Jewish Journal


April 24, 2008

House of Repentance: Where no one is beyond redemption


Community members join in lighting Shabbat candles

Community members join in lighting Shabbat candles

In the small lobby, a teenage boy with blondish hair sits passively on a couch, staring at the wall, not reacting to the threats thrown his way. His mother, her face puffy from crying, pleads with her husband, the boy's enraged stepfather, who slams in and out of the building, furiously yelling that the boy stole his car and his money to buy drugs.

Rabbi Mark Borovitz tries to calm everyone down, but he gives no solace to the boy, telling him firmly that he's screwed up and will have to pay for it. "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime," says the rabbi -- a refrain from his own criminal past.

Hang out for any length of time at Beit T'Shuvah, a Jewish rehab clinic/synagogue/halfway house on Venice Blvd. in Culver City, and you might have your heart broken by scenes like this. The residents, about 110 men and women of all ages, nearly all of them Jewish, are drug addicts and alcoholics -- often with a criminal record.

Some at Beit T'Shuvah are repeat offenders remanded here by the courts as a last-ditch attempt to detour a dead-end life destined to be spent in and out of penal institutions. Some are midcareer professionals whose lives -- fueled by substance abuse -- have spiraled out of control. And some -- like the young man who stole his stepfather's car and money so he could resume his drug habit -- are lost children, "nice" Jewish kids gone astray.

It's just before 7 a.m. on Monday morning. On the south wall of the Beit T'Shuvah sanctuary are brightly colored stained glass windows that tell stories from the Bible or parables about recovery. One of them, in the adjoining lounge, has a Talmudic text that's the motto for this center: "In the place where the repentant stand, even the most saintly cannot reach."

About 60 residents, many in sweatclothes, filter into the sanctuary, each one carrying a Bible. The public address system blares out: "Brush your teeth and comb your hair. The rabbi is in the house, and Torah class is about to start."

Bearded, graying Borovitz usually dresses casually for this early-morning Torah class, but today he's wearing a dark suit; he tells the group that he's ministering at a funeral later -- a former resident was in a fatal traffic accident. Residents share a knowing look; among addicts and alcoholics sudden death is tragic, of course, but not unexpected.

The rabbi reads the Torah portion of the day, Ki Tissa, Exodus 30, in which the Israelites are asked to pay a half-shekel as an offering: an "atonement tax."

This Torah class, like every gathering at Beit T'Shuvah, reinforces the same messages about rehab and recovery, and the rabbi lays it out clearly: "In order to be enrolled," Borovitz says, "it takes more than ritual, more than individual piety. You've separated yourself from the community, but by paying that half-shekel, you're saying that you're willing to take the next right step. You're saying, 'I am a member.' When you don't make that commitment, it weakens the whole community. But when you do, when you make a statement by your actions, when you enroll, you're saying that you want to be part of the community."

Borovitz, 56, strokes his beard and looks upward, remembering his own strange journey from con man/criminal/alcoholic/prisoner to rabbi and spiritual mentor.

"When I was in prison and started to study with Rabbi Mel Silverman, I asked him, 'Are you going to cut me off, too?' But the fact is: No one had cut me off. No one had cut me loose. I had turned away. I had turned my back on the community. It's the same with all of us. By our actions, we cut ourselves off from our families and our community....

"Of course, you must cut yourself off from those you used drugs with; that's good. But cutting yourself off from a supportive, healthy community, that's not good."

A probing, thoughtful resident -- call him Bret -- raises a hand. "Is there some point at which we cut ourselves off so much that we cannot go back to our community?"

"No," says the rabbi without hesitation. "There's no such point." He pauses a moment, touching the lapel of his somber suit jacket. "Except death, of course."

That, in a nutshell, is the philosophy that underlies Beit T'Shuvah. No Jew -- no person -- seeking recovery is ever turned away. No one is beyond redemption.

