At Beit T’Shuvah, they sing a song of ‘Freedom’
“How long must I roam, to find my way home …”
Natalie sings the lines tentatively, tugging at her black T-shirt, her voice soft and sweet.
But soft and sweet won’t cut it for a drug addict trying to work her way back into her family on seder night.
“This is your story. Stand up for it. What are you afraid of?” director Laura Bagish urges her.
Natalie, who asked that only her first name be used for this article, plays the lead role of Shira in “Freedom Song,” a Passover-themed musical produced by Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish residential rehab facility in Culver City. The actors are all alumni and residents of Beit T’Shuvah, and at a late-night rehearsal in the facility’s lunchroom, which also serves as both auditorium and synagogue, they are feeling the pressure of the three shows they will be performing before Passover.
Playing a lost daughter feels particularly familiar to Natalie: She is 18 and was addicted to heroin when, three months ago, she left Beverly Hills High School to check herself into Beit T’Shuvah.
As the cast cheers her on, she sings with more depth, but she’ll have to get stronger before her first performance, just days away.
“Freedom Song” was written nearly seven years ago, based on the real-life stories of Beit T’Shuvah residents. Conceived as a one-time production, the 45-minute, edgy musical has played continually since then to thousands of people at synagogues, schools and other organizations across the country.
The show serves as a form of therapy for the actors, but it is also a catalyst for the audience. After each performance, the cast holds a dialogue with the audience, and nearly always someone from the audience comes forward with an addiction story of their own.
“It’s amazing that the play is such a vehicle for people opening up, for cutting through the denial and allowing people to speak in a way that seeing a didactic seminar about addiction just wouldn’t do,” said Beit T’Shuvah’s Cantor Rebekah Mirsky, a former country singer who co-authored the script.
The actors use the Passover story as a lens through which to view their own journeys, and in turn reflect back to the audience a new way of internalizing the Passover story: What are you a slave to? Do you retell your foundational story and pull meaning from it, or do you hide your truth from yourself and from others? Do you truly understand what it means to live free of deception?
The staging juxtaposes a 12-step meeting with a family seder. The music, a mash-up of original theater tunes, Jewish liturgy and forceful pop, with interludes of rap, plays as a constant underscore for dialogue that weaves itself into the music.
As the story unfolds, the audience learns that the seemingly happy family members on one side of the stage are enslaved to their idea of normal, while hiding truths about themselves. The addicts on the other side of the stage share their tales of deception and self-sabotage — tales that each new round of actors writes into the script to reflect their true journey. The addicts, the audience learns, have grown to understand that owning their narrative is the only road to authentic living.
The show highlights the haggadah’s imperative for storytelling. Even if the story is shameful — 200 years of slavery, 20 years of addiction — telling it can be a powerful tool not only for an ongoing process of national rediscovery, but for deep and difficult self-improvement.
“For people who have had to be secretive, who have been ashamed of themselves and been hiding in many ways from themselves, this is really powerful,” said Beit T’Shuvah director Harriet Rossetto, who founded the program in 1987. “The message to addicts often is, ‘If anyone really knows who I am, they won’t love me.’ And I think that is what our people get — that sense that I can be me, and tell my story, and people will still love me.’ ”
Ira S., a 53-year-old who worked in the entertainment industry, is recovering from decades-long drug and alcohol abuse (he asked that only his last initial be used). He moved into Beit T’Shuvah in 2008 and now works there as a counselor. He plays Grandpa in “Freedom Song.”
“I’m not the kind of person that people see a lot. When I first came here, it was all about trying to get by without being on the radar. I was trying to hide more than being present, and that was a part of me that needed to change,” he said in an interview.
He said he was reluctant to join the cast and froze his first time on stage. But, now, he credits “Freedom Song” as being a major part of his recovery.
“I feel like I belong to something. I never felt like I belonged before,” he said.
Beit T’Shuvah is the only rehab residence in the country to integrate Judaism and the 12-step program. Its 120 beds, plus 30 outpatient slots, are always full. Two off-site residences house clients who are well into recovery, and Beit T’Shuvah recently purchased another building, next door, which it will use for its popular Shabbat services and an expansion of outpatient offerings, possibly including a drop-in center. Its prevention curriculum has reached thousands of teenage and middle school students.
