407-645-5933 ext. 236 marisa.west@shalomorlando.org

Last night, I sat in the JCC auditorium as we held our first hybrid program.  Approximately 30 people joined in person while many more joined us on Zoom for our community’s B’riut program on Substance Abuse in the Jewish community.  This is truly a community program as nearly every Jewish organization, agency, and synagogue has agreed this is important and to be a part of the effort.   It felt so good to be in a room with other people and to hear talking and interaction.  I hadn’t realized how much I had really missed it.


As we listened to the speakers on the panel speak, it was incredibly moving.  Ashlynn Douglas-Barnes, the Clinical Director of Jewish Family Services (JFS) was our moderator and has also been a key driving leader in the creation of B’riut.  If you ever need a place to start with questions or addressing substance use disorder and needing to know what to do next, she and JFS are the place to begin.


Sheriff Leema from Seminole County was our first speaker.  It was truly incredible as he explained the data about addiction, the changes that have created the current crisis, and the impact he has seen in Seminole County.  There were more than 100 accidental overdose deaths pre-Covid and during Covid that spiked by 37%!   His officers now carry Narcan to help save lives.  Listen to a well-educated senior law enforcement officer talk about a totally different approach to public safety was inspiring.   Hearing him talk about how it isn’t about criminal charges but about helping sick people get well was refreshing.   In a time when law enforcement faces incredible criticism, this was another example to me about how lucky we are in Central Florida to have the law enforcement leadership we do.


Michal Osteen spoke next.  Her personal tragedy of losing her son Ari to an accidental overdose has been public and she has devoted her life to ensuring no other family has to endure this tragedy.  Between Sheriff Leema and Michal, it was made abundantly clear that fentanyl is now in every type of substance and it’s impossible for the person using to know if there is fentanyl in it or not.  When asked about ‘how people could find safe drugs from having been cut with fentanyl’, Sheriff Leema put it best when he said, “Safe drugs are called medicine.  Otherwise, there are no safe drugs.”


Our third speaker, Dr. Biff Kramer, has been in recovery from addiction for 40 years and has been a leader in creating the model that encourages impaired medical professionals to seek help without risk of automatically losing their medical license.  I was deeply saddened when talked about how 40 years ago when he went to treatment in Atlanta and along with a handful of other Jews in the program, they reached out to the Jewish community to get support and were turned away.  Hearing his gratitude that the Jewish community is doing the opposite right now was heartwarming and highlighted just how important this work in our community, by our community truly is.


Our next speaker, John LeBron, is a younger person in recovery.  He highlighted the challenge of being Jewish and seeking help, the stigma that exists, and how important it is to have others to connect with.  He also emphasized how important getting the entire family educated about addiction really is, since the family system often contributed to addiction and can often enable relapse if change doesn’t happen.


The final speaker was Houston Spore, also a person in recovery.  He works with project Opioid, which is dedicated to stopped deaths from opioid overdose.  They provide free Narcan, a drug easily administered, which reverses overdoses to enable the person to be alive while 911 is called and emergency services are called.  Everybody attending in person was given Narcan to take home.  The amazing thing about Narcan is that if it’s not an opioid overdoes, Narcan simply does nothing.   And if it is an opioid overdose, it can save lives.  Anybody can access their free Narcan by going to their website, https://projectopioid.org/, and fill out the form.  In a week or two, it will arrive in your mailbox.


The question-and-answer sessions was robust as this is a complex and important issue.  The entire session was recorded and will be available on the Federation’s YouTube page for viewing.  


You may find yourself wondering, “Why is the Jewish Federation doing this”?  It goes to our core mission, taking care of the needs of our Jewish community.  No longer can we pretend that addiction doesn’t occur in the Jewish community.  No longer can we pretend that members of our community aren’t dying because of drug addiction and the opioid crisis.  No longer can we be unprepared to deal with this life-threatening disease.  The Jewish principle of Pikuach nefesh demands that we act.  I’m proud of our community, our agencies, organizations, and synagogues who are stepping up to take on this responsibility.  I’m proud that we are not allowing this to remain in the shadows and are working to remove the stigma so nobody has to die due to embarrassment.  


Together we can change our local community which changes the world.  As a community member both involved in the creation of B’riut and who attended our panel last night, I have hope that we are changing our Central Florida Jewish Community and will continue to do so.  


Shabbat Shalom,