Sunday, October 01, 2006

Returning to God

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Scott Newman was fresh out of jail and trying to shake a 20-year heroin addiction when he heard about a rehab center in L.A.

Beit T'Shuvah wasn't like the rehabilitation centers he had been to before. It was just for Jews, and it treated addiction by healing the soul through Jewish teachings. Newman wasted little time hopping a bus from Washington state to Los Angeles in June 1996. And he has been clean since.

"Beit T'Shuvah became my community and my life. It was where I went when I was sad and where I went when I was glad. It was where I was acknowledged and appreciated," said Newman, 45, of Lake Balboa, who is now a homeowner, a consistent jobholder, a loving husband and a reliable father.

"They don't just offer detox, they offer a home."

Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown tonight, is about t'shuvah, or returning to God. Jews will observe the Day of Atonement, the holiest of their year, by attending synagogue, refraining from work and fasting for 25 hours.

But for the 120 men and women at Beit T'Shuvah, or the House of Return, t'shuvah is a yearlong act. These Jews are repenting day after day of their sins and repairing relationships with their friends, family and God.

"Addicts are people who are seekers. If you look on a bottle of whiskey, a lot of them say 'distilled spirits.' Drug addicts, a lot of them go to their connection to get a 'fix.' It's really a spiritual language," said Rabbi Mark Borovitz, the center's spiritual leader. "So we give them the way to God, to their spirit, to their soul, without ever having to get loaded again."

Combining Jewish faith and tradition with the fundamentals of 12-step programs, the center directly confronts a sentiment common in the Jewish community: Jews don't fall prey to addictive behavior.

That has particularly been the belief about alcoholism. There is even a Yiddish saying, "A shicker is a goy" — a drunk is a non-Jew.

No major studies have surveyed Jewish addictions, but anecdotally it seems to be about the same rate as the general population, said Jonathan Katz, director of a New York Jewish organization that runs a support group called Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others.

"You see people from all parts of the spectrum — educators, rabbis, doctors, lawyers, successful business people, mothers and grandmothers and aunts — people who challenge the stereotype that an addict is something lying filthy in the gutter," Katz said.

Borovitz knows how easy it is to be seduced by addiction.

Having grown up in a comfortable Jewish home in Cleveland, Borovitz threw away stability for booze and crime. He was a mobster, a con man and a thief — serving two prison terms in the '80s for it.

"My crime was I stole your trust," he said Friday before a Sabbath service at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. "A con man steals from you all you have: A con man steals from you your soul."

But, for the past 18 years, he has been trying to restore souls. "He really emphasizes self-forgiveness," said Basya Goldstein, 43, of Memphis, Tenn. "We hate ourselves so badly, and if we don't get past that it perpetuates the drug use."

Goldstein arrived at Beit T'Shuvah three months ago. She had been to Hazelden, to the Betty Ford Center. Nothing could cure the cocaine addiction she began at 23 out of boredom. "I was the mom who was snorting cocaine in the car-pool lane," she said.

An Orthodox Jew of upper-middle class means, Goldstein left behind her four children and husband, a financial adviser, and anticipates being at the rehab center for 12 months.

So far, she's been shocked and encouraged by the love and support she has felt from both her families — the one in Memphis and the one in L.A.

"That's our biggest fear: If we let people know who we are and what we've done, no one is going to love us," Goldstein said. "Rabbi has shown me that's not true."

Beit T'Shuvah began 20 years ago as a halfway house for Jewish ex-cons. Located near MacArthur Park, the home was created to rehabilitate Jews who were repeatedly returning to jail and prison for crimes connected to alcohol and drug addiction.

Its founder, Harriett Rosetto, was performing outreach to Jewish prisoners at the time. A few years after, she met Borovitz, who was an inmate and the rabbi's clerk at California Institution for Men in Chino. When Borovitz got out, he went to work for Rosetto. They fell in love and married.

Under the guidance and spurring of Rabbi Ed Feinstein at Valley Beth Shalom, Borovitz became the spiritual leader at Beit T'Shuvah. Even before he was ordained a Conservative rabbi in 2000, he was already the addicts' rabbi.

In 1999, Beit T'shuvah moved to a new — and larger — building on Venice Boulevard, near the heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Addicted Jews across the country are referred to the center, and the dorms often are filled with patients, ages 18 to 65.

Plenty of its patrons are the well-heeled, but about $2 million of the center's $3 million operating budget is supported by donations from foundations such as Resnick and Annenberg.

Some of the biggest spiritual support, though, has come from members of Valley Beth Shalom. For the past 10 years, Beit T'Shuvah members have visited the Conservative synagogue for Sabbath services the Friday before Yom Kippur, known as Shabbat Tshuvah.

"I wanted the kids of this synagogue to meet real heroes, so I am glad you are here," Feinstein said as dinner wrapped up. "You have a place set at our table. You have a place in this community. You are our family. You are home here."

Goldstein leaned over and whispered to another at the table, "Do you know how radical that is?" She couldn't imagine an Orthodox rabbi saying that.

From the social hall, about 200 people — a mix of members from both congregations — moved into the sanctuary. Beit T'Shuvah's choir led the worship, and Borovitz delivered the message, one about the importance of repairing relationships.

"Our tradition said do t'shuvah one day before you die, and since none of us knows when we will die, we should do t'shuvah every day," Borovitz said.

The service then took on the shape of a support group, with Jews from both congregations standing up to share their struggles.

"I'm Samantha," a 20-year-old woman said.

"Hi Samantha!" the congregations responded.

"OK, so I just had a meltdown. I hadn't cried about anything in a long time. I think the reason I was so upset is the last time I was here was my brother's bar mitzvah, and I was disrespectful and on coke," she said.

"I'm really grateful to be here. I've been to a lot of rehabs, and this one's the best. Thank you, rabbi."