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Alcohol? Oxycodon? Helping Israelis Treat Addiction

This spring, Toby Mower, a substance abuse treatment counselor, gave a significant grand to Ben Gurion University of the Negev to create Israel’s first-ever curriculum teaching practitioners ways to treat – and even prevent – addiction. Mower, 73, told Lilith that the spur for this innovative education venture came out of her own experience. She has been in recovery from alcoholism for more than 30 years.

“People look at drunks as falling-down-drunk, but many people, including myself, were functioning individuals. I was not ‘an addict.’ I still went to my kids’ games, went to the PTA. Nobody intervened with me, but I got into an auto accident. My first prayer after the accident was ‘Oh my God!’ – They didn’t have seat belts then, and my kids weren’t with me in the car that day.” A therapist insisted that she go into a 12-step program. Although later she did find out that there were a handful of Jewish women in the program, “There were none in the meetings I went to at that time.” Now, she said, “about half the rooms are Jewish people.”

Mower, a registered nurse, decided to leave nursing for a master’s degree in psychology, with a specialty in addiction counseling. “Jews have never been exempt from addiction. And it is a family disease. The whole family is affected, and if family members don’t get into their own 12-step program they still try to control the addict.”

She was instrumental in launching a “sober living facility,” the country’s first Jewish recovery home, in Baltimore; the women’s facility is Tova House, for Toby Mower’s Hebrew name. (There’s a residence for men as well.) The addiction, she pointed out, used to be largely to control alcohol; now “it is mostly drugs. Cocaine. Oxycodone. Heroin.”

A longtime supporter of Ben Gurion University – she and her husband have been on the Board of Governors – Mower approached BGU President Rivka Carmi, a physician, asking, “Rivka, how would you like to be another first? You were the first female dean of an Israeli medical school. You were the first female president of an Israeli university. How would you like to be the first Israeli university to treat addiction?” Carmi, said Mower, “jumped on it!”

In Israel there was some initial resistance, along the lines of “We don’t have a problem here – the Russians brought it in.” Mower told the objectors, “You just aren’t seeing it, or you have your heads buried in the sand.”

The skeptics will “see it” in this new curriculum, which is a requirement for students in social work, nursing, psychology and medicine. And Toby Mower gave the first lecture.