More Than Dreidle
Rabbi AbrahamTwerski, M.D.


I sometimes feel that it is my destiny to alert the Jewish community to things it does not want to know. First, that alcoholism is a problem among Jews, then drugs among young people, then spouse abuse. Now I must follow with the news that the incidence of compulsive (addictive) gambling is alarming. When the voice on the telephone says “
Gevalt! Please help me!,” I know it is about a gambling problem.
Jews are hardly immune to social trends. Gambling has seen a meteoric rise in recent years. The figures are staggering. Legal gambling is a more than $300 billion industry, and it is estimated that four times as much money is wagered illegally as legally! Teens and seniors are relative newcomers to the scene, and some of the latter lose their pension and Social Security checks to gambling. Compulsive gambling threatens to dethrone alcoholism and drug addiction as the nation’s largest behavior pathology. This has had its impact on all segments of the Jewish community.
The call today: “I don’t think I can handle it any more. We’re penniless, and I and my three children are going to be evicted from our apartment. I’m tired of shlepping him to doctors. They do no good!”
Another call from a member of a prominent Jewish family. To avoid a
chilul Hashem (scandalous reflection), he paid off thousands of dollars of his son’s gambling-induced debts. Now his son says that if he doesn’t pay $40,000 to the mob, they will break his legs. I referred the father to Gambler’s Anonymous (GA) and Gam-Anon (family-support groups) who, as alumni of the cruel University of Experience, know what to do and what not to do. Unfortunately, the father did not listen, mortgaged his home and gave his son the money. The next call was from the sister. Now he must have $60,000, or else. The father is broke. What should they do?
I told her that she might sell her jewelry, empty the children’s savings, and mortgage the house so that he could continue gambling at the race-track or casino, blow it all in one day, and come back with a desperate demand for $100,000.
Compulsive gambling is an “equal opportunity destroyer.” It is as non-discriminating as the cold virus. People who are religiously observant are not exempt from its scourge.
A compulsive gambler cannot help himself. He may be in deep remorse, cry profusely, protest that he loves his family (which he really does) and make promises which he cannot keep. Psychiatrists and psychologists cannot help him (unless they have expertise in addictive gambling). Researchers say that there are medications on ther horizon that may be of help. As of now, there is no medical cure for compulsive gambling. Antidepressant medication may relieve some depression and anxiety, but what really helps is a change in lifestyle. To prevent his self-destruction and the ruination of the entire family, the latter must be guided by people with proven competence in the field.
One wife felt that she had the answer. She transferred the title of the home to her name, as well as the bank accounts and the CDs. That should take care of it, shouldn’t it? Well, he took his wife’s ID, paid a woman $100 to impersonate his wife, withdrew the money from their savings account and cashed in the CDs.
Home remedies don’t work!
Generally, the thing that may bring a compulsive gambler to his senses is hitting “rock-bottom,” i.e., the pain resulting from the gambling is great enough that he is willing to do whatever it takes to overcome the addiction. When the family tries to “help” by paying off his debts, believing his worthless promises that he will never gamble again, or getting him a lawyer to extricate him from legal problems or from going to jail for credit-card fraud or check forgery,
they are removing the very things that might finally lead him to accept help. “Rock-bottom” may sometimes be averted by a family “confrontation and intervention,” which will be described later on.
Compulsive gambling is a kind of cancer, often not showing any symptoms until it is far advanced. Compulsive gambling not only destroys the gambler but also the entire family. Just as a sober alcoholic may not take even a single drink, so an addictive gambler may not buy something as small as a $1 lottery ticket. If he does, he may be off to the races -- literally.
There are residential treatment centers for compulsive gamblers, but they are quite costly, and the person must be willing to go.
If you are concerned about a family member who may have a gambling problem,
promptly call Gam-Anon Family Groups at 1-877-664-2469. A volunteer who knows the ropes will get in touch with you and refer you to the proper sources for help. If there is an agency that has experts on addictive gambling, they can be consulted. Well-intended advice from family, friends and rabbis may be misleading.
Is there recovery? Yes! I know people who for more than thirty years have not gambled even one cent. The families are intact and happy. They and their families followed instructions from the experts.
Two things are crucial: (1) to be aware that compulsive gambling is far more common than we think, and that there is no immunity. The incidence among Jews is disproportionately high. In many GA groups, 30%-50% of the attendees are Jewish, and in some groups, 90% are Jewish. Yet, denial of the problem among Jews is most intense; and (2) we must know all there is to know about compulsive gambling. It is a phenomenon that defies logical understanding. In dealing with compulsive gambling, we must set aside all reason and recognize the condition for what it is: cunning, baffling, powerful and insidious.
In the following discussion, I will use the terms “compulsive gambling” and “addictive gambling” interchangeably. The term “compulsive” helps us understand the quality of powerlessness that possesses the compulsive gambler. The term “addictive gambling” helps us understand that, like every other addiction, it is a condition for which there is no “cure.” An addictive disorder can be effectively treated and arrested, and the addict can live a normal and happy life, but he must always remember that he is an addict. Any gambling, at whatever level, can initiate a destructive vortex. Experts on compulsive gambling will agree with my assertion that a compulsive gambler
may not even play dreidel on Chanukah for pennies!
It has been appropriately said about addiction that “once a cucumber becomes a pickle, it never goes back to being a cucumber again.” Awareness of the nature of compulsive, addictive gambling will empower us to deal with it most effectively.

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