Young Jews, Drugs, and Alcohol

I remember kids with dead eyes and expressionless faces. My words bounced off them – at first – like a tennis ball against a concrete wall.

Even after ten years, I’d panic at every first meeting: how could I ever get through to them?

Not all these kids were regular substance abusers, and they didn’t have appointments with me for counselling – although counselling almost always became part of the unofficial job description.

I was just a tutor. I’d help them out with anything that wasn’t maths or science related, but my main income came from English.

People ostensibly paid me to help them make sense of bizarre syllabus requirements, or fine tune the language of their papers. Over the course of those ten years, I met a lot of young people, and they were all Jews.

There was also time spent as a youth movement madricha (youth leader), and in an ill-defined role at Hillel organisation (a Jewish campus chaplaincy service). And although it sometimes feels like an eon, I suppose it wasn’t that long ago that I was young myself.

That said, about eight years have passed since I worked with Jewish youth. Things may have changed.

My only knowledge of young Jews comes from the occasional article in The AJN about the drunken horrors of this or that Jewish party, or from a story on a horrific drug overdose.

It’s impossible to get an accurate perspective on an issue like this from the media, because only the sensational is news-worthy, and the day-to-day use – or non-use – of drugs and alcohol will never make the pages.

As far as I know (I hope someone will correct meĀ  in comments if I’m wrong), there haven’t been any rigorous studies into substance abuse among young Jews. Hard data seems impossible to come by.

Jewish Care runs some preventive programmes in conjunction with Mount Scopus, the efficacy of which I have no idea.

The JCCV/ECAJ had a forum/inquiry, (that was not particularly transparent) on drugs in the community. Again, whether this had any discernable effect, I do not know. Broad statements – as opposed to concrete proposals – constituted their message to the public.

So is there a problem at all? Most of us feel intuitively that there is, but all we have is anecdotal evidence. And there is a lot of that.

The only thing that can be done at the moment, is proper research into the phenomenon. Who might conduct this research, and who would fund it, I do not know, but surely, if the JCCV/ECAJ is looking for something to bolster its claims of legitimacy, it would rush to be involved in initiating such a study.


I referred earlier to the dead eyes of my tute kids when I first met them. Often, their complete lack of affect was not caused by drugs – at least, not drug use immediately prior to our meeting. It was something else. Something that actually made drugs and alcohol a necessary part of surviving their adolescence.

Sometimes it only took a couple of sessions. With other kids, it could take months.On very rare occasions, it never happened at all. Slowly, slowly, I would chip away at their stoniness.

I would get excited about something we were reading, or something they had written. At first, they would look at me as if I were insane.

But ever so slowly, they too would become infected by the joy of a brilliant sentence, whether they were reading it, or had written it themselves.

The tutorials would become a secret space for them, in which they could express joy, be enthusiastic, remain utterly unconcerned with appearing cool. The mandatory nihilism that these kids were forced to live by, in order not to attract the wrong sort of attention, could be cast off for at least one hour a week.

My students, forced to abandon a life of the mind, and outward expressions of joy, must have had a spiritual vacuum engulfing them.

Whatever the complex social reasons are for this vacuum elude me.

I’m not even sure if, nearly a decade on, things are still the same – although I suspect they may be worse.

I do know, however, that we need more than fear, headlines, and anecdotes.

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