While Beit T’Shuvah self-reports an impressive success rate of 65 percent, 85 percent of “Freedom Song” participants stay clean, according to Beit T’Shuvah’s Rabbi Mark Borovitz, who is married to Rossetto. The show allows for deep artistic expression and gives the participants responsibility and the sense that people are counting on them, Borovitz said.
“They know they’ve touched someone, which I’ve heard them say again and again was a bigger high than ever getting loaded was,” Rossetto agreed. “And when you give up your external high, there is a void, and if you don’t fill that with some other highs, it’s very hard to stay sober.”
Watch the trailer below.
7 Days in the Arts
Saturday the 30th
Funny Jewess Rita Rudner takes a break from her regular Vegas shtick to entertain us Angelenos this evening. Pepperdine’s Smothers Theatre hosts the comedian before she returns to the City o’ Sin for a new contract with Harrah’s on Oct. 2.
8 p.m. $65. 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 506-4522.
Sunday the 1st
Wednesday the 4th
Still some time for some “Summertime.” The Gershwins’ classic American opera, “Porgy and Bess,” plays tonight and tomorrow night as part of the opening celebration for the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Hear arias, including “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy,” through the hall’s impressive acoustics.
8 p.m. $50-$140. 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (800) 346-7372.
Friday the 6th
Inspired by the essay “The Grey Zone,” written by Primo Levi, Tim Blake Nelson penned a play and screenplay of the same name, telling the obscure story of the Sonderkommandos-Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz/Birkenau who worked in the gas chambers in exchange for better treatment. The controversial film was released in 2001, and the play now makes its Los Angeles debut in a guest production at Deaf West Theatre.
Sept. 29-Nov. 5. $20-$30. 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (800) 838-3006.
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Iranians Facing Up to Drug Abuse Taboo
Three years ago, Raymond P., a 28-year-old Iranian Jew, was a full-fledged member of a notorious Los Angeles street gang. He sold drugs and suggests that he may have participated in violent crimes. He doesn’t want to talk about specifics but explains by saying he was desperate to pay for his drug habit.
Raymond P., who asked that his real name be withheld, is among an uncertain but significant and possibly growing number of Southern California Iranian Jews who have been using and selling illegal drugs. It’s the sort of problem you wouldn’t typically hear about within the Iranian Diaspora community, because the topic embodies cultural shame for family members. Experts say that silence has aided and abetted the problem.
However, now there are efforts under way both to end the silence and help these families.
“I came from a very good family, but I didn’t care who I was hurting, as long as I was getting high,” said Raymond P., who is now in recovery.
He told his story to nearly 200 Iranian Jews gathered recently at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. The gathering late last year was the first of its kind for the community.
Since their arrival in great numbers in the United States more than 25 years ago, Iranian Jews — numbering an estimated 30,000 in Southern California — have become one of the more educated and financially successful Jewish communities. But this has not made them immune from a side effect of the American dream: drug abuse, especially among the young.
Leaders of the Eretz-SIAMAK center have decided it’s time to shatter the long-standing taboo of not publicly discussing the drug abuse plaguing Iranian Jews. It began an open dialogue on the issue late last year by gathering a panel of experts to educate families about drug abuse.
“For years, we’ve been quietly helping addicts in the community to [recover from] their drug use,” said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK. “But we finally decided to go public and try to fix this problem when we noticed it has really become widespread among our young people.”
The Eretz-SIAMAK leadership has made a mission of taking on serious and sometimes discomfiting issues within the Iranian Jewish community, including poverty, premarital sex and new Jewish immigration from Iran. It went forward with the drug-abuse awareness event after an anonymous donor provided funding. More seminars and other events are planned this summer after the same anonymous donor recently contributed $5,000 to Eretz-SIAMAK.
There’s no official or reliable data on illegal drug use among Iranian Jews, but psychologist Iraj Shamsian, who specializes in treating addicts of Iranian heritage, said that nearly half of his Iranian patients are Iranian Jews. He and other specialists say they are convinced that, based on their own practices and anecdotal evidence, the problem is growing.
