Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn spent his 30-year career educating others and helping to ease human suffering, leading Jewish congregations in Australia, Illinois, his hometown of Miami and New Jersey.
Now, he is practicing his faith in a different line of work: Kahn runs a dispensary for medical marijuana. Call it a mitzvah — or one of God’s commandments.
“From the Jewish perspective, nothing is more important than the concept of healing and bringing sufferers relief,” said Kahn, 61.
“I was a congregational rabbi during the worst days of the AIDS epidemic and saw up-close and personal what people living with AIDS were dealing with and finding relief with medical marijuana,” he said.
Just last month, Kahn and his wife, who works as a nurse at a long-term acute care hospital, opened theTakoma Wellness Center on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., where they are legally allowed to dispense medical marijuana.
So far, they only have three customers, who must meet state criteria and suffer from one of five diseases: HIV, AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis or glaucoma.
“The cannabis plant was created by God on the second day of creation when God created all the other plants, and touching this one isn’t forbidden,” Kahn said in a June interview with New Voices, a national magazine for Jewish college students.
Stephanie Reifkind Kahn, 59, has decorated the dispensary with “hamsas,” a Jewish and Arabic symbol to ward off evil.
“They are Middle Eastern for healing and protection,” she said. “It’s something the Arab and Israeli communities agree upon. It is our shared connection.”
The Kahns are able to offer their for-profit services under the district’s Medical Marijuana Program that launched Aug. 1. All proceeds will go to HIV/AIDS charities, according to the Kahns.
Rabbi Kahn comes from the liberal stream of the Jewish faith, but he is not alone in his support of medical marijuana.
The Jewish Advocate just recently reported that the regional co-director of the Chabad of Eastern Massachusetts, which is part of the orthodox stream, had applied for a medical marijuana dispensary license, one of 181 in that state.
The rabbi, Chaim Prus of the Beth Menachem Chabad of Newton, told ABCNews.com that he would be unable to comment until the licensing process is complete.
In 2003, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution supporting medical marijuana and called its congregations to support legalization for medical purposes. But that nor any of the other Jewish denominations support widespread legalization of recreational marijuana.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia allow its regulated therapeutic use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California was the first, in 1996.
Congress had blocked legalization in the nation’s capital until 2010 with a “very well-regulated law,” Kahn said.
“We knew this could be done well and we know how to do this right,” he said. “It’s important to know the risks. But we are bringing healing and relief to people.”
Legal risks are still real, because any use of marijuana is still banned under federal law, but Attorney General Eric Holder eased fears recently saying he would respect local, regulated programs.
A 2003 report by the Institute of Medicine found that cannabinoid drugs like marijuana, which has the active ingredient THC are effective for the treatment of pain, nausea control and appetite stimulation.
The psychological benefits include anxiety reduction, sedation, and euphoria can influence their potential therapeutic value
But the institute also noted that smoking marijuana is a “crude” method that delivers harmful substance.
After their children left home, the Kahns left the United States to live in Israel, where their younger son was serving in the combat military and where medical marijuana is used legally and “robustly,” he said.
Stephanie Kahn’s father had been ill with multiple sclerosis for 50 years.
“In the 1970s he was going from doctor to doctor to try to find relief and couldn’t find anything until someone suggested he try marijuana,” said Kahn. “It gave him significant relief.”
But the man never lived to get marijuana “safely and legally,” according to Kahn.
In 2009, the couple came home to the U.S. because of transitions in their family — they were to become grandparents and Stephanie Kahn’s mother fell ill with lung cancer.
They settled in Washington, D.C., where their older son lived.
“She was going through very aggressive chemotherapy and radiation and her doctor in New Jersey had recommended medical marijuana, but she wasn’t able to find it,” he said. “She wasted away and lost 40 pounds in a few months.”
Ending suffering trumps all other Jewish laws, according to Kahn. A sick patient is not expected to fast on Yom Kippur; Jews have a responsibility to help the sick even when they are supposed to be praying.
“God would never forbid the need to go to a hospital,” Kahn said. “We put people in the ambulance and treat them with all the medical equipment — even the orthodox do.”
In addition to marijuana, which the Kahns obtain from 10 warehouses around the District of Columbia, the dispensary provides a large selection of equipment, including a “magical butter machine” that converts the drug to butter, oil or tinctures.
But Kahn also finds more traditional ways to bring comfort to his patients.
“I find so much of my time is spent counseling people and speaking to people on the phone,” he said. “I can’t say that everybody facing illness likes to have someone to talk to. But lots of people do and I am using my rabbinical skills — and that’s really great.”