How Faith Leaders Are Planning to Disrupt the Opioid Epidemic

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Blue Sky

Rabbi Schusterman used to view addiction as a "moral failure," and he admits that his opinions were manipulated by stigma. Now he sees the opportunity to completely change the narrative, and he's leading a movement among faith leaders to dismantle that stigma. Alongside Chris Thrasher from the Clinton Foundation, Rabbi Schusterman sits down with host William C. Moyers to discuss: How can faith leaders interrupt the opioid epidemic, where does hope come in and what does "hope" really mean?

So much of my education has not happened in the ivory towers in our great country, but rather in the basements of churches, mosques, and synagogues.

Chris Thrasher

0:00:13 William Moyers
Here we are again! A new season for Let's Talk. The ever-engaging and more popular than ever podcast series produced for you by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. I'm your host, William C. Moyers, welcome and thanks for tuning in. From Africa and the Caribbean, to inner cities and bucolic farmlands across the United States, the Clinton Foundation is renowned for its efforts and its results to help people and thus make their communities better and healthier places to live for everyone. Founded by President Bill Clinton and championed by his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their daughter Chelsea, the Foundation's mission includes public health and wellness. Substance use disorders, specifically the scourge of opioids, is a priority for the Clinton Foundation. And finding partners in the faith community is one way they are bolstering this effort. Today we're joined by Chris Thrasher, the Senior Director of Substance Use Disorders and Recovery at the Clinton Foundation. And Rabbi Eli-Ahu Schusterman, a faith leader in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome to both of you for joining us today. And Chris, I'll start with you by asking how was it that the Clinton Foundation identified the faith community as a critical partner in addressing substance use disorders?

0:01:35 Chris Thrasher
Well thank you William for having us here today. Very much appreciated. You know, William, individuals often turn to their faith leaders in times of crisis. We know this. I often tell faith leaders, you know, you are actually in what I would say are long-term relationships with many of your congregants, which really enables you to, you know, detect signs of distress. But only if these faith leaders really feel confident and capable to do so. You know there's a real hesitation for people to seek help. But it's important for our faith leaders to take the initiative and begin the dialogue, you know when and where possible because of the central role that they play within their communities. But all too often what we hear from our faith leaders is they lack a language from the pulpit and beyond. You know, as faith leaders, I think they have this really unique ability to help to foster change and shape and influence and inform the attitudes that so often contribute to inequities. Changing the mindset we know that addiction is not a moral failing but rather a treatable disease is gonna be key to fighting and beating this epidemic and we believe that it is our faith-based community and our faith leaders because of their ability to educate, to motivate, to mobilize, is gonna be the real difference maker in addressing this epidemic that is just killing so many people every year.

0:03:06 William Moyers
And here we have Rabbi Schusterman in Atlanta, on the ground, helping to lead the charge. Rabbi, I've gotta ask you, what's your personal connection, where does your passion come from, for this issue around addiction and recovery?

0:03:18 Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman
Well thank you William, I too am honored to be here with you today. My passion comes from a couple of things. Some is—some of it is philosophical. And some of it is circumstantial. So the philosophical is as Chris presented for so many, I too saw addiction as a moral failing. Until I had the good fortune of being present as a Rabbi—Rabbi Taub. Rabbi Chaise Taub was very involved in the recovery community. Was presenting to a foundation here in Atlanta. And I—suddenly the light went on for me. Where, as he presented what is the journey of the addict into recovery, and presented it as a spiritual—a spiritual salvation, it's a spiritual yearning. That the addict kind of surrenders to and then finds a path in life through. It suddenly connected with me. Because in the teachings that I was raised with, the philosophical mystical teachings of Chabad philosophy—it's a mystical slant within Judaism—we're all about the spiritual connection as a means for navigating life and uncovering what the inner journey is within each of our lives. That combined with a circumstance that we had a young man who started attending our prayer services and classes and became very involved over a two-year period. And then, unfortunately, was found having had a relapse and an overdose and we were obviously involved in burying him and so on. And what was so jarring about that was that here was a guy who did not share with us that he was in recovery. Because he felt the stigma of community, even though his life was essentially in danger by maintaining that stigma. And his parents generously made a significant contribution to our then-building campaign. To help get our—to dedicate a space called Jeff's Place, which is focused on bringing awareness and programs around recovery to the Jewish community. So these—the combination of these two things has just really been such an honor and a privilege and an opportunity. And I've discovered the tremendous, tremendous need which I was not—wasn't conscious of before. The tremendous need that exists in the Jewish community. And I'm honored to be helping minimize that stigma just by virtue of doing the programming that we're doing.

