hard holiday

The Jerusalem rehab center providing community for alcoholics on Purim — and year-round

Jerusalem's AZ House, a kosher shomer Shabbat rehab, provides multi-phase stays and recovery assistance for more than two dozen men

Purim in Jerusalem can feel like an alternate reality, something out of a dystopian movie. Men dressed in torn marching band uniforms stumble down the street, carrying fallen soldiers over their shoulders, ranting a mumbled language they are inventing as they go. Kids with beards painted on their faces lean against ancient buildings, puffing cigarettes as they watch their dads scream and bounce with bottles in hand as techno music pulses through the air. 

It can be a tough day to be a recovering alcoholic. 

Many ex-drinkers feel left out, Eric Levitz, the executive director at the AZ House, a kosher shomer Shabbat rehab located in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “There’s this underlying [feeling] that all my friends are out there,” he explained. “It’s a time of year everyone parties hard… There’s a lot of glamor and excitement about it.”

Before getting sober in April 2012, Levitz said, “Every day was Purim for me.” He entered recovery at the Ed Keating Center in Cleveland, a free nonprofit that serves 150 men and women. Many of the staff at the center aren’t licensed professionals, but are recovering alcoholics and addicts themselves. The center’s model runs on the belief that someone struggling with addiction is more likely to learn from someone they can empathize with than with a professional who doesn’t share their experiences. Three years after graduating from the center, Levitz journeyed to Jerusalem on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip and fell in love with the country. In Sept. 2016, he launched the AZ House, named after Avraham Zev Olive, who lost his life to the disease in his mid-20s, a men’s rehab facility based on the Ed Keating Center model that saved his life. 

Today, the organization only has three paid employees — an executive director (Levitz), an assistant director and a director of outreach. Everything else, including group therapy, is run by volunteers. Everyone involved is either in recovery themselves or fluent in the language of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs. 

“We don’t charge the families,” Levitz said. “We don’t charge the residents. A kid can show up with a trust fund, he is not to pay… Everything that we do has nothing to do with the dollar sign above [an attendee’s] head.”

This is a stark change from most other rehabs, which can be so expensive that parents may drain savings accounts and mortgage their houses to pay for the treatment, Gershon Swimmer, a psychotherapist who leads groups at the AZ House, told eJP. “They’re so desperate to get their kids sober. They figure, ‘If I pay $10,000 a month, I’m going to get better treatment,’ and I don’t necessarily think that’s correct. The AZ House provides a wonderful ability to help people without breaking the bank.” 

Israel is not without its share of alcoholism. In a report from 2016, the World Health Organization found that 5.9% of the population had alcohol-use disorder, the clinical term for alcoholism,  and 3.3% had alcohol dependence. Out of 100,000 people, 573 died alcohol-related deaths. The Israel Journal of Health Policy Research reported in 2017 that one-fifth of emergency department visitors to a Tel Aviv tertiary care center who were 16-35 years old drank more than four drinks when they drank, and 19% of men and 26% of females drank numerous times a week or every day.  

There are plenty of people who need help, and the AZ House seeks to be there when they want it. The program has 27 beds, and attendees go through three phases. The first is the most intense, lasting from two and a half to five months. Days are spent attending groups and AA meetings, getting to know the recovery community that threads throughout Jerusalem. Attendees find a sponsor who guides them through the 12 steps. “They basically go through those three months working together, living together, caring for each other, working on themselves, really growing themselves and taking responsibility for the situation,” said Levitz.

During the second phase, attendees secure jobs with the help of staff. They pay rent, about 30% of what it actually costs for them to stay there. “It’s more symbolic than it is in regards to covering their costs,” Levitz said. “They can go hang out with friends, hang out with family, go to the beach, go to work. They must continue to go to their meetings, continue to meet with their sponsor, and most importantly stay connected to the house and look out for the new guys coming in.” 

The third phase is optional, with attendees transitioning to independent living and staff helping them find an apartment. The AZ House covers the deposit, cosigns for them and furnishes the place, often with donations. 

Most men stay at the AZ house for nine months, but Levitz said they wouldn’t put anyone out. “We want to set these guys up for success and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to do that. Space, money, any of that stuff, that’s not a reason to end someone’s treatment period.”

