On the gravestones of New York’s Kavkazi Jews one can read lengthy descriptions of proud grandparents, veterans, and people who steadfastly kept up their religious observance during the Soviet period.
But in the past three years, Rabbi Ephraim Ilyaguev of Beit Juhuro has been noticing an unusually high number of graves for younger people, only a few years younger than him. “I was officiating at a tombstone unveiling and I could not believe my eyes. These are guys in their 20s and 30s.” They died as a result of prescription drug abuse, a crisis that has spread across the United States, affecting all communities. In the tight knit Jewish immigrant populations, the focus on success and family reputations kept the growing number of deaths as a secret.
On the heels of the Amudim organization that is raising awareness of drug abuse among Orthodox Jews, the Bukharian Jewish Union (BJU) has been holding public forums in its community, with treatment experts, social workers, and individuals who recovered, offering advice to parents and youth. “The biggest questions come from parents. They think that drugs come from strangers on the street, but very often they come from the medical cabinet at home,” said Manashe Khaimov, Vice President of Community Relationships at
BJU. “It is a bigger problem than it appears.” Coming home from the unveiling, Rabbi Ilyaguev recognized that the topic must be addressed in his community and partnered with Khaimov and invited him to the Gorsky Kavkazy synagogue Ohr Hamizrach which serves the Gorsky Kavkazi community in Brooklyn along with Beit Juhuro Cultural center.
Both centers serve Jews who immigrated from Azerbaijan, and the Russian republics
of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, BabardinoBalkaria, Ossetia, and the Stavropol Krai. Numbering between 10,000 and 20,000, most of America’s Kavkazi Jews reside in Brooklyn.
Rabbi Ilyaguev who earned his semikha from Yeshiva University said: “Beit Juhuro is a center for young professionals, we have classes in Torah, culture, and we teach our language, But on the drug abuse crisis, I called Manashe as his organization has experience in addressing the matter.” Khaimov spoke as a panelist, describing how the Bukharian community is tackling the problem, along with substance abuse counselor Yuliya Golubev and Jonathan Katz, Director of Jewish Community Services at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.
As the presentation was geared towards parents and grandparents, most of it was delivered in Russian,
with an all English forum planned to this week. “You have to know your children. When they ask questions,
you have to know how to answer,” said Khaimov. “I spoke about the family dynamic”. The event also had a former addict who spoke of his experience in the recovery and how he went on to counsel others in kicking their drug dependency. “It started socially, and then it became consistent,” he said of his descent into addiction. “It started with weed, then opium, and then he went heavy duty,” Rabbi Ilyaguev said of the former addict. “He has a lot of willpower and now he is helping other addicts.” The panelists provided naxolone training and methods on prevention and treatment.
“I recognized eight identities of people who fall into addiction, such as those who do it socially, the isolated type, and those who experiment,” said Khaimov, who is trained in social work. “We raised awareness, because if you can’t talk about it, then you can’t deal with it,” said Ilyaguev. “It’s an old problem with a new source that is in the medical cabinet.”