 or 13, some of them. And they’re clear now."

Most applicants are accepted. But JACS requires participants to have abstained from drugs and alcohol for at least three months (or have equivalent recovery time in programs for eating disorders, gambling or other addictions) before the trip start-date. "The sober birthright trip was an opportunity for me to experience Israel without having to worry about being temped to drink," Jessie, 29, tells The Fix. She went on the JACS trip when she had a year sober: "It was unlike anything that I could have imagined. I saw natural waterfalls, rode camels, and celebrated my birthday with a sunset meeting on the beach." Darack says most participants return with positive reviews. And Lisa Auerbach, a Brooklyn-based learning specialist who was a leader on the first trip, says some of her participants were even inspired to make aliyah and now live in Israel. JACS also holds educational meetings, as well as retreats for recovering addicts—all of which are designed to end the myth among the Jewish community that Jews do not have issues with substance abuse. “Jews don’t want to air our laundry in public,” says Darack. “We want to keep it in house, to sweep it under the rug, and then say that it doesn’t happen here. We have to explain that it’s okay to speak out and get help. People are so ashamed."

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