Yet some families are hesitant even to seek help.
“Our culture is the type that wants to keep everything secret and not talk about it, because it’s embarrassing, and people put a label on you,” said Dara Abai, a longtime youth mentor and community volunteer who helps Iranian Jewish drug addicts. “In Iran, I remember that if someone told you to go to a psychologist, they thought you were crazy and had a serious mental problem.”
Cultural attitudes toward alcohol haven’t helped either, he added.
“In our community, we have a lot of alcohol use,” Abai said. “I go to parties and see married people half drunk. Their kids see this, and they think it’s fun. So they try alcohol at a young age, and sometimes that leads them to try drugs.”
Experts said, too, that young Iranian Jews, just like many other young people, experiment with different drugs out of peer pressure or to fit in with friends.
In working with young addicts, psychologist Shamsian draws on his own experience as an addict from 1983 to 1993.
“During those years, I never said no to any drugs I saw,” Shamsian said. “I shot heroin. I used cocaine. I used different downers and uppers — even tried acid and mushrooms.”
Shamsian said his addiction was so intense that he wasted away his savings, as well as family funds brought over from Iran, ultimately ending up on the streets of downtown before finally seeking help.
After becoming drug free, Shamsian obtained professional credentials. Besides his private practice, he works as program coordinator for Creative Care, a respected drug treatment facility in Malibu. He also hosts “Ayeneh,” a Persian-language television program, available on satellite systems, on which he seeks to educate Iranians about the dangers of drug use.
“We answer phone calls from Iranians around the world — even in Iran,” Shamsian said.
Three years ago, Shamsian, along with non-Jewish Iranians, helped found the Iranian Recovery Center (IRC) located in Westwood. The nonprofit offers seminars and education about substance abuse, as well as referrals to those seeking treatment.
“The services of the IRC are totally free and open to the public,” Shamsian said. “We help Iranians of all different religions.”
Other community resources include the Chabad Residential Treatment Center, a treatment facility run by the Chabad organization in the Miracle Mile area, where many Iranian Jews seek help for their addictions. It emphasizes Jewish values and spirituality.
However, the drug problem is not only among the young. Shamsian noted that a significant number of older Iranian Jewish men are using opium on a regular basis, because of their past use and familiarity with the drug from Iran.
Drug use frequently leads to legal difficulties, as well as financial, health and emotional problems, said Dariush Sameyah, an Iranian Jew and Los Angeles Police Department sergeant.
“I was in court recently with this person from a very prominent Iranian Jewish family, and she was heavily involved in credit card fraud to support her narcotics habit,” said Sameyah, who works in internal affairs. “This issue is prevalent in our community. If you look at the court records every day and see the cases coming up, you will see Jewish Iranian names quite frequently.”
“They get a very very rude awakening once the handcuffs go on,” Sameyah said. “Back in the day if a very well-respected Iranian person got arrested in Iran, they wouldn’t get handcuffed or strip searched the way they do here. It’s such an insult and slap in the face for an Iranian person when they are told to bend over for a cavity search, but that’s the law and public policy in the United States.”
Sameyah said a joint investigation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Los Angeles police resulted in the arrests last summer of nearly a dozen Iranians in Southern California — many of whom were Jews — for allegedly selling and importing opium, as well as laundering money generated from the sale of opium.
Besides opium and marijuana, heroin has recently made a comeback, said Sameyah.
He added that it’s almost never too soon for parents to begin discussing the drug issue with their children.
“If you want to start talking about narcotics to a 15-, 16- or 17-year-old, you’re about 10 years behind the curve,” Sameyah said. “Because that kid has spent the last 10 years in school with God knows who having glorified narcotics use for them. Education about narcotics starts at the age of 3 and 4.”
He said parents should talk about “what drugs can do to you and what they look like.”
But when children do stumble, make bad decisions and have problems, the taboos must be discarded to leave the path clear for recovery.
“We have to try not to judge people with drug addictions,” said Shamsian. “We have to look at drug abuse as a disease and not from a moral point of view.”
