April 24, 2008
House of Repentance: Where no one is beyond redemption
(Page 3 - Previous Page)"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!'"