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Praying for Serenity

I learned to embrace the prayers we recited at Al-Anon meetings, until I started to feel left out as a Jew

Malina Saval
August 24, 2012
(Margarita Korol)
(Margarita Korol)

I’d been in plenty of churches when I was growing up—carnivals, voting booths, the Sistine Chapel with a fanny pack and a Eurail pass—but the first time I pulled up a chair and actually prayed in a church was in November 2009, in Los Angeles.

I’d returned several days earlier from family week at the rehab center where my husband was staying for a month, a world-renowned residential treatment facility with bright white buildings and a state-of-the-art gym, perched high upon a mint-green hillside, the drug rehab version of the Emerald City. The treatment center’s anchor building was its auditorium, with rows of red-cushioned movie theater seats and flaxen light streaming in through its rectangular glass windows. The Twelve Steps and The Twelve Traditions, the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous, were painted on its walls. There, during lectures on chemical dependency by experts in the field, I learned that addiction is a disease. I had known that before, in the abstract. Now, there was a PowerPoint presentation with diagrams of the human brain and the limbic system and spiked dopamine levels to prove it.

On Sunday morning the auditorium became a chapel. A tall priest with white hair and ruddy cheeks led a nondenominational prayer service, where patients shared their stories. A teenage junkie took the stage and recalled what it was like turning tricks for heroin and crack. A recovering alcoholic gave a speech making amends to his family. The priest spoke of God and forgiveness, and people slung their arms around one another and exchanged hugs and high-fives. Everybody in that chapel seemed connected, like soldiers returning home from brutal combat. They shared a common language that nobody else understood. And I felt a part of it. For the first time in a long time I was in the midst of people who knew my misery. That chapel felt like home.

Then we recited the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

A local Chabad rabbi who served as a chaplain for the Jewish patients—because, contrary to myth, Jews can be alcoholics and addicts just like anybody else—lingered afterward in the hallway outside the chapel, fingering the hairs of his graying beard, offering up counsel and advice or just a friendly hello to anybody who approached him. A handful of observant Jewish men wearing kippot and tzitzit were scattered throughout the chapel; several other Jews, my husband among them, weren’t wearing any outward markings of their Judaism. I asked the rabbi how he felt about Jews attending a prayer service that incorporated Christian liturgy. He encouraged it, he said, not because of the religious aspects of the service but because the loss of spirituality is one of the most devastating casualties of addiction, and prayer is a crucial step toward recovery. You don’t have to pray to Jesus even if you stand in a room with other people who do, he told me: In the serenity prayer, the word “God” is meant to express a “higher power,” which could take the form of pretty much anything.

I’d pretty much given up on a higher power, Jewish or Christian or otherwise, by this point. I still lit Shabbat candles and bought kosher meat and Kineret frozen challah dough at the Israeli supermarket in Valley Village, but I didn’t really feel anything. It’s not that I didn’t feel Jewish; I felt nothing. Living with my husband’s drug addiction had sucked me dry.

But like Woody Allen’s neurotic character in Hannah and Her Sisters who tries everything to find meaning in life, from buying a goyishe loaf of white bread and a jar of mayonnaise to reading complementary Hare Krishna literature handed out in a park, I was willing to give the serenity prayer another try. Back in Los Angeles a few days later, waiting for my husband to come home from rehab, I decided to check out a local meeting. And this time it wasn’t in a fancy auditorium with plush seats and audio-visual equipment; it was in an actual church: the Pasadena Church of the Brethren. Its motto, “Continuing the Work of Jesus—Peacefully, Simply, and Together,” was carved in white block letters on a brown wood sign out front. And by the side entrance was another sign that said “7:30 p.m. Al-Anon meeting here,” with an arrow pointing inside.

Co-founded in 1951 by Lois Wilson (wife of Alcoholic Anonymous founder Bill Wilson) and her friend Anne B., Al-Anon is a worldwide fellowship for people whose lives have been affected by somebody else’s problem drinking. Like AA, Al-Anon is a spiritual program based on no particular religion. But with rare exceptions—hipster coffee houses, community centers, and the odd Vietnamese noodle house—churches host most meetings. In part, this is a vestige of the program’s early affiliation with Christianity, but mainly it’s because church rent comes cheap. Churches have long opened their doors to 12-step groups; synagogues, for the most part, have not.

The chapel of the Pasadena Church of the Brethren was small and windowless, with brown low-pile carpeting and metal foldout chairs arranged in a crescent. There was a crucifix on the altar and a brown metal folding table across the room with stacks of Al-Anon literature and 12-step pamphlets with titles like Detachment, Humility, and Just for Today. I was hoping to find refreshments sandwiched between the Al-Anon welcome packets, but apparently mandatory doughnuts and coffee are the stuff of 12-step urban legend.

I looked around the chapel the way one would standing in a crowded cafeteria on the first day at a new school, not knowing where to sit. I finally opted for an aisle chair in the front row and when the leader asked if anybody wanted to share, I swiftly raised my hand. Yes, I was in a church. Yes, Jesus was bloody and nailed to a cross right next to me. But nobody spoke about religion during the meeting. Instead, they talked about their drunken dads and alcoholic aunts and moms who got loaded and the hypodermic needles they found stashed in their lunchboxes growing up. But as they told these stories, they were also flush with forgiveness. Al-Anon, they said, had given them tools to lovingly detach and rebuild their own lives. The room was abuzz with inspiration and hope. By the time we said the serenity prayer, I had pretty much forgotten that Jesus was even there.