The Agonizing Toll of Sexual Addiction
One Friday night 33 years ago, when Yisroel Richtberg was 12
years old, an older boy sneaked into his dorm room at his Chasidic yeshiva in Israel,
pulled off Richtberg’s pajama pants and raped him. The same thing happened the
The boy told Richtberg (not his real name) that if he ever
told anyone, the two would be blacklisted at all the yeshivas, and the attacker
said he would kill himself.
Richtberg didn’t tell.
Instead, he sank into a cycle of depression, shame and
isolation, one that would lead to a 20-year addiction to prostitutes,
pornography and drugs, fronted by a double-life as an upstanding Chasidic
rabbi, businessman and father of 12.
Today, Richtberg is alive to tell his story because he got
help from therapists and 12-step programs. He has made it his life’s mission to
help others conquer an addiction so coated with shame that it resides at the
very bottom of the hierarchies of addiction.
Identified in the 1970s by Patrick Carnes, author of “Out of
the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction” (Hazelden, 2001), sex addiction
has the same psychological and physiological underpinnings as alcoholism, drug
abuse and other addictions, but cultural proscriptions against openly
addressing sexual behavior problems have made it one of the least understood of
the addictive disorders. Addicts are either feared as offenders, which only a
small percentage are, or mockingly revered with a that-sounds-like-fun wink.
But addicts say there is no pleasure in being a slave to a
compulsion so strong that it affects the body and mind as acutely as a drug.
“There is still this judgment of ‘what a sleazy guy,’ but
what they don’t understand is that the addict has a psycho-biological disorder
in which he is seeking a drug that he himself produces,” said Robert Weiss,
clinical director of the Sexual Recovery Institute, on Olympic Boulevard, just
outside Beverly Hills. “He is literally dosing himself with his own
neurochemistry, like a drug addict with a needle in his arm.”
Whether acting out by compulsively masturbating to
pornography, having serial affairs, frequenting prostitutes or habitually
seeking homosexual or heterosexual one-night stands, sex addicts sink into a
pit of shame and self-loathing, often threatening their families and
It is difficult to determine whether the incidence of
addiction is higher or lower in the Jewish community than in the general
population, where Carnes estimates that about 5 percent to 8 percent of adults
have a sexual compulsivity disorder. Conversations with several mental health
professionals who work with the Jewish community, from ultra-Orthodox to
unaffiliated, revealed that all had a significant number of patients dealing
with sex addiction, including several rabbis. Several pulpit rabbis revealed
that congregants had sought counseling from them about sex addiction.
Weiss believes the vast majority of sex addicts are men, and
pointed out that female sex addicts might be too embarrassed to seek help, or
might be getting paid to act out as prostitutes or exotic dancers.
Weiss estimates that about 20 percent of addicts are sexual
offenders, usually engaging in exhibitionism or voyeurism. Occasionally addicts
are guilty of molestation or rape, but not all sex offenders are addicts.
In a world where clothing styles, entertainment and
marketing have stripped away sexual inhibitions, triggers are everywhere for an
addict. Free-flowing pornography on the Internet has added to the mix a population
of addicts who never showed such tendencies before (see Web, p. 11).
The changing reality of cybersex has forced Jewish community
leaders, educators and rabbis to begin battling a seemingly inbred denial and
acknowledge that the community must aid its addicts.
In Los Angeles there are indications that awareness is
growing. A Jewish Federation conference on addictions in the fall of 2001
attracted 250 people.
This year, 880 people attended the annual dinner of Beit
T’Shuvah, a residential rehabilitation organization in Los Angeles that uses
Judaism at the core of its treatment — the only such facility in the country.
With the help of Rabbi Juda Mintz, himself a recovering
addict to Internet pornography, Beit T’Shuvah and the Board of Rabbis of
Southern California recently co-sponsored a series on addictions. It was at the
session on sex addiction, and in private conversations with The Jewish Journal,
that Richtberg told his story.
Addiction or Just Bad Behavior?
