Clockwise from the top left: Tanja Demajo, Shelley Karrel, Amanda Haymond Malul and Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman participate in a JACS Vancouver panel discussion Oct. 15.
“When someone comes through the door and says, ‘I’m an addict. I’m a recovering addict,’ do they feel judged or do they feel accepted? Do they feel that we are putting them in a box, giving them a label?” asked Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman in a recent community discussion. “We have to identify the illness, there’s no question about that. But, is that the only way to view a human being? I think to respect every human being for their humanity, that’s what people are really craving – respect and love.”
Baitelman, director of Chabad Richmond, was one of three panelists on the topic Building Safe and Inclusive Spaces for Those Affected by Addiction and Mental Illness. He was joined by Tanja Demajo, chief executive officer of Jewish Family Services (JFS), and Amanda Haymond Malul, a community member in recovery, in the Oct. 15 event presented by Jewish Addiction Community Services (JACS) Vancouver. JACS Vancouver’s Shelley Karrel moderated the conversation.
Haymond Malul would like to see more community discussions on addiction and people being taught acceptance. She spoke of the need to “have support from the religious leaders of the community, from every single agency in the community, to start talking about it – make it acceptable, educate.” (See jewishindependent.ca/help-repair-the-world.)
And we need to ensure that what we are teaching is in line with our actions, said Demajo. “If we talk to children about acceptance, but we don’t actually practise that, that’s creating double standards where we talk about certain things, but that’s not what people experience,” she said. This could be damaging, she said, to people who “really need that support and want to trust.”
We must see each member of the community as a human being, said Baitelman. Love is important, but, he said, “Love is on my terms, respect is on your terms. If I love you, it’s more a reflection of who I am. But, if I respect you, it’s more of a reflection of how I see you, what you are about – and I think that’s really important. Respect the humanity. If you can love them, that’s even greater. But respect is more fundamental.”
When Karrel asked panelists for tangible ways in which people could be more accepting and inclusive, with love and respect, Demajo said agencies are overwhelmed with the number of people needing support. She said it is up to each of us to connect on a personal level with others, accepting that it will take time for them to trust us enough to share.
“You have to build a relationship, and a relationship is not built overnight,” said Demajo. “I had a client who I often think of, a person who spent a number of years [in the] Downtown Eastside being homeless, not having pretty much anything in his life…. He would come to see me … and we would speak about books, because he was a huge reader and I love reading. It took him six months until he really started talking about things that were going on in his life and what he actually needed, and we started working from there. Now, he has a regular life. He has a home. He brought his family back. He is working. So, things are in a place that he wanted … a number of years ago. Recovery is a process of being vulnerable and, so, if social services don’t have the time to invest in people, I think we are setting ourselves up for a really huge failure.”
All panelists agreed that having a drop-in centre with people who understand is absolutely essential and that, while professional support would be ideal, it is not essential. To be kind, respectful and loving, you do not need to be a professional, they said.
While there are recovery clubs in the general community, Haymond Malul said it would be great if there were also one in the Jewish community – “having a safe place for people to come and be able to drop in, and know that this is the Hillel House of Recovery,” she said.
However, having a community place might inhibit some people from coming out, due to fear of being exposed, warned Demajo. “The other piece is that I do feel that what Amanda has done tonight, speaking of her own experience and being in the community, and [talking about] some of the things that were helpful for her, is important to start with; having those opportunities to open up the conversation – not just for me, in a professional role, but from a personal place – because that is where the relationship happens. I do believe that is the core of whatever we come up with – the core is the relationship.”
Each of us is deserving of respect, regardless of our achievements, successes, failures or addictions, stressed Baitelman. “The fact that you were created by G-d makes you worthy of the highest form of respect and no judgment,” he said.
“Why would I not be involved with somebody who’s in recovery?” asked the rabbi. “After all, these people are accountable. They’re working on character development and are improving certain areas of their lives that they have the courage to acknowledge need to be corrected. They’re actively making amends with people around them. They are working on a conscious relationship with G-d rather than on other forms of success that society often judges success by. This is really an achievement.
“How many of us would like to change even one iota of our character, and people in recovery have changed more than one iota. They have made an incredible change, which is so admirable and should command respect. I think that’s part of the attitude that should be helpful in the broader community, and how we act with people, and the stigma.”
Karrel closed the discussion by giving a brief synopsis of JACS and its services. “We are working to diminish the stigma of addiction,” she told the Independent after the event. “Let’s keep this conversation going so we all feel we belong in our community.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.