Is the Stigma of Addiction Worse for Jews?

Lisa Hillman was living the “perfect” life: She had two beautiful children, a wonderful husband who’d served as mayor, and a successful career in healthcare and journalism. Her son’s long struggle with addiction threatened to destroy it all. In public, everything seemed fine, but in private, the whole family was living in fear and shame. Active in the Jewish community, Lisa was surprised to find a huge lack of services to help those who are suffering. Through her book, Secret No More, and through her amazing advocacy, she is changing that. In the following guest post, she shares some excellent advice.

Recently, my son, Jacob, and I were invited to address a group of South Florida rabbis. Although the setting was private, the mere idea was daunting. Other than another rabbi, heads of state, or leaders of major organizations, who gets to speak to a roomful of rabbis? It was very overwhelming!

Our talk was focused on educating these religious leaders about addiction and how to better prepare them to face this issue in their own congregations. Planning for the event, I had a sudden realization.  

Was my shame, during my son’s active addiction, more pronounced because I was Jewish? Because our community stresses high achievement, the pressure to be prefect can be extreme. There is also a myth that Jews don’t have addictions, that we don’t drink to excess and we certainly don’t abuse drugs. (Or so I thought.)

Don’t Jews excel in nearly every field?  Shouldn’t my son, therefore, shine among his peers?  As I said to the rabbis that day, weren’t we the “Chosen People”?

This quest for perfection can make it very difficult to admit that problems exist. It wasn’t until writing my memoir that the shame, isolation and fear lifted. Sharing my story with others in hopes of encouraging them to seek help – and to give them hope – was the antidote I needed.

That day with the rabbis, I offered them five suggestions:  

Educate yourself

Read all you can about the disease. Start with journalist Sam Quinones’ Dreamland which traces the rise of heroin across America. Befriend someone in recovery and attend AA meetings. Be open to learning.

Talk about it

Use the pulpit, newsletter and other outlets to express understanding and compassion for those with addiction and those affected by it.


Hear what a congregant is saying without his directly saying it. Both the addict and the family members may be scared to ask for help without prompting.

Learn resources

Be ready to refer families for help.  Know the best therapists, treatment centers and online sites.

Offer space

Groups like AA and Al-Anon often lack a place to meet; By lending them a place, it can aid recovery to addicts and their families. Be sure to tell  congregation that you support it.

Most of all, we have to remember that only by talking about addiction and unmasking the stigma can we ever hope to conquer it.

About the Author:

Lisa Hillman is the author of Secret No More, a powerful memoir that details her son’s addiction and how it affected her entire family. In addition to writing, speaking, and educating others about this important topic, she serves as a board member of Pathways and Samaritan House, both programs that serve addicts.

Lisa is the mother of Heidi and Jacob. She and her husband reside in Maryland. Find out more and connect with her through her website.