Richtberg is a Chasid with a scraggly beard, wide-brimmed
hat, long coat and knickers tucked into his thin black socks. Thick glasses
cover his tired blue eyes, and his Yiddish accent belies his American birth and
Two years after Richtberg was raped, his parents transferred
him to a new yeshiva in Jerusalem, hoping to reverse his baffling
transformation into a depressed and isolated C student.
A rabbi at the new yeshiva, an ad hoc counselor for boys who
have sexual problems, was the first person Richtberg told about the rape and
his subsequent behaviors: compulsive masturbating, viewing pornographic
materials and a sexual relationship with another boy. (Years later, Richtberg
found out that the boy, after he married and had a family, committed suicide.)
While the rabbi was more compassionate than others in the
yeshiva system who scolded and blamed Richtberg, he was not a mental health
professional and was more interested in getting Richtberg to stop his behaviors
than in healing him. Richtberg said he would promise the rabbi that he would
stop, but then would come back crying in shame when he didn’t.
“Today I know I was an addict from the start because I had
so much pain, and I didn’t have a person to talk to about my pain, and I tried
to do something to cope,” Richtberg said.
Experts say his symptoms — compulsive, self-destructive
behavior, followed by shame and heartfelt-but-futile promises to stop — were
classic signs of addiction, whether caused by an acute trauma or more subtle
“All addiction is caused by a hole in one’s soul, and a need
to fill it with something,” said Rabbi Mark Borovitz, spiritual leader of Beit
T’Shuvah. “It’s about loneliness and emptiness. We turn to addictive behaviors
and substances as a solution to this experience of not fitting in, of not being
Despite an understanding that the addiction is destroying
his life, the addict’s attempts to stop will fail until he gets outside help,
“An addiction becomes the center of your life,” said Rabbi
Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and an expert in Jewish
medical ethics. “It becomes like an idol, theologically speaking, and
everything in your life is centered around it, and most other things that are
really important get lost.”
While society has come to accept an individual’s
powerlessness in relation to drugs and alcohol, because of the brain’s chemical
dependency on these substances, the terminology of addiction seems harder to
justify in reference to gambling, overeating or sex, which most people can control.
However, experts report that sex addicts have the same
genetic predisposition toward addictive behavior as other addicts. And once an
addict gets hooked on a behavior, his body treats it — and the pursuit of it —
as a drug.
“Neuropsychological research shows that the exhilaration
that people feel when in pursuit of the object of their addiction can
approximate the high in and of itself, so that not only are they seeking the
thrill through the drug or illicit behavior, but even the pursuit is generating
an exhilarating high,” said David Fox, a clinical psychologist and rabbi.
Just how to classify sex addiction is still a matter of
debate in the medical community. Sex addiction made its way into the DSM III,
the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, in 1980, but was
pulled with the release of the DSM IV in 1994. Weiss is confident that current
research has quieted most debate and that the diagnosis will be reinstated in
the next edition.
All of this makes it difficult to use sex addiction as a
legal defense, and Weiss notes, it is hardly a defense that conjures much
empathy among jurors.
The Double Life
Mark Altman (not his real name), a 40-something married
professional, who was a sex addict for more than 20 years and has been in
recovery for five, was raised by two alcoholics and suffered a childhood trauma
that set off his addiction.
He began sexually acting out as a teenager, “numbing out” by
compulsively masturbating, he said. Starting in college, he sought sexual
liaisons with men at sex clubs, bathhouses and park restrooms, while in his
public life he dated women. He continued his double life through 15 years of
marriage, raising three children and belonging to a Reform temple.
“Every New Year’s, every birthday, every Rosh Hashana, every
time there was some sort of event when I could make a resolution, I would swear
to myself I would stop, because it was killing me,” Altman said.
“I was leading a good family life, I was there for my kids,
I was there for my wife,” he continued. “I just carried on this charade, and I
was dying inside. And I couldn’t stop, no matter how hard I tried.”
At one point, he planned suicide. He sought therapy, but it
didn’t give him the tools to stop. At the height of his addiction, he was
acting out almost daily — adult bookstores, cybersex, phone sex and cruising
for sexual encounters.
