How Judaism Led Me to Harm Reduction

James Kowalsky Faith Perspectives, Harm Reduction, Jewish Perspectives


James Kowalsky works for Heartland Health Outreach, a healthcare for the homeless program in Chicago that practices and advocates for harm reduction. He writes blog posts for the Midwest Harm Reduction Institute in the Housing First Practice Community Blog.

Photo Credit: Le’Or @!prettyPhoto/2/

I’m an American Jew. I’m descended from Jews who immigrated to the United States from Europe in the early 1900s. Growing up, I attended a Hebrew day school, became a bar mitzvah, celebrated the High Holy Days and Hanukkah, went to a Jewish summer camp, traveled to Israel, kept kosher (at times) and ate a fair share of kugel, gefilte fish, and bagels with lox and shmear.  But my Jewish experience has been about more than traditions, holidays, and matzo ball soup.  Judaism instilled in me a passionate commitment to social justice which manifested in my role as an advocate for harm reduction.

Here are a few Hebrew words that I was taught as a young Jew.  Tikkun olam means to heal the world.  The lesson was simple-no matter your position in the world, you have a role in helping to improve it.  At day school, we’d pass around a tzedakah box to collect spare change for charity.  But, tzedakah is actually derived from the words for justice and righteousness.  Helping other people goes beyond doing a good deed, it’s seen as an obligation.  Before I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew that I wanted to help people.  The only questions were who I was going to help and how I could help them.

My favorite holiday growing up was Passover.  It’s the night we remember the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt.  But, it’s also a night where we celebrate asking questions!  The retelling of the exodus story begins with the Four Questions, which are eventually followed up by the most traditional Passover question, “When are we eating?”  But, inevitably the questions migrate to deeper discussions of identity, values, modern-day oppression, and more.  The impulse to ask questions encouraged at Passover became a part of my identity and everyday life in classes, personal relationships, and extracurriculars.

As a college student I joined a Jewish organization called Ask Big Questions.  The group, led by Rabbi Josh Feigelson, set up community events on campus that encouraged thoughtful conversations around challenging questions.  As Rabbi Josh explains, “Jews are a people who love questions, who are characterized by questions, who ‘answer a question with a question.’”  The questions we asked in ABQ never had one answer.  Asking questions was a way to bring people together to listen to one another, explore our values, and recognize that there are multiple, valid paths to navigate complex situations.

My family was never the most active in our congregation.  But when my father’s mother passed away and we sat shiva, members of the temple came over to offer condolences and comfort.  At temple, my father would stand as the congregation recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.  During the prayer, there’s an atmosphere of shared suffering and sympathy.  These moments of compassion and connection reflect a belief that healing happens in community.  A couple years later, I remember talking to Rabbi Randall Konigsburg about how people often come back to religion in times of need.  When we are struggling, our support system becomes even more important.

The lessons I took from Judaism led me to harm reduction.  Judaism gave me an eye for injustice, a desire to question, and a belief in the power of community to heal.  When I was in high school, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and received chemotherapy treatment.  Around that time, Michigan and Vermont legalized medical marijuana.  We lived in a state where medical cannabis wasn’t legal so my mother was not willing to risk losing her job and family for the potential pain relief and appetite stimulation.  Her pain led me to ask questions about the benefits of medical cannabis and the rationale for its prohibition.  My questions about medical cannabis led to questions about the larger War on Drugs.  I quickly recognized the injustice in that system.  The way we treat people who use drugs in our country is not a healing approach.  Our society responds to them with shame and isolation, driving away support from people who need it most.  This isolation tears apart families and communities, further eroding the chances of recovery for the people and places most impacted by problems with drugs.

Harm reduction is a pragmatic, compassionate approach to managing the consequences of drug use.  Harm reduction emphasizes the role of connection in enabling people to make positive changes in their lives.  By giving people who use drugs access to housing, healthcare, clean syringes, naloxone, and meaningful relationships we send a message that they are more than just the substance they put in their body.  In harm reduction, we honor the autonomy of people who use drugs.  Positive changes happen when people see an opportunity and choose it for themselves.  When information, resources and unconditional support are available, people using drugs make healthier choices.  Drugs can harm people but so can the policies we enact to address them.  It’s time we all started asking more questions about our current approach to drugs and start seeking out solutions that promote justice and healing.

James Kowalsky works for Heartland Health Outreach, a healthcare for the homeless program in Chicago that practices and advocates for harm reduction. He writes blog posts for the Midwest Harm Reduction Institute in the Housing First Practice Community Blog.