0:05:56 William Moyers
I wanna come back to that tremendous need and some of the things you're doing. But let me just ask Chris first, in general Chris or in the larger community of people of all faiths and even those who have no faith, what is it that people with substance use disorder need the most?

0:06:13 Chris Thrasher
It's a great question, William. And I guess I would answer it by saying hope. You know? And for a moment let me just take a second to define hope. Because I think that, you know, hope is one of those things that's ever elusive. We say it as if there's almost a universal definition. But as a person in long-term recovery myself, with about ten or eleven years into recovery, I sat down one day 'cause I had been hearing "hope" so often thrown around that I said what does hope really mean to me? This is twenty years ago now. At this time. And I will tell you that my sort of definition of hope has not changed over the years. Because I took hope and I made it an acronym. And the H stands for Health. And that can be physical health, mental health, spiritual health, but it's all aspects of health. Total health and well-being. We know that substance use disorders is a physical, mental, and spiritual disease. And as such, we really need to treat it from that aspect. The O is for Opportunities. You know William since I've been in recovery some 31 years now, I have had so many opportunities. For instance, going from being a high school dropout to going on for my doctorate. I mean these are all opportunities that I've had. My grandma used to say, 'Chris, God'll move mountains for you but you have to bring the shovel.' So it's not come with a lot of hard work—without a lot of hard work—but I've been able to live my dreams. The P is for Power. As in, Higher Power. Or to empower oneself. And finally, the E is for Education. So Health, Opportunity, Power, and Education. And let me tell you something William, so much of my education has not happened in the ivory towers in our great country, but rather in the basements of churches, mosques, and synagogues as I attend Twelve Step meetings and listen to other people share their hope, their strength, and their experience with me and others.

0:08:02 William Moyers
Thank you for sharing that, Chris. Rabbi Schusterman, so how is hope going to manifest itself in the organization. We talked off-camera about the 501c3 that you're starting there in Atlanta—how is hope going to manifest itself for people who are struggling and families as well?

0:08:19 Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman
Well let's start with why people don't have hope. People don't have hope because there's stigma. And because there's stigma, they don't know that there's help available. All they know is what the impression they have that someone thinks they're, you know, they're unworthy, someone thinks they're a degenerate. Someone thinks they're a perpetual failure. And they don't know that you can be in the gutter and pick yourself up and make a life for yourself. They don't know that they can actually escape the addiction. They don't know that there are normal people, quote unquote, that are in the media and in politics and in every field that are in recovery for ten, twenty, thirty, fifty years. They just don't know that. So, what's really magical is that when in any, again, any minority community, when there's an organization like ours that says, 'We host Twelve Step meetings.' If we did nothing else but publicize that we host Twelve Step meetings, that alone—the person sitting there struggling with the addiction says wait, why is Chabad Intown hosting a Twelve Step meeting? It must mean that this is an okay thing, it's normal! And that is the beginning of the process that helps eliminate the stigma. And I can't tell you how many people have reached out to me from other Jewish organizations and synagogues and Chabad centers throughout the United States asking what are you doing, what's this all about? So, I think the magic takes place right there.

0:09:51 Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman
Now, once you get into the meat of it, whether it's the Twelve Step program itself, which is filled with hope, to the contribution that I believe every—or many—religious faiths have to contribute to that and I know for sure from a Jewish standpoint and a Chabad philosophical standpoint, the richness and meaning about who we are as people and our purpose on this earth and connection with other people and the journey through struggle and the relationship that we can have with God or a Higher Power, all of that if you just dip your toe into it, it becomes a tremendous resource for encouragement and hope and empowerment and really can move us forward.

0:10:34 William Moyers
Rabbi, let me stick with you just for a second and follow up and ask you: when you were training to be a Rabbi, when you were being raised in the Jewish faith, did you ever—did you get any formal education or training around substance use disorders and what to do about 'em?

0:10:50 Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman
Not—not a drop. [Moyers shakes head] And I would say further that probably the biggest education that I got was through the work that I had the good fortune of being able to participate in with the opioid crisis with the Clinton Foundation. In my own way, it's—not in Chris's journey—but in my own journey, being able to just even these last few years navigating the recovery community, I've learned so much. And the opportunity that I've had to dig in. I mean I have two study sessions each week on the Twelve Steps, plus I teach a class now on the Twelve Steps, from a Jewish standpoint. So, you know, it's just—it's just investing in it like anything else that the information is available. You just—it's like the E, it's the Education, and it's available. You just gotta invest in it.

