The Koran in the Synagogue: When Jews and Muslims Fight Together for Recovery

By Rabbi Eitan Eckstein 04/12/19

When people are hurting and struggling with addiction, the normal barriers that separate us fall away, and we are able to connect on a very deep, human level.

Youths at Retorno, Jews and Muslims in recovery together
Together at Retorno PC: Shoshana

The tension along the border of Israel and Gaza has almost become old news. Every day we hear about more rockets fired and ceasefires that never seem to last. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been an ongoing struggle with seemingly no end in sight. Each side has their own view that will not be altered. Palestinian and Israeli people fighting each other for more than one hundred years.

But in Givat Shemesh, a small village in the hills of central Israel, we see a different battle going on. A very real struggle of life and death that has nothing to do with nationalism, religion, or land. A struggle in which people of differing backgrounds and faiths share and fight together, side by side.

Retorno, an addiction prevention and rehab center based on Jewish values, is a strictly kosher facility with daily prayer services, Torah learning, and Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) observance. At the same time, the treatment center welcomes all nationalities and religions. Anyone dealing with addiction receives the help they need with openness and respect for all belief systems.

Although Retorno’s goals have nothing to do with peaceful coexistence, the rehab center has become a place where Jewish and Muslim people can interact in a safe and accepting environment. When a person is struggling with a serious addiction, the struggle to hold onto life is very real. This camaraderie of struggle offers an opportunity for the opposing groups to get to know each other and interact on a human level. They understand that underneath everything, we are all essentially the same people with the same needs and fears. In order to heal, we all require connections with others. In order to grow, we all struggle with the same fears and weaknesses.

A few years ago a judge called me and asked me if our center accepts religious youth. I said, “Of course!” So he told me he would send me a nice, religious youth. A few days later a 16-year-old Muslim boy arrived. We welcomed him as we would any other client.

The boy did not have a Koran, so one of our counselors bought him one. The boy brought it into the synagogue; he prayed from his prayer book while everyone else prayed from their own. As his colleagues prayed the morning Shacharit prayer, he prayed the morning Fajr prayer. In the evening, the Islamic Maghrib prayer accompanied the Jewish Maariv prayer in our synagogue.

The boy went through the full treatment program at Retorno. Three months after he left the facility, the boy called me and said, “Rabbi Eckstein, you will be happy to know that I am well and have started to go with my father on Fridays to the Mosque.”

From Addict to Counselor

There are many reasons why a person in recovery makes a good rehab counselor. They have firsthand experience of what it’s like to struggle with addiction and how hard it is to recover. Put simply, they can relate on a level that only one who has traveled the same path can. This type of empathy and understanding is extremely valuable in addiction treatment.

This is how we met Yusef, an Israeli Arab who first came to us for treatment and then returned to work as a counselor. Yusef is an exceptional human being. He also holds special assets that are unique to his background. For example, Yusef had not been raised in a religious family and for this reason, many of our Jewish youth who grew up in strict religious homes felt comfortable opening up to him. They knew he would not intimidate or judge them. Over the years, Yusef has participated in the recovery of many young Israelis.

A Dangerous Situation

Just before Shabbat, I received a call from a panicked counselor. “It’s close to Shabbat and I want to let you know what’s going on. It’s Miriam, she’s sitting on the ground with a sharp piece of glass and she won’t listen to any of us. If anyone gets close, she threatens to cut herself, and has already cut herself. Each time she cuts deeper. It’s a very dangerous situation.”

I told her I would send an expert. I sent Yusef.

After Shabbat, the counselor called me to relate what had happened.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “Yusef got close to her, sat down, rolled up his sleeve, and said, ‘Listen, I know you have all the best reasons in the world to cut yourself. I’m sure you've gone through some terrible ordeals. I have, too. Listen to me. I’m not telling you not to cut. But every time you cut yourself, cut me as well.”

Within a few minutes, she handed him the glass, and the two went off to have a cup of tea together. “I’ve never seen anything like it!” she repeated.

Touring Together

I travel and lecture all over Israel about addiction and prevention. I always bring an alumnus with me to tell his own story of recovery. During one of these trips, I brought one of our Arab counselors, Amin, along. Since he has a driver’s license that allows access to the Arab territories, he drove and I dozed in the passenger seat.

At some point, I felt Amin shaking my shoulder.

“Rabbi, Rabbi, wake up!” I sat up to find us surrounded by several IDF soldiers, all pointing rifles at his head. It seems they thought an Arab had abducted a rabbi and was trying to take him to his village. It took some convincing, but they finally believed that Amin and I were working together and that he was helping me on a mission to give a prevention lecture in Beit-El.

The Rebellion

I remember we had an Arab youth counselor during the Intifada. During this time, even at Retorno, there were heightened levels of distrust and anger due to the increased violence in Israel. At some point, some of the youth in treatment held a rebellion. They insisted they would not tolerate working with an Arab. I will not have hostilities among my clients and counselors. Retorno is a place of healing and connection no matter what your background, religion, or national affiliation.

I spoke to the youth in recovery and related a personal story to them.

“Around 50 years ago when my parents were living in the U.S., my mother had a catheter placed in her foot. Subsequently, her vein collapsed and the doctor told her she needed to have an amputation. My father adamantly refused and sought additional help. He found another doctor, this one a world-renowned transplant surgeon from Israel. He agreed to treat my mother, and by inserting an artificial vein in her leg, saved her from amputation.

“This is a nice story, but it gets better. When my father went to settle the bill, the doctor would not accept payment. He considered my father a colleague since he was also considered a doctor (not a medical doctor but a PhD) and what’s more, they were both Israeli. But the doctor was not Jewish, he was an Israeli Arab from Lebanon.”

I looked at the faces of my rebelling youth.

“It was an Arab that saved my mother. If any of you want to leave because we have Arabs at Retorno you are welcome to leave now, the door is open.”

No one left.

Our struggles as a nation do not impact our healing at Retorno. When people are hurting and struggling with addiction, the normal barriers that separate us fall away, and we are able to connect on a very deep, human level. In a center for addiction, it is essential that clients feel they are in a safe, welcoming space. When this happens, we all learn something about ourselves and each other. Any organization that accepts all equally is a force for good in this world. 

Together at Retorno (PC: Shoshana)

Rabbi Eitan Eckstein is the CEO and Founder of Retorno, the largest Jewish organization in the world for the prevention and treatment of addictions.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix