Welcome to rehab city

At 9:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday morning, six men in their 20s and 30s were sitting on leather chairs in a cozy, dimly lit room in a nondescript Miracle Mile building, sharing with one another and two therapists their progress in transitioning from a life of addiction to what they hope will be a clean future.

Some of the men wore gym shorts, others jeans. Some sat up straight, engaged in the conversation. Others looked down at the floor. One shifted somewhat restlessly in his seat, appearing to want to doze off but speaking eloquently when it was his turn.

This was less group therapy than conversation. Noam (a pseudonym used, as with every recovering addict in this story, to protect privacy) talked about fighting addiction at a time when most of his friends are in college. An emotion that the 20-something often fights, which haunts many addicts and can lead to addiction itself, is shame.

“I guess I beat myself up because I’m an addict,” Noam said. “I come from a family where everyone’s successful.”

This is the Chabad Residential Treatment Center. It opened in the 1960s in Westwood before moving to Robertson Boulevard in 1972 and eventually to its current location in 1999 on the corner of Olympic and Hauser boulevards. Beginning with a handful of clients and a shoestring budget, the center now has an annual budget of about $1.4 million and treats approximately 100 people — all men — per month. 

It’s also one of only three Jewish recovery programs in the nation, one of only two Jewish inpatient treatment facilities — both of which are in Los Angeles — and the only all-kosher, holiday-observant rehabilitation facility in America. 

This last, unique quality facility helps attract not only recovering Jewish addicts from California, but also many from across the country. By word of mouth alone, the center has drawn thousands of people, including visits from actors David Arquette and Tom Arnold, who did not undergo treatment at Chabad but came to speak with clients who did.

Just a short drive away on Venice Boulevard sits the only other Jewish addiction rehab inpatient treatment center in the United States — Beit T’Shuvah, which houses an eclectic mix of male and female addicts trying to recover. Many of their counselors are former addicts who went through its Torah-intensive rehab program. It is run by Harriet Rossetto and her husband, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, and was opened in 1987 with a $50,000 annual budget. Beit T’Shuvah’s rapid growth (it’s budget is now $8.5 million) mirrors that of the increasing demand in the Jewish community for addiction rehab. 

Borovitz, a Conservative rabbi who received ordination at the University of Judaism, is an ex-convict who, in his previous life, served time in a state prison in Chino. His Los Angeles Times bestselling memoir, “Holy Thief,” chronicles his recovery from two addictions — crime and alcohol — and how immersion in Torah brought him out of his dark world. 

A key tool for recovery at Beit T’Shuvah, Borovitz said in a recent interview in his office just outside Culver City, is the ability for a highly flawed — even sinful — person to see himself in the Torah.  He cites as an example Jacob, traditionally viewed as a “tzaddik,” (a righteous person), but one who cheated his brother Esau out of his deserved birthright.

“I saw that I was Jacob,” Borovitz said. “I love Jacob. Jacob was a con man, a liar, a cheat and a thief. He’s just my kind of guy.”

Borovitz says he has redirected his salesmanship traits and charisma from conning people out of thousands of dollars to teaching God and wisdom to people searching for meaning and purpose.

A major segment of Beit T’Shuvah’s recovery program involves daily Torah study. Each client is expected to regularly attend these classes. This type of spiritual therapy goes in line with a core belief shared by Rossetto, Borovitz and the Chabad center of what underlies most addiction — a disease of the soul and an inability to harness the energy of the yetzer hara, the darker side of the human that can wreak havoc if not used properly.

The Chabad facility also offers daily Torah classes, but they are not mandatory and the program does not require its clients to take a religious path to recovery. In fact, about one-third of its clients usually are not Jewish. But those who freely choose that path while at the center tend to do better, said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, a spiritual leader at the treatment center and CEO of Chabad of California.

“While the program is kosher, while the spiritual tools are available to them, they need to come to it on their own,” said Cunin, whose father, Boruch Shlomo Cunin, informally founded the center out of his Westwood home in the 1960s.

He related one story of Andrew, a client who was recovering from drug addiction and wanted to leave the Chabad treatment center three months early because he impulsively felt he could find a deeper spiritual connection in his home community in Brooklyn. 

From the Torah’s perspective, Cunin recalls telling Andrew, his only religious obligation at that point was to save his life and complete his treatment. Returning to New York, where he fell into trouble in the first place and where there was no similar rehab facility if he started using again, would be “abandoning the principles of Torah and Judaism.” 

According to Cunin, Andrew stayed in Los Angeles, completed the rehab program one year ago, and has been clean since.

Donna Miller, the Chabad center’s director, said that a problem among some of her clients, many of whom grew up in Orthodox homes in New York, is that observance never “clicked” for them. And unfortunately, too many of their parents, horrified at their sons’ addictions, mistakenly thought that simply re-engaging in Jewish study would be a solution.

