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Jewish Journal

One day at a time, one person at a time

by Roberto Loiederman

April 24, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Rabbi Mark Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto

A life-size soft sculpture of a cleaning woman scrubbing the floor marks the entrance to the office of Harriett Rossetto, founder and executive director of Beit T'Shuvah, and serves as a metaphor for Rossetto's vision: to give addicts a chance to scrub their souls and rejoin the world of "normies" -- what addicts and alcoholics call normal people.

A social worker, in 1984 Rossetto took a job doing outreach to Jews in prison. "I was very captivated by the prisoners I met," she says.

In response to those experiences, Rossetto founded Beit T'Shuvah in 1987, and in 1999 moved the Jewish rehab center into its large, current quarters in Culver City. At any time, the place is home to between 110 and 120 addicts and alcoholics, men and women of all ages, nearly all of them Jewish. It feeds and houses them, and it provides spiritual, therapeutic and rehab groups that are also attended by outpatients.

The rules are strict at Beit T'Shuvah: no drugs or alcohol, no computers or cellphones during the first few months. And how and when one can leave the facility is regulated. Residents, particularly the newly arrived, are separated from the world that led them to addiction and prison.

Nevertheless, each resident is treated according to his or her unique needs. "We individualize everyone's program," Rossetto says. "The bureaucratic notion that what we do for one we have to do for everybody always infuriated me. This place runs on the idea: 'Let's find out who you are.' Mark [Borovitz] would call that 'What is your soul that is different from everyone else's soul?'"

"Mark was an inmate in state prison when we first met. He wasn't a rabbi at that time. I had just started Beit T'Shuvah, and one way or another we hooked up and we've grown this place together -- and we're married to one another. He does the spiritual part, and I do the psychological part, but we don't really distinguish those things. Judaism is a path of healing here; the interpretations of the prayers and the Torah are related to one's inner life and to recovery."

"There's nothing ethereal about what we do," adds Borovitz, "nothing philosophical. It's all about: How do I live as a decent human being? How do I live not giving in to my thoughts and desires and feelings? How do I instead choose the high road and live a life of purpose, meaning and decency? And we use Judaism as a basis for that."

"No one is exempt from addiction," Rossetto says. "Addiction happens regardless of money, religion, class, social status, education or any other factor. It's the great equalizer. The people here, [nearly] all of them being Jewish, are in a community where the similarities outweigh the differences. What happens is that people come here and they connect. They connect in a way that would not happen in the outside world."

"Addiction is a condition in which there is chronic relapse," Rossetto says. "It's very difficult to give up the thing that makes you feel the best in the world. And a different way of living is very challenging. Untreated, the success rate is about 15 percent. Here, we have a success rate of between 60 percent and 70 percent." The figure is based on surveys carried out by Beit T'Shuvah.

Rossetto is fond of the Talmudic saying that if you save one person, you've saved the world. "The reason we've been successful," Borovitz adds, "is because it's not just treatment. It's also a spiritual path and a community. People come back and take cakes for sobriety anniversaries, they have baby-namings here, weddings -- we do it all."

"There is no other place like this in the world," Rossetto says.

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