Rabbi Berel Lerman looked out on the audience of his congregants inside the Center for Jewish Life Chabad in Sag Harbor on a recent evening and recited a verse from the Talmud laying out a traditional belief that to save another person’s life is to save the world.
It was a fitting verse for the setting. The group had gathered to discuss the opioid addiction crisis in Southampton Town with its police Chief Steven Skrynecki, each person seeking more information about how they can help someone in need of assistance.
Rabbi Lerman said he organized the event in response to news of the epidemic and believes drug addiction often comes from something lacking in a person’s spiritual life.
“For someone who is a member of the clergy, and we have a congregation with many spiritual programs, it ties in very well into the broader addiction epidemic that goes on locally, at the state [level], and nationally,” said Lerman after the forum’s end.
“So, these are topics that we are very much interested in to talk about, and really the bottom line is, the Talmud states that if you save one life, you save the entire world. If our event with the chief over here brought awareness to one additional person, who in turn is able to influence someone who is going though a difficult situation in their life or is ready to fall off the edge because of their activities and practices, perhaps we saved a life tonight. By the way of that, we saved the whole world with the potential of that life,” he added.
The crisis has also hit close to home. As a spiritual leader, Lerman has counseled people who have been affected by drug addiction. “It’s an epidemic,” he said.
Chief Skrynecki instructed the group on drug laws, such as the Good Samaritan law, which allows a person to call police without fear of prosecution when someone overdoses, and how the police department is handling the current problem with initiatives such as naloxone administration classes and the treatment bridge, which puts addicts revived from overdoses in touch with rehabilitation and counseling services.
He described the new initiatives as significant changes since the beginning of his career, when drug addicts were thought of as criminals.
“We have changed our view of the addict from a criminal to a person with a medical condition that they may or may not want. We are looking at the addict less as a criminal, and more as somebody with a mental issue or a physical issue. That doesn’t mean that we have shifted our view of the seller,” the police chief noted.
Water Mill resident Emil Braun had a friend, an affluent physician, who became addicted to opiates and ended up losing his wife and his family, and eventually his life when he overdosed. “It was just terrible,” he said. Braun said he believed that opioid drug addiction hits more affluent families than the crack epidemic did. “It’s bad out there,” he said.
Lerman said he would consider having a representative from the police department come back to the Chabad to teach a class to congregants about the administration of naloxone. To Skrynecki, the forum achieved its goal. “You are in the ‘awareness and the education mode’ right here, right now,” he said.
At the end of the evening, Lerman requested Skrynecki join him in a toast, both raising a bottle of water — as the chief was still on duty — in recognition of the event, the rabbi leading Skrynecki in the traditional Jewish verse celebrating life. “L’chaim” they said. “To life.”