‘It’s a Myth That Orthodox Jews Don’t Get Addicted’: The Opioid Epidemic in an Insular Community

NEW YORK — Driving home from a support group meeting for people coping with drug addiction in the family, Sarah and Yehudah Benjamin received a nightmarish phone call: Emergency responders told them their son Kasriel had overdosed on heroin.

“We got there, and there were police outside and people around his apartment,” Sarah recalls of that September 2011 afternoon. “They wouldn’t let us in. We didn’t know what we were supposed to do.”

However, it didn’t take long for them to understand that their 25-year-old son had died. “We’re standing there, but pretty quick one of the older guys that runs Hatzalah walked over to us and basically shook his head,” says Yehudah, referring to the Jewish emergency medical service.

“It almost didn’t make sense,” he adds. “It was really completely out of the blue.” While the Benjamins had had experience of addiction through other family members and friends, Kasriel wasn’t one of them.

Sarah and Yehudah now realize they are far from being the only family in New York’s Orthodox-Jewish community to lose loved ones to drugs amid a nationwide opioid crisis.

Kasriel Benjamin, who died from a heroin overdose in September 2011.Courtesy of Sarah Benjamin

According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 19.7 million Americans from the age of 12 and up have a substance use disorder. Although data is not collated according to religious affiliation, the NYC Department of Health says overdose deaths in the city are at “epidemic levels” with a resident fatally overdosing every seven hours (according to provisional figures for the second quarter of 2019). That is more than homicides, suicides and deaths in road accidents combined.

Of the city’s 325 confirmed fatal overdoses in the second quarter of 2019, 273 were recorded in Brooklyn — home to the city’s largest Orthodox-Jewish community, including the Benjamin family — with nearly half of them white people. Most overdosed on cocaine, heroin or fentanyl (a synthetic opioid up to 100 times stronger than morphine).