For about four months, that meeting became my “home” meeting. I’d attend once, sometimes twice weekly. But Los Angeles being the mecca of self-help programs that it is, I soon branched out to other gatherings. Over the past three years, I’ve attended Al-Anon meetings in all sorts of churches, from Mennonite to Lutheran to Unitarian Universalist. I have logged more hours in that time sitting in churches reciting the serenity prayer than I have in shul saying the Amidah during mincha.

For a while, it wasn’t really an issue. If anything, one could argue that going to all these meetings made me a better Jew. Healing inner wounds, re-connecting with God as we understand Him, learning to become a more patient, tolerant, and compassionate human being—these are core Jewish values that could easily fall under the categories of ahavat yisrael (being kind to others), pikuach nefesh (saving a soul), and tikkun olam (repairing the world). The strength and hope that I reaped from these Al-Anon meetings also helped me to establish a sense of shalom bayit (peace in the home) as my husband’s sobriety slowly, and sometimes painfully, took root in our existence.

Which is not to say that every once in a while during my Saturday afternoon meeting at Silverlake Community Church, it didn’t occur to me that maybe I should be at Shabbat kiddush spreading a lox shmear on a bagel and spearing herring slices instead. But the truth is that at this stage in my recovery, I’ve yet to find a shacharit prayer that provides as much emotional comfort or makes as much practical sense as the reading selections from the Living With Sobriety booklet.

It’s not for lack of trying. Abraham Joshua Twerski, the famed Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist who founded Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, has penned numerous texts on how the myth that Jews don’t imbibe (save for the occasional glass of Manischewitz) has resulted in a dearth of addiction treatment resources for the Jewish community. Of the hundreds of meetings in L.A., there are two or three that meet on Jewish soil, but for the most part, if you’re in desperate need of a 12-step fix, you’re headed for a house of worship with a parking space reserved for its priest or pastor. I’ve yet to meet a single rabbi (Conservative, Orthodox, or otherwise) who’s dissuaded me from going to an Al-Anon meeting because it’s being held at, say, Calvary Presbyterian Church.

So, I felt comfortable as a Jew, going to churches and reciting the serenity prayer at meetings. Until one day, I went to a meeting that wrapped up with a different prayer.

It was a women’s meeting, and pretty much everybody in it either had a gray bob and gardened in her spare time or looked like a walking window display from Talbot’s. When this group of women stood, bowed their heads, and began to pray, they recited the Lord’s Prayer. I stared down at the floor, trying my best to look inconspicuous, as the words “Our Father Who Art in Heaven” reverberated around us, bouncing off the church basement’s dark-brick walls.

You don’t have to say anything in Al-Anon; you could sit there in silence the entire time knitting a scarf or eating a bag of chips and nobody would bat an eyelash. I didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer, so I couldn’t say it even if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to say it because unlike the more ambiguous serenity prayer, this was most definitely a Christian prayer. What would the Chabad rabbi from rehab have done, I wondered? He probably would have suggested that I say a different prayer: So, halfway through the Lord’s Prayer, I whispered the serenity prayer, quietly, to myself, so that nobody else could hear. But I didn’t feel serene—I felt separate.

Months later, I found myself at another meeting where the same thing happened. The meeting itself was powerful and full of wisdom, but when it ended, as I stood there holding the hands of those next to me, the Lord’s Prayer was recited in a collective low-pitched voice, and a sudden tidal wave of guilt washed over me.

Was it un-Jewish of me to stand in these rooms? Was I committing some sort of sacrilege by being a Jew in a room full of people reciting this Christian prayer? Was I praying in a church? Or was I praying … in a church? What if God saw me?

I also felt cheated. It wasn’t just that they were saying the Lord’s Prayer. It was that they weren’t saying the serenity prayer, which had come to mean so much to me as part of my recovery. For me, the meeting felt incomplete. The main thrust of Al-Anon was that it wasn’t based on any one particular religion. How was I supposed to get in touch with my Higher Power if we were reciting a Christian prayer that I didn’t know because I’m Jewish? Couldn’t we just stick to the non-denominational stuff so everybody felt included?

I spent the next few months bombarding people in meetings, approaching my husband’s AA buddies, determined to find an answer. What I got was a slew of unsatisfying responses, ranging from “The word ‘Lord’ is up for interpretation” (no, it’s not) to “It’s left over from when the meetings used to be more Christian-based” (so then why not just take it out?) to “Why don’t you just stick to meetings where they don’t say the Lord’s Prayer?”

And while that wasn’t exactly the point, it was practical—if not obvious—advice, and that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing ever since. At some point, a bit of recovery slipped in, and like it says in the serenity prayer, I was able to accept the things that I could not change. I came to understand that, as much as I sometimes want it be, Al-Anon isn’t magic, and not every meeting is a big pink cloud. Not everything said in the meetings will appeal to everybody, not every prayer makes sense, and there’s no perfect way to work the program. In Al-Anon, it’s all about progress, not perfection. Which in a way, is a lot like Judaism.


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Malina Saval is the Features Editor at Variety and the author of The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and the novel Jewish Summer Camp Mafia.

Malina Saval is the Features Editor at Variety and the author of The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and the novel Jewish Summer Camp Mafia.