Even nice Jewish boys and girls are caught in opioid epidemic

Left: Beit T’Shuvah co-founder Harriet Rossetto speaks at a luncheon fundraiser in 2016. Right: Amy Green, 28, went from being addicted to heroin to directing the mind and body program at Beit T’Shuvah, where she previously recovered from her addiction. Photos courtesy of Beit T’Shuvah

Sitting in her car in Orange County as she prepared to buy heroin from her drug dealer in 2015, Amy Green called out to her Creator.

“I was like, ‘I need help. I can’t. I’m scared,’ ” she recently recalled. “I said this out loud. I was talking to God out loud. I’m like, ‘God, I can’t do this, I can’t.’ ”

She paused, took a breath and continued, her voice soft and toneless.

“But I did, for the next eight months,” she said in an interview with the Journal.

For Green, now 28 years old, the use of a prescription painkiller to treat a sports-related injury had quickly morphed into a full-blown addiction that progressed into her use of black-tar heroin. The downward spiral was something she never could have envisioned as a Division I college athlete in soccer and track from a well-to-do Santa Clarita family.

Opioids are now poised to overtake car accidents as a leading cause of accidental fatalities in the United States — with 90 deaths a day from overdoses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Last week, President Donald Trump said he planned to declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency, which would open the way for more federal funds to fight it. And though the crisis often has been characterized as ravaging rural areas and small towns, which provided much of Trump’s support in the November election, the powerful class of painkillers is also on the rise in urban Jewish communities.

In other words, nice Jewish boys and girls are no more immune to the epidemic than anyone else. In fact, for those living in affluent, tight-knit communities, the problem can be compounded by the pressure to keep up appearances.

“It was really scary, and I didn’t want to be doing it anymore,” Green said of her drug habit, “but I didn’t know how to reach out for help, because it was really shameful.”

Harriet Rossetto, co-founder of Beit T’Shuvah, the West Los Angeles addiction treatment center with an almost entirely Jewish clientele where Green is now an alumna and employee — she directs its mind and body program — confronts the stigma of opioid addiction on a regular basis.

“Jews are not exempt,” Rossetto said. “It’s part of our denial system that we often feel exempt from these kinds of social problems.”

Four of every 10 residents at Beit T’Shuvah’s Venice Boulevard campus are there because of opioids. Rossetto said the opioid addicts she encounters generally fall into two categories: Patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s who progressed from prescribed painkillers into addiction, and patients in their teens and 20s who used opiates like heroin as a way to numb emotional pain caused by trauma, sexual abuse, learning disabilities or other factors.

The prevalence of Jewish opioid abuse is evident at other treatment centers in the Los Angeles region as well.

At the Chabad Residential Treatment Center in the Miracle Mile, two-thirds of the residents — most of whom are Jewish — are there for opioid abuse, and they have tended to be younger in recent years, said Donna Miller, the center’s director.

Clare Waismann, a certified addiction treatment counselor and founder of the Waismann Method for opiate detoxification, said the detox program she runs at a non-Jewish-affiliated Orange County hospital (she asked that it not be identified), has been fulfilling more requests for kosher meals than ever before.

The problem is an increasingly fatal one.

Adina Stern, a Beit T’Shuvah resident, can rattle off the names of young Jewish women she has known who have died of drug overdoses. The most recent casualty was Malky Klein, a 20-year-old Chasidic woman whose death on June 24 ignited a flurry of coverage in Jewish media and beyond.

Stern, 20, is the youngest of 10 children from an ultra-Orthodox family in New York City. Her childhood was marked by trauma and sexual abuse, she said, and she started using heroin when she was 12. In the course of multiple recovery programs and relapses, she met other young women much like herself, with similarly troubled pasts.

“The common denominator among all the girls who are struggling with addiction and the girls who have died is really just being taught that we, as who we are, are not good enough,” she said. “We didn’t have our own identities so we became drug addicts. That was our identity. We were the bad girls of Brooklyn.”

The pressure of community and family expectations is not limited to the Orthodox.

