Harriet Rossetto was a bright Jewish kid with success written all over her. Like other young women growing up in the early 1960s, she went to college, got married, had a child, and hoped to live happily ever after. It didn’t turn out quite that way, but today she is more fulfilled than she ever expected to be.
Harriet is the CEO and Founder of Los Angeles’ renowned non-profit drug and alcohol treatment organization called Beit T’shuvah (House of Return), the only institution of its kind for Jews in the US. She earned an MSW and then, as she describes her life at 45, she became unemployed and homeless, hitting rock bottom. From that despairing place one day she picked up an LA Times classified ad for a job as a Social Worker at the county jail. The ad specified the need for “a person of Jewish background and culture to help incarcerated Jewish offenders. MSW required.”
That turned out to be a fateful day. The job, working with Jewish addicts and cons, led Harriet to found Beit T'shuvah and meet her husband and partner, himself an addict and con, who would eventually be ordained Rabbi Mark Borovitz.
Harriet is brutally honest and self-revealing about herself, her struggles, her life, and addictions. She also speaks movingly of the central role her return to Judaism played in her journey, offering the essence of what she discovered this way:
“Judaism began to rest on a few core beliefs that helped me redefine my perception of myself, of others and of the purpose of life.
I matter. You matter. I have a holy soul. I am imperfect by design. My value is a birthright. Change is possible and mandatory. Right action is the bridge to wholeness of self.”
Harriet recognizes that her formerly negative view of life, that "nothing matters and who cared anyway, had been shifting: Everything [now] mattered, I realized. Everything. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: something sacred is at stake in every event.”
Hers and Mark’s quest turned out to be the classical Jewish mystical quest, to confront both the darkness and light in the individual soul, and to struggle towards the light and bring others along with them.
It is an irony that this child of middle class Jewish parents found her most natural home among addicts. She identified with them, struggled along with them, hit bottom like them, and became their teacher and guide:
“My qualification to be your life teacher is I have been where you are. I’ve seen it all. I know your torment, your war against yourself. I have battle-hardened experience and I still struggle every day. And I have learned how to live an integrated life. You will too. You are sure that whatever you’re addicted to is the only thing that will relieve the misery of your emptiness, the hole that aches. Without (fill in your own blanks) drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food, money, power and prestige… there is no reason to get up in the morning….you will want to use again, and you might. But if you don’t, one day you will start to feel better. Alive again, in fact.”
Harriet teaches that, similar to other 12 step programs, “faith in a Power greater than oneself was necessary in order to stay sober. The addict has to learn how to live from within and stop seeking external solutions to internal discomfort.”
Unlike other 12 step programs, hers is based in Torah and Judaism:
“Torah is the Big book of Jewish recovery from human broken-ness. We believe if you can see yourself in every Parsha it is the Path to Shalem (wholeness) and Shalom (Peace of Mind.)”
Those accepted into Beit T’shuvah for treatment are required to live according to strict rules of the house. Prayer, meditation and learning Torah are essential components of daily life, alongside productive work, therapy and mutual support.
Beit T'shuvah is funded solely by voluntary contributions. No one is turned away because of inability to pay. Grateful parents and grandparents, foundations and friends support it because it works.
Harriet’s spiritual memoir is a moving tale of ongoing recovery; hers, Rabbi Mark’s, and all those who pass through. Her story, though unique and extraordinary, in truth is everyone’s story because each of us can locate ourselves somewhere along that continuum of addiction to non-addiction. We’re all broken somehow. All of us yearn for healing and liberation from our personal Mitzrayim (“Egypt” – lit. “the narrow constricted places” that enslave us and bow our heads).
Harriet’s book is one more thing – It is moving testimony to the capacity of each one of us to lift ourselves up, turn our lives around, one step at a time, one day at a time, one moment at a time.
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