0:11:40 Chris Thrasher
But William, let me just add something because the Rabbi's being quite humble here. I have to tell you that you know this is a program that we call empowering faith leaders. This is about leadership. And the Rabbi is one of our greatest leaders in this movement. We've been all over the country training faith leaders. But let me talk for a moment about leadership. Because leadership responds to opportunities. To challenges. And to crises. Leadership is a team sport. And we know that. We know that it's a team sport. It's not position-dependent, you know? It happens to be faith leaders that we work with, but we know that, you know, so often it is the folks that are working behind the scenes in our mosques, our synagogues, and our churches that get the job done. But effective leadership, William, it can transform individual lives, it can transform communities, but it's like a relay race. You have to know when to pass the baton. Because we believe that leadership is too important to leave its emergence to chance alone. So we train faith leaders, and I have to tell you, the Rabbi has done things in our community here in Atlanta that has transformed the community well beyond Judaism. I mean this has opened doors. And I just wanna make sure that you all know that there are certain faith leaders that come across our path throughout these trainings that really stand out. And Rabbi Schusterman has been one of those for us. So we're so grateful for partnerships like the one that we have with Chabad Intown.

0:13:13 William Moyers
Rabbi, are you encountering any resistance to your efforts? [grins]

0:13:19 Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman
I can't say—no, I don't—I think our world has evolved. There's an openness in a general sense that people recognize that there's a need for this. But resistance and people lining up are two different things. And I don't think people are entirely lining up yet. Because there still is too much stigma. And there's not enough education around it. So, I think we're beginning to make inroads and I think it's you know kind of like in so many other areas of life, the world is evolving. We have as the world becomes a more global world, we are prepared to look at things that perhaps we just kinda stereotyped before. So I think—and again, any community, any ethnic community, any minority community, is going to do that. They will eventually get on board but it takes longer. [Moyers nods] And so, again, it's not resistance but people aren't necessarily lining up. But we're beginning to make inroads.

0:14:22 William Moyers
It's called progress, not perfection, and it's called about building momentum.

0:14:26 Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman

0:14:27 William Moyers
Chris, I wanna—we need to close here but I've heard you speak before, I've admired so much your efforts through the Clinton Foundation and the fact that you got the recovery piece of your title included in your title! So that you could help to emphasize to the Clinton Foundation and your partners out in the communities that yes, we wanna focus on the problem, but we also wanna focus on the solution. So you got the title "recovery" in your professional role. But Chris, I've also heard you talk about that one plus one plus one—could we—we need to end but could you talk a little bit about what you mean by that? And the dynamic as it manifests itself in partnering with groups like the Rabbi's?

0:15:06 Chris Thrasher
Sure. Well, you know, together we're stronger, right? And so we believe that partnerships are key. Collaboration is absolutely key to our success. And so, when we say one plus one plus one is far greater than three, that's exactly what it means. So we've worked with our faith leaders to partner, to do this together. Because if we really thought that we had to do this on our own, you know, I think it would be completely overwhelming. You know it reminds me of a poem that Benjamin Elijah Mays penned. And it says that 'it must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn't lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled but it is a calamity not to dream. It's not a disaster to be able to capture your ideal but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It's not a disgrace not to reach the stars but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for.' And in the final analysis, he said that 'not failure, but low aim, is sin.' And that's what recovery is about. Recovery is about beyond your wildest dreams anything can happen. And it is the faith-based community that will help to get us there.

0:16:27 William Moyers
Chris Thrasher, Rabbi Schusterman, thank you so much for taking the time to share not just your experience, strength, and hope, but the reality that change is possible and that you're making it through the Clinton Foundation. And through your good work there in Atlanta, Rabbi. Thank you both for joining us today.

0:16:44 Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman
[nods] Thank you.

0:16:44 Chris Thrasher
Thank you for having us.

0:16:46 William Moyers
[to camera] Please join us for another edition of Let's Talk, and make sure to tell your family and friends, your colleagues, and fellow travelers, to check out our podcast too. On behalf of our Executive Producer, Lisa Stangl, and the crew at Blue Moon Productions, we urge you to stay safe, stay together, and build healthier, wholesome, and happier tomorrows one day and one life at a time. Take good care.

Want to learn more? Select a Tag to explore a particular topic or browse articles.