Altman knows now that what he was searching for was
validation — the comfort of believing, however fleetingly, that someone else
thought he was worthy of love and attention. It was never about the sex, he
“The thing I was really looking for was somebody to hold me
and rub my back and tell me I’m an OK guy, not such a bad person,” he said.
“You feel so bad about yourself, and as an addict, you look to the exterior to
find something to fix you.”
But the fix never lasted long.
“I would act out,” Altman recalled, “then feel really crappy
about it afterward, saying, ‘I can’t believe I did this,’ then go home to my
wife and kids, and feel awful and shameful and guilty and horrible, and the
only way I knew to make it stop was to act out again.”
Experts say the cycle Altman described is characteristic of
all addictions and is usually augmented by what is referred to as boundary
crossing, where increasing levels of the substance or behavior are needed to
achieve the same high.
Richtberg can mark each of the milestones in his life with
another boundary crossing. When he was 19, on the advice of the rabbi who was
counseling him, he married. His first introduction to the female body quashed
his desire for men, but enhanced his addiction.
He stayed clean for three weeks after he married. But the
first night his wife cooked dinner, he took a bus into Manhattan’s redlight
district instead of going home.
“I cruised the streets and went to some peep shows,”
Richtberg recalled, “and came home about 3 a.m.”
It was his first time at a live show. “Today, I know it was
too hard for me to deal with my life, and I had to run.”
He celebrated the birth of his first daughter by seeing a
prostitute for the first time. As his habit grew more expensive, he left
kollel, where he was studying full time to earn rabbinic ordination, and
started a business.
At around that time in 1983, his third child was born, a son
with a serious genetic disease. “I knew for sure that Hashem is punishing me,
and that’s why he gave me such a sick child,” Richtberg said. “And I kept
promising myself that I’m going to stop.”
Two years later, another child was born with the same disorder,
and two years after that another child was born with a different chronic
illness. Another child died in infancy.
With each trauma, Richtberg crossed another boundary. He
began to use drugs — first marijuana, then cocaine, then crack.
“At a certain time, it’s hard to say exactly when, I gave
up,” Richtberg said. “I stopped making promises and decided to live a double
life. My goal was to make a lot of money and to make sure that my two worlds
Getting into drugs killed Richtberg’s illusion of control.
Within a year and half, he lost his business and started bouncing checks within
his own community. In 1990, he pleaded guilty to business fraud for which he
later served a 20-month sentence. His double life was falling apart.
It took a well-timed external kick to finally induce
Richtberg to get help. The nurses who lived at Richtberg’s home to care for his
disabled children told his wife that they thought he was on drugs. His
brother-in-law brought him to a clinic.
Richtberg yo-yoed through the first few months of therapy,
which focused only on his drug problem, until his therapist insisted that he go
to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and intense outpatient rehabilitation.
Richtberg went on his last cocaine binge in October 1991.
Richtberg said he stayed away from prostitutes for a full
year. But then one day, he found himself in Manhattan, in tears and with a
prostitute. The next day, he and his therapist came up with one last hope: Sex
Addicts Anonymous (SAA).
Richtberg went to a meeting that day and has been clean
“Treatment for any addiction is directly related to
motivation, so if someone is really motivated to change, it is possible, but it
is an active process,” Weiss said.
Unlike gambling, drugs or alcohol, sex cannot simply be
sworn off. Rather, sex addicts construct parameters in which they can have sex
— with a loving partner, for instance — and still stay on the path toward their
Altman went to his first SAA meeting after he was arrested
at a park where men hung out to pick up sex partners.
“I never really thought that I could ever find a group of
people talking about the kind of things that I was sure nobody else did,”
Altman said. “Twelve-step gives you tools you can work with to stop these
behaviors, to really live your life. It’s not just about stopping the sexual
activity. It’s about living your life with integrity and honesty and being
accountable for your actions.”
Spiritual Treatment for a Spiritual Malady
Borovitz of Beit T’Shuvah, himself a recovering alcoholic,
believes that spiritual counseling, prayer and Torah study are essential to
integrating all the elements of a Jewish addict’s soul.
