April 24, 2008
House of Repentance: Where no one is beyond redemption
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.