Rusty, 29, a Beit T’Shuvah alumnus and employee who asked that his real name not be used, said he grew up in a Calabasas community where neighbors competed to display signs of their affluence. He attended a Reform synagogue, where he was confirmed, and felt he was a role model for younger kids in the congregation.

After his father died in 2008, a friend offered him the painkillers OxyContin and Fentanyl to help numb his psychological and emotional pain. He soon became addicted. And when he couldn’t get those drugs, he moved to heroin, he said.

Rusty completed college and earned a master’s degree while battling his addiction. As long as he was able to keep up appearances, he said, he didn’t see his substance abuse as a problem.

“It’s not like I was strung out in the gutter,” he said. “I had it all together on the outside, and then having this massive secret created this split where the only way I could survive was to dissociate entirely because I had to present a certain way to everyone else.”

He said his desire to save face kept him from seeking treatment.

“It was hard for me to reach out for help because it’s just not something that’s discussed, and there’s this implicit shame around it,” he said.

Rusty said he has seen the shame around drug abuse in L.A.’s Jewish community reduced by the growth of prevention and treatment programs and addicts’ increased willingness to discuss their problems.

Morris Treibitz, a resident at the Chabad treatment center, agreed that there is now less stigma around drug abuse. “You can’t deny how many people are dying anymore,” he said while sitting in the center’s chapel.

He encouraged parents to be more open with their children about drug abuse.

Treibitz, 42, a native of New Jersey, has come by his wisdom on this topic through bitter experience. He said he first started using heroin in prison after he was convicted for armed robbery at the age of 21, and his drug habit led to other convictions and prison terms.

Owning up to an addiction is a small price to pay to avoid incarceration or worse, he said.

“You can’t save your face and your tuchus at the same time,” he said. “You have to choose one or the other, and if you’re going to try to save your face, you’re not going to make it. You can’t do it.”

As Beit T’Shuvah plans for its future, a gradual transition at the top

Beit T’Shuvah’s 30th birthday is coming up, and one of the nation’s renowned residential addiction treatment centers is embarking on a new, if gradual, beginning.

A few weeks ago, founder Harriet Rossetto and her husband, CEO and Rabbi Mark Borovitz, stepped down from some of their administrative leadership roles, after 30 years for Rossetto and 28 for Borovitz. Bill Resnick, 51, a psychiatrist and longtime board member, is the group’s new CEO.

While the change may not be apparent immediately in daily life for residents at Beit T’Shuvah, it will allow Borovitz, Rossetto and Resnick each to develop new areas of work within the recovery world. It also will allow Beit T’Shuvah to plan for the future.

“Day to day has not changed dramatically,” Rossetto said, seated at a large table in Borovitz’s office, which is twice the size of his old office since the organization’s $7 million renovation in 2014.

Borovitz, who just published his second book, “

Moving and Shaking: Harriet Rossetto, AJWS, TCRF and Israel Advocacy

Harriet Rossetto, the founder and executive vice president of Beit T’Shuvah, a residential treatment center and educational institution in Culver City, has been named a 2015 Advocate for Action by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

ONDCP Director Michael Botticelli recognized Rossetto during a ceremony at the White House on May 20. Accepting the award, Rossetto discussed Beit T’Shuvah’s innovative approach to recovery treatment, saying she was honored to have the opportunity to share some of what she has learned over the years about addiction recovery with the White House.

“To be selected to work with the White House to reform drug policy is such an honor, and an incredible opportunity to help more people,” the honoree said in a statement. “Through work therapy, creative expression and social enterprise, we watch with great pride as each person breaks the bonds of addiction by recovering their passion and discovering their purpose.”

Rossetto’s career began with helping Jewish criminal offenders, and she founded Beit T’Shuvah with a one-time grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The center has grown into a nationally recognized facility that creates jobs for former residents, operates a full-fledged synagogue and houses more than 140 residents who have suffered from drug, alcohol, gambling and other addictions. 

Rossetto was one of nine individuals named for the annual honor by the White House. Beit T’Shuvah’s CEO and Head Rabbi Mark Borovitz, a former addict and felon — and Rossetto’s husband — congratulated the facility’s founder.

“Harriet is not only a pioneer in addiction treatment nationally,” he said, “but she is a hero to me personally.”

