On Fridays, the children would line up, all glittery pink shoes and Ninja Turtle T-shirts, and hike up a steep driveway from the preschool yard to the temple sanctuary. They walked single file or in pairs, one teacher in the lead and another bringing up the rear, each holding one end of a rope. The kids, 3 and 4 years old, gripped the length of the rope with their little hands stained with watercolor paint and Play-Doh dye. You could hear them singing Shabbat songs as they walked, and later, as they poured into the aisles and climbed onto the chairs in the temple and tried to sit still for a whole 20 minutes. By noon, when parents went to take them home, they were spent and tousled, excited but worn out by the morning's exploits. In their backpacks, they carried small challahs they had baked for that evening's dinner.
The last time I looked, my own kids were putting their little challahs next to a store-bought one in our dining room. That was 15 years ago. Yet I can hardly drive past their old school these days without seeing them and their little friends, loved and cared for and blessed with that unspoken compact between fate and its children — that they will be eternally young, forever standing on solid ground, thriving and triumphant and able, should they ever need at the end of a long, hard morning, to go back to the quiet safety of home.
That's what the rope is for, what constitutes a major difference between Western and more traditional cultures: past elementary school in this country, the rope becomes the umbilical cord that must be severed in the interest of parents and child; past voting age, it becomes a noose that'll kill you if you put up with it for more than four hours on Thanksgiving. In our neck of the woods, the rope may choke you if you let it. But if used sparingly, it can be the lifeline that's always there, right below the water's surface, in case you feel you're drowning.
I saw that rope again last Friday night at the famed and fabled "Jewish rehab" clinic Beit T'Shuvah, on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. You don't have to be a patient or a family member to belong to the synagogue, or to attend Friday services, which is one reason I, and many others, were there that night. The other reason, I suspect because I experienced it that night, is that something extraordinary and transformative happens here every week.
There is, to begin with, the range of characters you find here, and that you'd never see under one roof at a traditional shul. An African-American family sits in the front row, next to an Ashkenazi doctor and his wife, between a young, pretty, school teacher and a tall, tanned man in $3,000 crocodile cowboy boots. There's the six-piece jazz band that accompanies the slender young cantor, and the clinic's senior rabbi and spiritual director, Mark Borovitz, known affectionately as Rabbi Mark, whose personal story — ex-con saved by faith — he doesn't let you forget.
And there is, to the great credit of the clinic's founder and director, Harriet Rossetto, the intentional shedding of pomp and circumstance, of the theatrical staging of board members and major donors on the bimah and the endless speeches by distinguished gentlemen in suits that is so common at more established synagogues. To my personal relief, there's also the condensed length — two hours instead of the usual four at traditional synagogues, the absence of a why-not-say-it-a-dozen-times-if-only-once-will-do? mentality that will have you recite the same few verses extolling the almighty's goodness and generosity until you forget what you're saying.
Mostly, though, there's the word itself — teshuvah — and the very astonishing way in which it is realized here. In Judaism, teshuvah represents the process of confession and atonement and the eventual purification of the soul, the kind of thing we hope for around the High Holy Days, and, I dare say, rarely achieve. That is the mission and purpose of the center, its patients and staff. But it's the word's literal meaning — return — that rings especially true here.
The minimum age for being admitted to Beit T'Shuvah is 18. Many of the patients are not much older than that. They are beautiful, brilliant creatures at the brink of adulthood, radiant with youth and promise. Just the other day, they were singing Shabbat songs and baking challah to take home to their parents. Some time between the moment they walked out of that first synagogue and into this one, they let go of the rope that had kept them on one path with most other kids their age. But now they're back, and the only thing they seem to have lost between that day and this is the sense of invulnerability, the illusion, perhaps, that they will never need a lifeline, never lose their way in the beaming, dazzling light of youth.
Could anyone have seen, had they examined the palms of those little hands lined with sand and streaked with markers 20 years ago, the road these children would travel thereafter? Is that why they made those small, hard challahs? To leave a trail of breadcrumbs in case they went too far into the woods?
It's not true, what they say about going home. In some places at least, for some fortunate people, you can go home again. On Shabbat, they even give you a challah in this home. It's larger than what the kids made in preschool and considerably more palatable — as good a reason as any to attend the service.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC whose column appears monthly in The Journal. She can be reached at ginabnahai.com.