President Bush hugged a cantor, listened to an Orthodox high school choir, walked with an addict-turned-rabbi and heard success stories of the Jewish-based Beit T'Shuvah addiction treatment center during his March 3 Southern California visit.
"We're all realizing that we need to have faith," said Conservative Rabbi Mark Borovitz, an ex-convict and ex-addict who is the spiritual leader of the 120-bed Beit T'Shuvah on Venice Boulevard in West Los Angeles. "It's not about a religion, and it's not about trying to change somebody's religion."
Bush met with Borovitz for 40 minutes before his speech at a regional conference of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the Staples Center. Borovitz escorted Bush to the podium, where the president spoke about faith-based addiction treatment programs. During his speech, the president praised Borovitz and his wife, Beit T'Shuvah CEO Harriet Rossetto, and Harold Rothstein, a recovering addict who is now Beit T'Shuvah's facilities manager.
"And they helped save Harold's life," Bush told the crowd. "The guy was lost, and now he is found, thanks to these two good souls."
Bush met seven addiction counselors and former addicts during the 40-minute meeting. Along with Christian-based Union Rescue Mission and Welcome Home Ministries representatives at the meeting, "we were the Jewish program," said Rossetto, who met her husband before he was a rabbi and while he was a drug addict imprisoned at the California Institution for Men in Chino.
The Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Office is opposed by civil libertarians who believe federal funding for faith-based programs violates church-state separation mandates. However, Beit T'Shuvah residents have said their recovery is helped in a setting that is both medical and spiritual.
According to Rossetto, Bush said at the meeting, "The government can't open people's hearts -- it can only give money to the people that can open people's hearts."
"He talked to each of us in turn," she said. "I saw it not as a political event but as being known by the office of the president. I agree with the president on this use of faith as the key ingredient to help people heal from addictions. So it was an experience of unity, of people being united around a common belief, people with whom I might otherwise not be sitting around a table."
During his Staples Center conference speech, Bush said, "Harriet is married to Mark. Mark is now a rabbi. He was in prison. He was addicted. He told me the story about how the rabbi in the prison got a hold of Mark, and said, 'I'm never going to forget you. I love you. I want to help you.' And so Mark runs into Harriet, his wife, who has started a -- she, too, is a social entrepreneur, by the way, at Beit T'Shuvah. It's a program for addicts."
"She sees him at the prison," Bush said, according to a White House speech transcript. "He's kind of a -- probably feeling his oats pretty good about that time. She says, fine, why don't you -- if you want to do something constructive, why don't you just show up at our program? So he did, three years later."
Jim Towey, Bush's faith-based initiatives director, tapped Borovitz and Rossetto for the preconference meeting after learning of the facility through Beit T'Shuvah board member and philanthropist Annette Shapiro.
"The president is following through on his commitment to faith-based initiatives," said Bruce Bialosky, Southern California chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition. "Jews recognize that they face some challenges, and they are dealing with those challenges. We have such low incidents of alcoholism comparatively, but in a secularized society, we face more and more of that."
Bush sent Borovitz and Rossetto a holiday card last December. "I have it framed," revealed Rossetto, who said of the president, "He's personable."
The 16-member choir of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills performed at the event. "We were the only entertainment at this White House interfaith convention," said Cantor Avshalom Katz, the choir's director and cantor at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. "We got the request two days before from the White House to perform for this convention."
The choir sang "America the Beautiful," and the prayer for the State of Israel, "Avinu Shebashamayim," as well as, "The Inventor's Song," to which Katz gave a Jewish inventors twist, as the choir sang lyrics including, "Salk made the polio vaccine. And it took Rickover and his special talent to float a nuclear submarine."
"After his speech," Katz said, "he came to shake hands. As he approached me I said to him, 'Mr. President, you are the best.' And he gave me a hug and a kiss. It was a kiddush HaShem [honor to God's name]."