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.”