The AZ House was founded with a $50,000 donation from Moshe Zalman Olive, who lost his son, Avraham Zev Olive — whom the program is named after — to the disease. “He helped change all of our lives by getting it started, but he continues to change my life as my friend,” said Levitz. Olive’s donation covered a fourth of the annual fees to operate what was then a 15-bed men’s recovery house. The rest came from smaller donations. “A thousand dollars here,” Levitz said. “Two thousand dollars here. Five hundred dollars there. A food donation there. Building donation there. Someone will pick up our grocery bill. Someone picks up our electric bill. Then another $5,000. It was month-to-month-to-month for many years.” 

Today, the program costs about $10,000 to put one person through; approximately $300,000 annually. Levitz said they don’t receive any government funds because that would restrict who could be hired and increase the overhead to the point that the program could no longer be free. “The way that government funds are given to these types of places is that they give you per person, so now you’ve incentivized yourself to take the wrong people who don’t want to be here.”

Instead, donations are received through their website. They’ve held fundraisers including a concert by Hasidic rapper Nissim Black and a clothing drive. Often donations come in anonymously, from parents and family members who watched children and relatives struggle with the disease. Many watched family members die.  

“Me and Brian [Surasky, the assistant director] gave our lives to the first few years of opening this,” Levitz said. “We took almost no salary. We had almost no time to ourselves. We each filled the role of three staff members. We operated extraordinarily under budget. We took food donations and clothing donations and furniture donations and toiletry donations.”

For the first year and a half, they worked 100-hour weeks. “Then one [ex-attendee] was like, ‘I’m gonna send you guys home’ and then it started this trend,” Levitz recalled. He said that ex-attendees said to him, “We came here for free and it saved our lives, and between all of us we can take this on.” Since then, night shifts are covered by volunteers who work one night per week or every 10 days. “At this point, we are indebted to them.”

One volunteer, Avraham B. (first name, last initial, as is the rule of 12-step groups), had spent years in and out of rehabs. When addiction stole his brother’s life at the beginning of the pandemic, his parents sent him to yeshiva. “A lot of times you see Jewish parents not really sure what to do,” he said, “and they think the religious rabbis might be able to help.”

Wine and whiskey are frequent sights on many kiddush tables. But today, it’s more common to see grape juice — which is halachically acceptable for Kiddush — presented as an option.

“In the past 25 years or so, the yeshiva community, and the baal teshuva community for sure, have become more aware that alcohol and drug abuse are part of their community,” said Swimmer, “and they’ve become more open when somebody has a problem to send them to some sort of therapy or recovery.”

When Avraham ran out of drugs, his yeshiva sent him to detox. “From the detox, I wanted to go back to school, even though I was literally a skeleton with no soul,” he said. “They said that they will not take responsibility on me [sic] because they don’t know what will happen, so they sent me to this place called AZ House. They just told me that it’s free. And that was a relief because my parents had been through so much already, trying to get money from this person and that person and the other person just to send me to some fancy rehab.” 

The AZ House allowed him to focus on his recovery. He mended relationships, learned to give back and connected with a higher power. “It is a spiritual experience that changes us, but I didn’t get it in the schools.” 

Today, Avraham has been sober for a year and a half and credits AZ House with saving his life. “I volunteer and I hang out there because I have friends there. It’s kind of like a family.”

AZ House is now secure financially and looking at expansion. Levitz said 55% of those who finished the program remain sober. “You can come to a[n AA] meeting in Jerusalem and you can see 30 or 40 [ex-AZ House attendees] sitting there.” 

For the AZ House community, Purim is a time to help others. “Purim is about giving,” Avraham said. “It’s about God being in our lives when we don’t even see it. There’s no doubt in my mind that there was something that kept me alive because I had a lot of friends that did the same things, but just were not fortunate. They died. God was there when I couldn’t be there for myself.”

This Purim, Levitz and the AZ House crew plan to hit up events throughout the greater Jerusalem recovery community, including a sober party and seudah (festive holiday meal). They are also journeying into town. He plans to tell attendees, “’There’s a party going on, and we don’t have to be scared of it. We are spiritually fit, so everyone put on your costumes and we’re going to town with the madness.’ We’re probably the only treatment center that walks into the demon’s den, but we’ve never had a problem and it’s always been a blast. It’s the most forbidden thing that a person early in sobriety, let alone a treatment center, can do, and we’re like, ‘We call the shots. We’re going.’”