From left: Debra Barrath, Felicia Park-Rogers, Devorah Servi, Shari Rosenman, Shep Rosenman, Rep. Karen Bass, Julie Flapan, Rabbi Penina Alexander, Charles Carnow and Rabbi Aryeh Cohen convene for the AJWS 2015 Global Policy Summit. Photo courtesy of AJWS

Twenty-six Los Angeles representatives of American Jewish World Service (AJWS) traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak with members of Congress and others on behalf of women and the LGBT community for a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill.

“These passionate Jewish leaders have taken time off from their jobs, synagogues and studies to come to Washington to show Congress that we cannot stand idly by as the rights of women, girls and LGBT people around the world are violated,” AJWS President Ruth Messinger, who took part in the program, said in a statement.

The local participants were Rob Adler Peckerar, Penina Alexander, Gregg Alpert, Debra Barrath, Charles Carnow, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Caryn Espo, Julie Flapan, Amy Grossman, Ronni Hendel-Giller, Rachele Huennekens, David Lieberman, Rachel Marks, Shira Liff-Grieff, Joan Patsy Ostroy, Gamal Palmer, Felicia Park-Rogers, Shep and Shari Rosenman, Sadie Rose-Stern, Angela Salgado, Robyn Samuels, Devorah Servi, Farah Shamolian, Rachel Sumekh and Marcia Tilchin.

In total, 170 AJWS members traveled to take part in the AJWS 2015 Policy Summit, which took place May 11-13. During the trip, the group met with several members of Congress, including local Reps. Karen Bass, Ted Lieu, Ed Royce and Adam Schiff; and Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). Randy Berry, the first U.S. special envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons; Patricia Morris, president of Women Thrive Worldwide; and Hilda Tadria, a women’s rights activist from Uganda, also met with AJWS representatives.

From left: Tower Cancer Research Foundation (TCRF) gala chairs Sally Magaram and Abby Levy and TCRF board chair Nancy Mishkin. Photo courtesy of TCRF

Tower Cancer Research Foundation’s (TCRF) May 6 Tower of Hope fundraiser at the Beverly Hilton Hotel raised $1.2 million for the Southern California-based cancer research fund.

The evening honored Skechers, with David Weinberg, chief operating officer of the footwear company, accepting the award; surgeon Kenneth Adashek; and cancer survivor and Athene Asset Management CEO James Belardi.

“We’re doing great work and funding such important research in our community — to be able to have that kind of an impact means the world to me,” Nancy Mishkin, board chair of the foundation, said in a press release.

The event, which drew more than 800 attendees, also featured the awarding of a $1 million TCRF Discovery Fund grant toward local mesothelioma research at the Cedars-Sinai Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute. 

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, served as master of ceremonies.

From left: Honoree Dr. Daniel Lieber and co-chairs Helgard and Irwin Field. Photo courtesy of Howard Pasamanick Photography

“Israel Advocacy: A Celebration of Dr. Daniel Lieber and The Jewish Federation’s Holy Land Democracy Project” on May 6 at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel honored Lieber, the founder of the project, which aims to strengthen the bond between Southern California and Israel by sending teachers of non-Jewish high -school students and members of the Jewish community on trips to Israel.

The event raised $270,000 toward The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Israel advocacy and education work, while drawing an estimated 320 attendees — including community leaders, doctors and medical professionals, and patients of
Lieber — to the Westside hotel. 

Lieber is a Santa Monica-based medical oncologist and son of the late Rabbi David Lieber, who was president emeritus of what is now American Jewish University. Actively involved in Jewish communal life, Lieber founded the Holy Land Democracy Project approximately 10 years ago. Since its inception, the program has impacted some 35,000 high school students. 

Helgard and Irwin Field (a Jewish Journal board member and former publisher), Roslyn and Abner Goldstine, Gila and Adam Milstein, and Julie and Marc Platt co-chaired the event.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

‘Sacred Housekeeping’: Reflections of a soul saver

Sporting a blond wig and slinky dress, Beit T’Shuvah’s whippet-thin Cantor Rachel Goldman Neubauer sat on Harriet Rossetto’s knee and parodied Marilyn Monroe’s famous, breathy “Happy Birthday” crooning to JFK. 

