People making a difference: Aryeh Sufrin
Nearly killed by terrorists, this rabbi dedicated himself to helping drug addicts, including Muslims.
Picking his way through the smoke-filled London Underground and beyond the mangled subway car, Rabbi Aryeh Sufrin was unsure of what had just happened. Only later, when the news bulletins revealed that the explosion had been caused by a suicide bomber, did he begin to understand.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It was July 7, 2005, the day that four Muslim extremists detonated backpacks filled with explosives on London's public transit system, indiscriminately killing 52 commuters.
"The carriage [the bombers were in] was just one in front of me. What if the guy had seen me when he was getting on?" the Rabbi asks. "Would he have chosen my carriage? Would he have stood next to me?"
Determined not to retreat into what he calls the "paranoia attached to the Jewish experience," Rabbi Sufrin set about doing his part to bridge the divisions cleaved that day.
As he sips herbal tea in his compact office at the Chabad Lubavitch Centre – spiritual home to local Hasidic Orthodox Jews – the rabbi explains his reasoning with beguiling simplicity. The center is in Gants Hill in east London, a sometimes scruffy London suburb home to an estimated 15,000 Jews and 30,000 Muslims.
"If [a bombing] can be someone's message in evil, then we have to find the opposite in good," he says.
He didn't have to wait long to try to rebalance the equation. A Muslim man in his 20s, racked by heroin addiction, appeared at the center's door. Desperate to quit his habit, he had sought out Drugsline, an addiction support group founded by Sufrin 18 years ago and housed in the building.
A Muslim who would cross the religious divide was unusual. But to seek help for drug addiction – a taboo among both the Jewish and Muslim communities – was a first.
"He knew the consequences of telling his imam – just as Jewish kids know that most synagogues will stigmatize them rather than help. He had nowhere else to go," says the rabbi in a characteristic punchy burst.
"The similarities between our peoples are striking. Some parts of both our communities are very insular and will not face up to the trials of the modern world. But drugs don't care for religious distinctions: If you are Jewish or Muslim and have a drug problem, you are likely to face [ostracism] from your family and community. It cannot be right to abandon people when they most need help."
To those who know him, Sufrin's response to the young Muslim was entirely predictable: He opened the door and offered the same crisis intervention, advice, and counseling he has offered to Jews since 1990.
What came next was less expected.
Procuring a £115,000 ($190,000) grant from the local government council, and with the support of a progressive local Muslim imam, Haroon Patel, the diminutive rabbi launched a ground-breaking interfaith drugs project.