Rabbi Michael Perice told his Burlington County congregation last Monday that he has been in recovery from opioid addiction for 10 years and hopes to help lift the stigma on people experiencing substance use disorder or other mental health challenges.
Perice, 35, of Philadelphia, made the disclosure during a Zoom call with more than 80 members of Temple Sinai in Cinnaminson, where he was named rabbi in 2020.
About half of the 130 households in the congregation participated in the 40-minute call, during which their rabbi told them he “innocently and tragically” became dependent on prescription painkillers after a car accident in 2007. He said opioids dominated his life until he began medically assisted addiction treatment in April 2011.
“I told my congregation the reason I’m sharing this is because they trust me every day with the most vulnerable parts of their lives,” Perice said after the call. “What would it mean if I couldn’t trust them the way they trust me?
“I was overwhelmed by the support that this community showed me,” he said. “I’ve heard from probably 50 people, sharing personal stories, congratulations, all the nice things you would hope to hear after sharing something like this.”
Recovery has “opened me up to a whole world of possibilities” and was integral to his becoming a rabbi, Perice said. He envisions Temple Sinai getting active in educational and advocacy efforts around addiction issues.
“When the rabbi told me in advance what he wanted to say, I thought it was a great idea,” said Johanna Schoss, president of the Temple Sinai board.
“For someone like the leader of our community, for whom people already have a lot of respect, to admit to having gone through a situation like this, it means that other people don’t have to be afraid to talk about it,” said Schoss, 60, who lives in Moorestown.
Said immediate past board president Stacey Blacker: “I had tears in my eyes as I watched individual reactions to what the rabbi said during his presentation, and I was moved by the people I heard from afterward.”
The reactions “are in keeping with how we have embraced the rabbi and his wife, Rachael, and how they have embraced us,” said Blacker, 53, of Manahawkin.
Addiction “is still something that is thought of as taboo, but if our rabbi and our community can help in any way, it’s huge,” she said.
Some members of the congregation had speculated that the meeting, billed as a community conversation, was arranged so Perice could announce that he and his wife, who have been house-hunting in New Jersey, had bought a home, were having a baby, or even that he would be leaving his post.
“I told them the reason was the complete opposite of leaving,” said the rabbi, who also offered reassurance that he and Rachael “feel supported, loved, and trusted.” And congregation members who spoke after him on the call affirmed that those feelings are indeed mutual, he said.
During earlier interviews with an Inquirer reporter, Perice described his incremental journey into opioid dependency. He said he was neither a regular drinker nor a recreational drug user (”pot made me paranoid”) when a doctor prescribed Vicodin for the excruciating neck, shoulder, and lower-back injuries he suffered when the car he was driving was rear-ended in 2007, when he was 21.
“We didn’t know then what we know now” about the abuse potential of powerful prescription opiates, said Perice, who initially took the medication as directed.
“It didn’t just seemingly fix the pain at first,” he said. “I had been dealing with anxiety and depression, and [the drug] gave me almost a sense of peace. It took away the angst about college and jobs. And something in my brain said, ‘I need more of this.’”
But the physical pain worsened, even as the dosages increased. Eventually, the prescribing physician refused to sign off on any further painkillers. Perice began doctor-shopping and became increasingly preoccupied with maintaining his new normal — and fending off what he described as the “hell” of withdrawal.
“I told myself, ‘I can’t be an addict,’” he said. “I was getting it from a doctor. I had legitimate pain. How can I be an addict?
“But after two years went by, doctors were no longer close to prescribing what I needed. I needed to find other ways — calling friends and acquaintances, going into medicine cabinets and checking wherever I could get it.
“That’s when I was introduced to OxyContin, which is a very powerful opiate. That was the medication I was most actively using until the end.”
In the early spring of 2011, Perice was living in an apartment in Haddonfield. No one he knew had any OxyContin; he was strung out and desperate to stave off withdrawal.
“My skin felt like it was burning,” he said. “I was in a bad way and I called someone, who has since died, and said, ‘I need something, anything.’ He said, ‘I got you.’
“About an hour later he came to my apartment,” the rabbi said. “This part is hard for me to share. ... He brought me a bag of heroin, and left. I had never done heroin, and I was in a state. I was angry at God. I was asking, ‘Why is this happening to me?’
“I’m in the bathroom. I look at the bag, and it’s got the Hulk on it. The comic-book character. It was a moment I can only describe as a moment of clarity. I was able to see that if I did this, I might die.
“I just flushed it down the toilet, called my parents, and said, ‘I need help.’”
Perice entered long-term medically assisted outpatient treatment with an anti-craving medication. He also began counseling and underwent physical therapy.
“I was lucky. My family had the resources for private treatment,” he said. “Treatment saved me, but it didn’t give my life purpose. Re-finding my faith gave me purpose.”
After he was, in his words, “liberated” from opioids, Perice, a 2004 graduate of Cherry Hill High School East with a B.A. in political science from Temple University, considered going to law school. He dabbled a bit in politics.
But working in the family business — his mother, Eileen Perice, is vice president of the Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks funeral homes — meant he had many opportunities to comfort and pray with mourners. His mother had always said he’d make a good rabbi, and he began thinking about the rabbinate.
Perice entered Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote in 2014 and was ordained in June 2020. He became Temple Sinai’s religious leader on July 1, 2020.
He and Rachael were married last August. The rabbi consulted his wife; his mother; and his father, Salvatore Perice, as well as leaders of Temple Sinai, before finalizing his decision to go public.
“Before the call, I was walking around my house and kept saying to my wife, ‘Sometimes you have to have courage and take a leap of faith.’ I said it over and over.”
Nevertheless, during the call members of the congregation saw a young religious leader who was composed, candid, and inspirational. Sharing an essential truth about his life “was a very powerful moment for me, and for my community. I was hopeful that it would be,” Perice said.
“But there are a lot of feelings about the issue [of addiction] in the world. Many people have dealt with this in their families.
“Addiction causes pain for everyone around [the person living in addiction]. So it’s important to help people move through that pain,” said the rabbi.
“By removing the stigma and getting people help early, we can help them, and their families, heal.”