He went to a festival on a Friday afternoon and woke up in a hospital Emergency Room on Tuesday

A life-threatening overdose sheds light on the potential risks to Haredi and formerly-Haredi festival-goers.

Sababa Festival 2023

Jun 21, 2024 9:48 AM


A teenager arrived at camping grounds in the artsy Catskills hamlet of Narrowsburg, New York, to a sea of greens, a tonal shift from the crowded sidewalks and whirring traffic of his native Brooklyn.

He’d paid $350 for a ticket to attend the 2023 Sababa music festival, an annual event that bills itself as a fun and safe place for both religious and formerly religious Haredi Jews, complete with kosher meals and Orthodox-friendly artists. But while his fellow attendees would spend their time dancing and playing frisbee, the teen had a very different weekend in store for him.

That day, the 18-year-old, who asked Shtetl not to use his name, lost consciousness, only to learn days later that he had suffered a life-threatening drug overdose that spooked his friends and at first befuddled his doctors.

“It was traumatizing,” the young man said.

A music performance at the Sababa 2023 festival

His story sheds light on the unique challenges faced by people who leave the traditional Haredi fold, and how organizers and attendees of events that cater to these individuals might better prepare to deal with scenarios particular to this community. Festivals like Sababa provide opportunities to spend time away from the strict rules and norms of daily Haredi life but they also present safety challenges for those who are vulnerable as a result of their sheltered upbringing.

On the Friday afternoon he arrived at the festival, the teen got high from taking psychedelic mushrooms, which are illegal in New York. He had previously taken shrooms and other recreational drugs, but on this occasion he was “having a bad time.” With his judgment impaired, he accepted some drugs from a man he knew through another friend. The man said they would “pull [him] out of” the bad trip.

But the drugs the man had given him — which included cocaine, ketamine, and MDMA — made the teen feel much worse, not better. Dangerous by themselves, these illegal drugs are even more dangerous when mixed.

That evening, after he took the drugs, he remembers feeling dizzy and crying to his friends about “random stuff.” Finally, he went to his tent to sleep.

He doesn’t remember what happened next, but his medical records, reviewed by Shtetl and an emergency medical physician, help tell the story of the next few days. The teen’s friend told a doctor that he found him on Saturday morning on the floor of his tent, and he was taken to Sababa’s medical tent at about 1pm.

Shortly after midnight on Sunday, more than 24 hours after the teen first took the drugs, the volunteer emergency medical service Hatzalah took him to the hospital. On the intake forms, the hospital notes that a Hatzalah medic told a doctor that he’d found him on the ground, unresponsive. Another doctor took note of “scattered dirt” on his body.

The teen remembers waking up in the intensive care unit on Tuesday, four days after he took the drugs. “I couldn’t move,” he said. “I wasn’t strong enough to really speak.”

“I didn’t realize what’s happening,” he said. “The nurse said, ‘you overdosed and you’re in the hospital.’”

But his case was more complicated than an overdose. Doctors found that the teen also had sepsis, an overwhelming blood infection that they attributed to a dental issue for which he needed, but had not gotten, a root canal treatment. Prior to finding the tooth infection, doctors were perplexed by how agitated he seemed, so they tested him for seizures, but found no evidence of seizure activity.

The teen’s friend, Tzvi Cohen, was not at the festival, but heard from mutual friends that the 18-year-old was in the hospital. “That’s one of the toughest weeks of my life,” Cohen told Shtetl. “I thought my good friend could’ve died.”

The young man finally left the hospital that Friday when Cohen came from Brooklyn to pick him up.

The teen, who is now 19, grew up in the Satmar Hasidic community before going off the derech, the traditional path Hasidim are expected to follow, and leaving his parents’ home at age 15. Since then, he told his hospital doctor, he has faced financial problems and bouts of sadness during which he feels guilty for disappointing his parents.