"I had a real life," Bret says. He's in his mid-40s. "I went to Harvard Business School and worked in pension funds management. I had 200 clients worth a total of 90 billion dollars. Then I got involved with crack ... and my life went downhill.

"I was the kind of crack addict who wallows and tries to eliminate feeling. So the more I used, the more miserable I'd feel and the more drugs I would need to eliminate that feeling. It got to the point where I couldn't function at all.

"I was married and left my wife because I felt that she would not have let me live the life of drugs I wanted to live. Which is complete insanity when you think about it: to remove the one person from your life that could stop you from destroying yourself."

Bret usually carries a Bible and a book he uses to learn Hebrew. He's as dedicated to his studies of Judaism as he used to be to his other pursuits.

"Before I came here, I wasn't religious," he says. "My relatives were all old lefties, so I was brought up with no religion, but with cultural Judaism: We had a seder, for example, but never went to synagogue. Being here and practicing Judaism for the first time, I feel that I'm connecting with the spirit of my ancestors. It's wonderful.

"Here, it's easy for me to be off drugs. When I'm here, I simply don't have the feelings that used to drive me to drugs. The hole inside me that drugs used to fill, that hole is now filled with community and with Judaism. "This has been a life-changing experience for me. Life-affirming. The connection with the others is the important thing. Becoming part of a living, searching community. The people here are teaching me all the time: how to live life, and how to live a Jewish life."

Part of the therapy at Beit T'Shuvah is the very fact of living communally -- being responsible for cleaning and other chores. It forces those who have been self-obsessed to think about others. As one of the counselors said at a group meeting: "If you assume that we're part of a team, an organic unit, then someone not doing his share becomes an impediment to everyone."

A resident, call him Jake, passes by. He and Bret nod warmly to one another. "This is my brother," Bret says. "I don't mean we have the same parents -- we don't -- but here we're all brothers. We've all had different experiences before coming here, but what binds us together is our weakness and the recognition of that weakness."

Jake, in his mid 40s, is originally from New York. He's short, husky, strong, lots of tattoos. He says that he started using drugs when he was 9 years old. "Cocaine, alcohol, LSD. I sold drugs and lived a life of crime. By the age of 15, I was selling coke at Studio 54 and made lots of money. I was into all sorts of crime and violence.

"I look back at myself, how I used to be ... I was a broken man. Emotionally bankrupt. There are no words to describe the level of humiliation I felt about myself. I had no hope. None. I felt I had two choices in life: running away or killing myself."

Jake's life reached a crisis last year when he was busted with 10 kilos of marijuana in his possession. "It was either go to jail or come here, so I chose to come here," Jake says. In fact, many residents are at Beit T'Shuvah because a judge offered them that option instead of prison.

"I never had any sympathy for Judaism until I got here," Jake says. "I walked into Beit T'Shuvah for the first time during the High Holy Days last year. Appropriate, isn't it? New Year, new beginning. I had the chance to leave my old life behind and that's what I've done. Now I lay tefillin every day. Every day.

"On Friday mornings we go to Venice Beach to do it, early in the morning. I stand on the sand at Venice Beach and lay tefillin and I feel close to my ancient relatives. My ancestors." After their prayers, some residents go surfing.

Does he ever miss his old life? Jake smiles gently. "I can't hold on to any of those old ideas about myself, who I used to be, the world in which I used to travel ... because if I get involved in crime again, I'm going to die. There is no wiggle room on that."

Beit T'Shuvah uses a three-pronged approach to sobriety: the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step model, psychotherapy and Jewish spiritual teachings. All three are equally important. Psychotherapy provides a framework for undoing past mistakes, the 12-step program is a way of dealing with the present, and Judaism gives a coherent path for the future.

The AA 12-step model has been around for nearly 70 years and has helped a great many people stay sober. Essentially, it's a spiritual/psychological program that involves group sessions in which the addict/alcoholic agrees to follow certain steps. Among them are: admitting that one has made terrible mistakes; acknowledging that one is powerless in the face of addiction; pledging to turn one's life over to a "higher power," however one perceives that power. Other steps include carrying out a "fearless" psycho-spiritual inventory of oneself, making a list of persons one has harmed and trying to make amends, if possible.