“Parents think that just by sending their children back to Torah classes or yeshiva that the underlying problems will get fixed,” Miller said. “The yeshivas are not equipped to address the underlying issues and to provide the kind of support and care needed to correct a drug problem.”

A common concern shared by both Chabad and Beit T’Shuvah is the seeming ubiquity of alcohol in Jewish life. From Kiddush clubs to tisches to farbrengens (casual, religious social gatherings that often involve alcohol), alcohol in Judaism can, at least in a teenager’s eyes, seem synonymous with many of the joyous get-togethers in observant communities.

At the Chabad facility, a client is permitted to venture out to other synagogues on Shabbat and holidays, so Cunin said that nearby shuls are asked to be aware of who is in attendance, and to not serve any alcohol to someone who they know is recovering from addiction. 

Although no studies have been done on the incidence of alcoholism among Jews, recovery experts say that addiction to things like heroine, cocaine, alcohol, methamphetamine, painkillers, pornography, food and sex hits Jews just as hard as it hits any other group of Americans.

According to Dr. Abraham Twerski, an author and psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse, addiction within Judaism is “across the board.” He founded the Gateway Rehabilitation Center, a renowned treatment center in Pittsburgh, and thinks that addiction afflicts the Orthodox as much as it affects any other subset of Jews.

A common problem with recovery, Twerski told the Journal in a phone interview from New Jersey, is the insufficient time commitments that many rehab centers require. He said that most centers have programs lasting three to four weeks followed by a halfway house, but that it would be ideal to have longer treatment.

Zvi, a client at Chabad’s recovery center, said he moved in and out of short-term rehab centers and even paid $15,000 for a rapid 24-hour detox before he decided that quick fixes would never last and that to save his life he needed to be in rehab for at least six months.

Chabad requires a minimum three-month commitment, but encourages everyone to stay for at least six months before taking a job and re-entering society. For those who need more time after treatment, Chabad has “sober living” quarters, where residents are able to live independent lives within the confines of the treatment center.

At Beit T’Shuvah, residents are required to go through a three-month treatment program before being encouraged to transition back into the outside world. For residents who need it, there is a halfway home.

Even people who are clean for many years can never fully kick the temptation. In the addiction world, many clients have multiple stints in rehab centers. One reason they end up so dangerously flawed often comes from, of all things, a sense of perfectionism, according to Rossetto. Their thinking can be, she said, “If I’m not 100 percent perfect then I am completely unworthy.”

For many, she added, the sense that one’s worth is determined by material possessions is self-destructive, leading people who can’t achieve their material expectations to try to numb the pain, often with drugs or alcohol, sometimes with food or sex. For some people, especially workaholics, drugs provide a relief from the stress and intensity of day-to-day life.

Zvi described in detail his descent into his drug of choice — painkillers — and how using helped him handle the pressure of his high-powered finance job in Manhattan. Like many who are hooked on painkillers, Zvi started using them legitimately, as a way to make his recovery from a hand surgery less painful. Eventually, though, painkillers became an escape from the daily grind.

“I didn’t think twice. I just took them,” said Zvi, who grew up in New York and became addicted to Percocet and Vicodin shortly before his first child was born. Whenever he tried to kick the habit, he would fall ill, needing to take more in order to function day to day.

“It became over time like a 24-hour job because you have to make sure you have enough for the next day and for the week.”

After a downward spiral that included stealing from his family, going into significant debt, switching to heroin (which is cheaper than painkillers) and going in and out of short-term rehab facilities, Zvi was told that he needed a long-term inpatient program. And as an observant Jew, the only treatment center that fit his needs was here, on Olympic Boulevard, 2,800 miles away. 

Zvi’s predicament mirrors that of any observant addict in New York, Boston or Baltimore: Because not one Jewish in-patient rehab center exists on the East Coast — Techiya, which is in West Palm Beach, Fla., is a Jewish recovery track within a larger facility — recovering properly would require leaving one’s friends and family for many months. Twerski isn’t sure why New York, with its population of more than 1.5 million Jews, hasn’t created its own centers.

“Facilities should [have] developed out on the East Coast a long time ago,” he said. “They haven’t, but I don’t know why.”

In Los Angeles, the prevalence of addiction in the entertainment industry and in high-profile families — Jewish and non-Jewish — may have helped reduce the humiliation of coming out. Despite the stigma that keeps many addicts in the shadows, Rossetto said California’s culture makes admitting addiction — and thus recovering — easier. 

“There’s more openness about everything here, drug use included.” 

Zvi, who is expecting another child in the coming weeks, said he plans to move his family to California following his recovery. He doesn’t think the New York environment he’s known his whole life is healthy for him.

“I definitely think out here it’s a lot more ok to be a recovering addict than in New York,” Zvi said. “I feel like everyone is more laid back.”