May 2010

Taking Risks

G. Rayzel Raphael is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program (Class 2) and a rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation/InterFaithways in Woodbury, NJ.  She can be reached at

I recently I attended the JACS retreat, (Jewish Alcoholics and Chemically Dependent Persons & Significant Others). I can honestly say it was one of the most profound weekends of my rabbinic career.   Rabbis go as guests to be educated to the issues of alcoholism and other addictions.  Thirty rabbis came, only 5 women. Rabbi Hirsch Chinn, a Wexner colleague, had been doing this work for years.

I arrived at the hotel and entered another world. This was truly Klal Yisroel. I saw Black hat Hasidim, young men with tattoos, orthodox women with sheitls, biker Jews, young anorexics, Tunisian dark haired beauties, Russian immigrants, Jews by choice, South Africans, modern orthodox-and on and on.  It was truly the most diverse Jewish crowd I had seen outside of Israel.

During the weekend, I attended all sorts of workshops- everything from “Why I Hate Shul” to “Domestic Violence.” The amount of emotional pain was intense. The whole Recovery movement is based on speaking out about that pain and finding support from other human beings. I witnessed such courage to speak out and break the silence. My heart went to those that were beaten when they didn’t learn Hebrew fast enough and drowned their pain in drink; or who were too drunk on their bar mitzvah or wedding to remember it; those who wound up in jail; or were ostracized for going to recovery meetings in churches; or those whose children battled their demons yet lost.  This retreat was a testimony to the human spirit in the face of such suffering and broken lives. 

My defining leadership moment was to risk leading a Healing Service in an unknown setting – definitely out of my comfort zone. It was the first time JACS ever had a liberal option for mincha.  Some are really thirsty for alternatives.

I never knew that my just being there as a rabbinic presence could make such a difference. It suddenly felt privileged to be a rabbi in a way I had not experienced. They need a liberal rabbinical presence at the JACS retreats urgently, women in particular. It is such an opportunity for healing, not only for the alcoholics, drug addicts, overeaters, sexaholics, gamblers, but for KlalYisroel, a true Wexner mission.  I am hoping that by writing this piece I will have convinced some of you what a mitzvah this is to just take a retreat weekend. They need you to go to this retreat. Be prepared to be touched, humbled and challenged; to witness and participate in a true spiritual experience. Hirsch can’t do it alone.  For more information go to