At Beit T'Shuvah, a resident's day starts early and ends late, going from group to group, with chores in between. Each day, each group repeats and reinforces the fundamentals of recovery.

"Cal," 62, is tall, bearded and tough-looking, with shaved head and large, strong hands. He first came to Beit T'Shuvah as a resident five years ago. Now a counselor, he leads groups, his moral authority buttressed by his own past bouts with addiction and recovery.

In all groups at Beit T'Shuvah, residents are asked to relive the depths of pain and shame that addiction and alcoholism led to, and to conduct a truthful self-examination. Cal lists the lies addicts tell themselves. "Here's one: It can't get any worse than this." And the truth is? All of them know the answer: "It can get a whole lot worse."

How much worse? "I woke up in a strange city, on the floor, wallowing in my own vomit and [feces]." "I stole money from my parents, went to a casino and gambled it all away." "My girlfriend O.D.'d and died in my arms and I was busted for heroin possession."

Cal's group ends by providing some hope. "Remember," he says, "and this is important: The biggest lie is that you can't change, that you can't get better. Because the truth is that you can. You can get better." Cal thinks for a moment, then adds: "Another lie is that we aren't our brother's keeper. Because we are. The truth is, we are our brother's keeper."

There are women at Beit T'Shuvah as well. "Miriam" is 28 and has been at the center for eight months. She started doing drugs at the age of 15 -- "mostly meth." Her father used crack and heroin, and after her parents divorced, she was brought up in Hollywood by her mother. In high school, she was kicked out of several schools, including a private Jewish academy.

Later she went to art school, where she "needed speed to function." Working off and on for animation companies, she got into a vicious cycle of losing jobs and stealing money from her family, while living with her boyfriend, who happened to be a drug dealer. "I couldn't stop using," Miriam says. "Finally, I asked my mom for help. A doctor recommended an inpatient program, so my mom and I walked in here one day, we just walked in cold without calling first. I was admitted right away.

"I had one slip about four months ago: I took a bicycle and drove to a dealer's place and got high. But when I got back here, I knew I had screwed up, so I requested that I be tested for drugs, and of course I tested positive for meth. I pushed the situation so that I'd be found out. Now, I have a sponsor and I participate in all the groups.

"After I screwed up, the rabbi told me: 'You can't screw up anymore.' And I haven't. I love it here. I feel safe here. The truth is, I don't know how to make friends with normal people. All I've ever known is where to get drugs and how to surround myself with people who use drugs. So the phase I'm in now is building structure to my life. Because that was what was always missing in my life: structure. I lost structure -- and I lost emotional development -- when I started using drugs at the age of 15."

Miriam is not the only one at Beit T'Shuvah who feels uncomfortable in the outside world, and whose life needs the structure imposed by an institution. The staff is aware of this. Many of the groups are designed to provide residents with tools they'll need: how to get a job, how to keep it, how to communicate with family and community, how to handle the nuts and bolts of modern life. When the time comes to leave, residents are urged to keep in touch, come to service, go to groups when schedules permit, maintain ties with a sponsor.

In spite of all that support, leaving Beit T'Shuvah and going back to the outside world can be daunting. Borovitz said that sometimes, when people are asked to leave, they "get into extreme fear, the fear of being cut off from this community. Some people fear they're going to die."

Not unlike those who spend much of their lives in a yeshiva, a monastery or the military, some residents seem to function adequately only within an institution that provides structure for them. Perhaps that's why many people come back to the residential program more than once, in some cases again and again, over the course of many years.

Every night at Beit T'Shuvah ends with the residents gathered in a circle, assessing their day. Some choose not to speak, but they all introduce themselves in the AA fashion: "I'm so-and-so, addict." Or "I'm so-and-so, alcoholic."