Growing up in Brooklyn, the teen said, he had always had a sense that drugs could be dangerous. It came partially from news reports. But aside from the news, and hearsay anecdotes about people in his community suffering from overdoses, he said he didn’t learn much at Hasidic schools about the risks of illegal drugs.

His doctors seemed to notice this gap. In his medical records, a doctor wrote that the teen’s care was negatively impacted by “limited healthcare literacy,” a possible reference to his lack of health insurance and poor understanding of the dangers of combining drugs.

In New York State, all schools are legally required to provide “instruction so as to discourage the misuse and abuse of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.” Almost no Hasidic schools meet this requirement, according to a recent review of some schools conducted by the New York City Department of Education.

Dr. Michael Salamon, a psychologist who works with Haredi patients, said many Hasidic school leaders fear teaching students about drugs might have the opposite effect to what is intended. “The excuse that’s used is that ‘if we talk about it, they’ll be exposed to it, they might want to try it,’” he said. “I tell them that’s a major error and they shouldn’t be so closed-minded, because it’s going to end up killing some of their kids.”

Prayer service at the 2023 Sababa festival

Drug use — some of it legal — is common at Sababa, which takes its name from a Hebrew word meaning “cool.” The music festival has taken place in various locations in Pennsylvania and New York since its founding in 2017. This year, from June 27-30, the festival will take place in Hammonton, New Jersey, and be headlined by the famous singer Matisyahu, according to the festival website.

Cohen said that if Sababa can’t make sure that illegal drugs don’t make their way into the festival, they should at least warn attendees about their dangers. 

Warnings might contain information about “what are some of the bad consequences that could happen if you take any drugs, because a lot of the people there are uneducated,” Cohen said.

Salamon agreed. “They need to be more aware of the fact that a lot of these people who attend the festivals don’t know anything about drugs and need to be monitored better, otherwise they’re going to have big problems.”

For now, guidelines on Sababa’s website read more like legal disclaimers than education: “The use of illegal substances is strictly prohibited at the festival. Local laws will be enforced, and any violation may result in legal action,” the guidelines say. “Sababa Fest disclaims any responsibility for the actions and choices of attendees regarding substance use.”

Sababa is not the only music festival popular among Haredi Jews. Haredim also attend festivals within driving distance of New York that cater to the general public. Drug use is generally common at such events and many festivals keep overdose reversal drugs on hand.

But Cohen says that because Sababa caters to Haredim, it should do more than other festivals to meet the needs of its unique audience. 

“When people are in a space that is more familiar to them, people tend to let their guard down,” Cohen said. “That’s definitely the case at Sababa, where it’s all people of the same religion and all people in a similar place in life and it has a very homey environment to it.”

Sababa “attracts a lot of people who don’t fit in perfectly well into the regular religious categories,” Cohen said. “Some are estranged from their families or have mental health issues. This is really setting up a place where it attracts a lot of extra vulnerable people.”

After initially inviting Shtetl to cover the festival, Mendel Sherman — creator of the Sababa festival — did not answer Shtetl's questions or respond to Shtetl’s repeated requests for interviews. Alter Deitsch, the Sababa co-founder, told Shtetl he was advised not to comment for this story.

Hammonton police chief Kevin Friel said there will be a police presence there, but its intention is to prevent potential antisemitic intruders — not to check anyone’s bags for illegal drugs.

“It’s very difficult to stop people from using drugs,” Friel said. “What we’re trying to do is have an approach set up that we can deal with any incident that occurs, especially medically. We do have medical resources that are going to be on hand.”

The task of preventing drug overdoses has fallen partly on Sababa’s volunteer security guards. Last year, Shtetl interviewed volunteer security guard Yaakov Zimmerman, who said that most of the event's security guards were veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces, like him.

“There are a lot of security situations that come up, whether it’s protecting girls from boys or drug overdoses,” Zimmerman said at the time. Zimmerman declined to speak with Shtetl for this story, saying he is too busy for “drama” because he has joined the Israeli military reserves.