Lucky To Be Alive
03/29/02
Staff Writer
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‘If I got what I deserved, I’d be dead.” With those words, a 21-year-old who just graduated from the Yatzkan Center, a 10-month residential drug treatment program in Amityville, L.I., told a group of 35 Jewish teenagers how drugs had destroyed the past seven years of his life. “Now I have to spend the next two years trying to get back to where I should have been,” he told the group. “I’m lucky; I can’t tell you how many of my friends have died.” His 15-minute talk, and another by a 16-year-old in the Yatzkan program, captivated participants at a weekend kinnus, or gathering, of United Synagogue Youth’s Rakevet division, which covers Suffolk County and eastern Nassau. Esther Oppenheimer, a counselor at Yatzkan, believed to be the nation’s only drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for Jewish youth, said it was the first time since the center opened a year ago that its residents had spoken to a group of Jewish teens. She told the USY group that drugs are a “huge problem in the Jewish community” and that her 70-bed center is for those “with such a huge problem that they have to live there” to kick it. Both speakers asked that their names and pictures not be used, but they spoke freely about being hooked on drugs. Both stressed that they had not come to the Manetto Hill Jewish Center in Plainview “to preach”; their stories spoke for themselves. “I’m going to tell you how just a one-time use [of marijuana and alcohol] led me to inpatient rehabilitation,” said Jake, the 21-year-old who wore a black kipa, in his at times animated presentation. “Before I knew it, I was selling it [marijuana] because I did not want others smoking my weed.” He drank regularly and lived by the motto: “If you’re too drunk to walk, drive.” One day he drove off a cliff. Miraculously, he and a friend in the car were unhurt and the car received only a dent. “All I wanted was to party and have fun,” Jake said. His parents sent him to a yeshiva in Israel to escape the drugs, but Jake said he found it expensive to live there and soon began dealing in drugs, which led him into credit card fraud. And when he became involved with the Russian mob and tried to pay them with counterfeit bills, they nearly cut off his left arm. He rolled up his sleeve to show a large scar. But that didn’t faze him, Jake said, and he began using LSD and selling Ecstasy. “I had pockets full of cash,” he recalled, “but every single night I cried. I was living a lifestyle that I knew was not going to get me anywhere. I can’t tell you how many times I said, ‘God just help me get through this and I will be good.’ And as soon as I recovered, I was back out there partying.” Jake said he would regularly wake up after a night of drinking and not know what he did the night before. “It’s insane, man,” he said. “It might sound like so much fun …[but] I hated myself for so long. The reason I was doing it was because I was running from myself.” The other speaker, Eric, told of being sent to a military school at the age of 10 because of behavioral problems, and about being beaten constantly there. “They taught me discipline by hitting me,” he explained. To celebrate his 11th birthday, his friends introduced him to marijuana. He quickly became hooked. “I got high because I couldn’t deal with what was going on,” he said. “Eventually I couldn’t get high on it anymore and so at age 12 I started drinking. At first, one or two beers got me smashed. Then I needed a six-pack. They almost threw me out of military school.” Eventually he was, and was then sent to public school, where he said he “tried to get good grades.” “But it didn’t work,” Eric said, “and I realized that if I smoke and drink, I can’t understand what the teacher is saying.” By 14 he was using cocaine, which caused him to lose so much weight that he was nothing more than “skin and bones.” Eric said at 15 he bought a gun, got high and “started shooting at people.” He was arrested and spent a month in a psychiatric ward. He returned to the street to “steal cars and sell drugs.” “I didn’t care,” he admitted. It was only after he was arrested again and given a choice of the drug rehabilitation program or jail that he was able to “change my whole life around,” Eric said. He has been allowed to go home for Passover, and his parents have bought him a car and lined up a job when he graduates from the Yatzkan program next month. “It’s a disease of attitude and behavior,” he said of drugs. “This place I can honestly say saved my life. I don’t know how to thank them enough for what they have done for me. … This place is more about loving concern than discipline. I had discipline all my life.” Eric said Yatzkan had taught him “how to love myself” and that it’s “possible to have fun without drugs.” Michael Muntner of Mount Sinai, L.I., president of the Rakevet division, said it was the first time such a program had been presented to this group and that he would recommend it to other USY groups. “Everyone has done some sort of drugs,” he said. “This program definitely made an impression. You can’t walk away without having felt changed.” A number of the teens acknowledged after the meeting that drugs are a major problem in the Jewish community. Two day-school students said drug use is rampant in the 10th and 12th grade of their school, and parents and school administrators are trying to deal with it. A 17-year-old from Valley Stream said many of her friends had been in “bad drug situations.” “I’ve experimented a lot myself with alcohol and once with Ecstasy,” she said. “That was really bad. I got really sick from it and never want to do that again.” She said she doesn’t drink to get drunk but that she has passed out “five or six times” from drinking to excess. Nevertheless, she said: “I don’t think I drink to the point where it’s a problem. I could go forever without another drink. I haven’t had one for two months.”

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