There are no staff members present, so it's a chance to vent grievances. But the dominant tone of these meetings is gratitude. A resident who was once a rabbinical student -- call him Sol -- said, "I'm grateful that there are people here who have faith in me and who love me. I'm grateful to those who give me the right direction when I can't see that direction myself. I'm grateful that I feel pain and hurt because it lets me know that I'm human. I'm grateful that I no longer have to inflict misery on others in order to compensate for my own misery."

Sol's words leave a vacuum of silence in their wake, as the residents absorb them.

The highlight of the week at Beit T'Shuvah is Friday night service. There's always a large crowd of several hundred people -- residents, alumni, family, supporters and anyone who enjoys a rousing Jewish service filled with wonderful music.

There are plenty of attractive people in the congregation, and more than a few yarmulkes, but it's not exactly a typical L.A. shul-on-Friday-night crowd -- they're all ages, and some are weathered, street-wise, slightly rough around the edges, jewelry in odd places.

Borovitz warmly welcomes this week's new rehab arrivals, and he warns them that they've embarked on a difficult road. While at Beit T'Shuvah, they have one main job to do. He turns to the congregation: "OK, you tell them: what is that one commitment?"

The group shouts back loudly: "HOLD ON!"

"Right," Borovitz says. "No matter how you feel, you gotta hold on."

Borovitz starts his sermon with words from one of his spiritual heroes, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prayer should be subversive and overthrow the "pyramids of callousness" and the forces that "destroy hope."

The rabbi prowls the area in front of the ark, as well as the aisles, like an Old Testament prophet. "You can't do injustice to another just because you feel like it," he says. "That's evil at its basest. It's using people's vulnerabilities against them. It's taking kindness and turning it into weakness. It's saying, 'I can do whatever I want. I'm entitled.'

"Prayer has to overturn that. If it doesn't, it's meaningless. If it doesn't, it's useless, and religion has no bearing in the world.... We have to make a commitment to use prayer to overthrow evil," Borovitz says, "to overthrow the evil that goes along with things. The evil that says, 'Oh, you know, it's OK, whatever.'"

The rabbi's sermon has the congregation mesmerized, as if an electric current were running through the floor. Then a cellphone rings. The rabbi reacts.

"We can keep cellphones ringing on Shabbos," Borovitz says. "Who cares? Because, after all, how I might impact someone else, that doesn't matter ... it's all about what I want. If prayer doesn't help overthrow that, then it's useless.

"We pray so that we can overthrow evil attitudes.... Our prayer tonight is that you will finally use prayer to overthrow the callousness in the world and in your community.... Our prayer tonight is that you'll use prayer to overthrow your tendency to use someone else's vulnerabilities against them. Our prayer is that you'll finally say: 'Enough already! I'm not going to allow evil to hang out at my house any more!'" So what is the success rate for residents who are making a genuine effort to reshape their lives, people like Bret and Jake and others who are deeply involved in the process and devoted to Jewish practice? What are their chances?

The most optimistic assessment, even among those who truly want to hold on, is that at least one-third to one-half of them will relapse. So a committed effort is a good foundation ... but it may not be enough.

Still, that leaves plenty of success stories. Look around during Friday night services and you'll see lots of men and women who were once residents and are now making their way in the world: sober, involved with their community and their families, contributing in ways that -- before they came to Beit T'Shuvah -- didn't seem possible.

After the service, Cal, a counselor, adds this: "There was a story I wanted to tell you," he says. "A middle-aged couple comes to the Baal Shem Tov ... and they're desperate. They don't know what to do about their son. The Baal Shem Tov asks, 'What has he done?' They say, 'He has turned away from God. What can we do?' The Baal Shem Tov thinks about it for a moment and tells them, 'Love him even more.'"

That's what Beit T'Shuvah does. It takes in men and women who have turned away from what they should be and do, and it loves them even more. It gives them the hope of returning: to themselves, their families, their communities.

Beit T'Shuvah is located at 8831 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, and can be contacted at 310-204-5200. Their website is http://www.beittshuvahla.org/.

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