By James Bowen, Cindy Mizaku and Sasha Podzorov
Hunched over a podium, Benjamin Litchman scanned the room as his voice echoed in the auditorium of the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center. His heavy Brooklyn accent stood out amongst the voices of Long Island legislators and executives as he spoke about growing up as a young Jewish boy who became addicted to heroin.
The 36-year-old opioid survivor turned to the Beit T’Shuvah drug rehabilitation center in 2012 after having nowhere to go. After eight years of sobriety, he became the CEO of the center’s Brooklyn location, which is supported by the United Jewish Appeal (UJA)-Federation—a philanthropy that works with 73 partners and hundreds of global nonprofits.
“Raise your hand if that nice Jewish boy from the nice Jewish family, who went to a nice Jewish summer camp for the better part of the decade, strung out on the airwaves and institutions, jail, and on the streets,” Litchman said as the crowd of politicians raised their hands in unison.
To combat the opioid crisis, UJA worked with Barry and Florence Friedberg Jewish Community Center, raising $25,000 for the Opioid Prevention, Early Intervention, Treatment, and Recovery Support (PEITR), and Long Island Congregation, raising $30,000 to end the epidemic in 2019.
The UJA-Federation held its annual Legislative Reception to address the opioid crisis on Friday, March 6, in Greenvale. The UJA raised $166.8 million in grants to support causes within the community in 2019—the year in which the federation funded a collaborative project between the Marion and Aaron Gural JCC and Amudim to offer management for those struggling with substance abuse.
State officials also gathered to confront growing anti-Semitism and the importance of mobilizing in the face of such crisies that have derailed the lives of the youth and their families—especially Jewish ones.
The drug abuse problem on LI is being mitigated through law enforcement, prevention and treatment initiatives, Steve Bellone, Suffolk County executive, said. “We’ve made great progress, and I’m happy to report that for now, the second year in a row, we have seen a significant decline in opioid-related deaths in our county,” he said. “But I’m going to take our foot off the pedal until that number is down to zero.”
Punctuated with long pauses, Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick J. Ryder’s talk discussed his first-hand experiences with the families of victims of drug abuse. “In 2017, I lost 200 kids to the overdose of opioids,” Ryder said.
The disheartening story of 18-year-old Natalie Ciappa, who was found dead by her parents inside a garage after a heroin overdose, launched Operation Natalie—an initiative led by the Nassau County Police Department to shed light on drug abuse related issues affecting the most vulnerable users, he said.
“You have to understand the roots of addiction, and you have to give people a chance for diversion; a chance to get the message about education,” Ryder said. “Every single kid that overdoses—all those 759 overdoses—the next day, we stop, we visit the home. We make sure that they get the help they need.”
Despite seeing a 20.1 percent decrease in opioid-related deaths in Nassau County in 2018, Ryder said that the department started a program for prevention services that are centered in a “multi-pronged approach: education, awareness, enforcement, diversion.” The process involves screening children and young adults for trauma and then following up with interventions.
Some speakers and audience members at the reception, like Suffolk County Legislator Sam Gonzalez, said that they valued attending an event where both Democratic and Republican decision makers can come together to fight for a nonpartisan issue that continues to take lives.
“It goes to show you can grow up in the perfect household and still fall victim to drugs,” Gonzalez said.