“One of the things that most people speak about in recovery
is finding their authentic soul and how important it is that they can take a
breath and be who they are, rather than who everyone else expects them to be,”
He said addicts need to harness God’s power to make their
“Turning my life and will over to God’s care is a statement
by me that the creative energy of the world is available to me to learn and to
follow the derech [the right path],” Borovitz said.
While some might mistake admitting powerlessness for
relinquishing responsibility, Borovitz said the admission brings a renewed
sense of moral culpability.
“Once I have a connection with God, I have to accept the
yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven,” he said. “I can’t lie to myself anymore.”
Both Altman and Richtberg had to re-envision their
relationship to Judaism and God to succeed in SAA’s 12-step program.
“When I was first forced to go to AA meetings, I felt that
it’s goyish, it’s not for me,” Richtberg recalled. Meetings are often in
churches, God is invoked as the higher power and sessions end in “The Lord’s
Richtberg wove together the 12-step process with the Jewish
path of teshuvah (repentance), growing closer to God and stronger in his
Judaism as he made amends with himself and others.
“This is like a cancer, my addiction, and based on the
prognosis, I can’t stay sober,” Richtberg said. “But there is a God who can
help keep me sober if I turn to him every day,” he said. “Every day, I get up
in the morning, and I say, ‘Tati [Daddy], I’m powerless, I can’t stay sober and
I’m asking you for a toivah [favor]. Please keep me sober for today. I’m not
asking more, just for today.’ That has been working for 10 years.”
Altman, a self-described atheist who grew up in a
“spiritually empty” family that belonged to a Reform temple, said he had “to
get away from a lot of initial religious baggage before I could develop my own
concept of a higher power.”
Altman now has a “constellation of ideas” that constitute
his higher power. One of those ideas incorporates the ongoing conversation in
his own head between what he calls “my addict” and the person he was born to be
— the one who can discern right from wrong, the one who can learn to love
himself for who he is.
“The program consists of people helping each other,” he
said. “Two people are always stronger than one person alone, so I cannot deny
that that is a power greater than me.”
With Help, Hope
Altman is honing his new conception of God with Rabbi Paul
Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Agoura Hills, who has worked with addiction
“Every rabbi should have the big book of Alcoholics
Anonymous, as well as some of the Jewish recovery books, on their shelf just
over their shoulder, so everyone knows that we’re here, and that we’re open,”
Harriet Rossetto, CEO of Beit T’Shuvah, said that opening
Jewish opportunities for recovery is especially vital for rabbis, who often
have no one to talk to about the conflicting realities of their public image
and what goes on inside them.
“It’s time to address rabbis as human beings and acknowledge
that they have these issues and provide treatment, rather than putting them up
on this pedestal and knocking them off and stepping on them,” Rossetto said.
Beit T’Shuvah, with Mintz’s help, is putting together an
anonymous 12-step group for rabbis.
Mintz said that working to raise awareness of addiction in
the Jewish community has become his tikkun — a mission of healing that is his
Richtberg, who hides his secret from his Chasidic community
and the small congregation he runs, believes his ordeal also has a divine
purpose. He makes himself available to rabbis, doctors and mental health
professionals. He started an SAA group in Israel and he often runs the minyan
at international SAA conventions.
And if in his past life his milestones were marked with
sinking deeper into his addiction, he said they are now marked with saving more
On the very day last year that his son, disabled from birth,
died as a teenager, Richtberg got a call from an Israeli friend who was in the
United States and needed the support of a fellow recovering addict. With
Hatzolah paramedics still in his home, Richtberg at first explained that he
just couldn’t. Then he called back and told the man to come right over.
“My son left in the spirit of somebody who was reborn,” he
said. “I helped somebody recreate a new life and another one left.”
In the 10 years that he’s been clean, Richtberg and his wife
have had three healthy children. On their anniversary this year, his wife, who
considered leaving him when he revealed his secret, told him she now treasures
each minute she is married to him.
“If you ask me what is the basic change that has happened to
me in the last 10 years, it’s that 10 years ago, I did not believe I had
anything to give, that there would ever come a time in my life that I would
have something to give,” Richtberg said.
“Now people feel that I’m something,” he said. “People value
me. Sometimes I still have a hard time believing it.”