Then the 250 or so people at Beit T’Shuvah — all of them fans of the Jewish rehab clinic/halfway house/synagogue in Culver City and Rossetto, its founder and CEO — joined in the singing.

The Dec. 29 celebration was not only for Rossetto’s 75th birthday; it also marked the debut of her first book, “Sacred Housekeeping: A Spiritual Memoir,” an enlightening and funny look back at her life before and during her time at Beit T’Shuvah.

When people come to Beit T’Shuvah, they’re usually in need of being saved from their own addictive behavior. At any one time, there are about 150 men and women of all ages in residence, nearly all of them Jewish, often with a criminal record. Some are repeat offenders remanded there by the courts as a last-ditch attempt to detour a dead-end life. Some are professionals whose lives, fueled by substance abuse, have spiraled out of control. Some are lost children, “nice” Jewish kids gone astray.

As part of the festivities, Rossetto received many grateful, emotional tributes. People stood and thanked her, referring to her as a “saver of souls,” something she’s made her life’s work.

One of the tributes to Rossetto was from a middle-aged man who talked about how Beit T’Shuvah had saved him. Then he echoed the gift-giver’s clichéd lament: “What do you give to the woman who has given you everything?”

Perhaps a young woman’s comment to Rossetto summed things up best: “[You created] this amazing organization because you believe in throwaway people. I came here when few people believed in me.”

At one point during the celebration, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, Rossetto’s husband and partner at Beit T’Shuvah, waved toward the crowd. 

“Look what you’ve done, Harriet. You brought out all these people. They’re here because you touched their lives. Everyone here lives a better life for having met you. You’re not just a soul saver, you’re a soul enricher.”

Rossetto, wearing a glittery blouse with the text “Here’s Looking At You, Kid” in sequins, took the accolades in stride. She described Beit T’Shuvah’s long, strange trip: How she met Borovitz when he was in jail; how, after getting out, Borovitz came to Beit T’Shuvah in its early years, looking for a way to get his life on track; how he and Rossetto joined forces and became a couple at work and in life.

There were less-serious moments, too. She read aloud from “Sacred Housekeeping,” a chapter called “Rogue Rabbi & Rebel Rebbetzin,” mentioning that Borovitz, as far as she knows, is the only one who went from being a criminal to being a rabbi. She paused and added, “Usually it’s the other way around,” drawing a loud laugh.

Rossetto also talked about how Borovitz’s decision to study for the rabbinate — at the University of Judaism’s (now American Jewish University) Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies — put strains on her cravings to go to Costco on Saturday or have coffee before Shabbat services.

In her book, Rossetto wrote about what led her to start Beit T’Shuvah: “Something drove me to live outside the lines, always eager to stretch rules and limitations. I hated bureaucracy. And rebellion? It was the quality I most admired in myself and others. For me, every rule had an exception, which I believed kindled the spirit of Beit T’Shuvah and was a crucial agent in the healing of exceptional people.”

After the celebration, Rossetto talked with the Journal about her own personal conflict, which she also wrote about in “Sacred Housekeeping.”

“All my life, I’ve wanted to do good in the world,” Rossetto said. “That part of me has always fought with the part of me that wants to stay in bed and do nothing.”

Rossetto emphasized that her empathy for addicts and alcoholics comes from seeing those conflicting tendencies in herself. To drive the point home, Rossetto told a story. 

There was once a rabbi, she said, who ministered among thieves, drunkards and prostitutes. His talmudic disciples asked him how such a holy man could so easily understand the problems of “those kinds of people.”

The rabbi, Rossetto said, answered this way: “When I listen to them and look into their eyes, I discover that their weaknesses are reflections of my own. It is not that I have done what they have done; but I sense within me their lusts, their desires, their weaknesses, their temptations.

“If I listen to someone confessing his transgressions, whatever he’s done, whoever he is, and I don’t see myself, then I know I haven’t looked deeply enough. I know I must be hiding something within myself of which I’m not fully conscious.”

Rossetto said that for the last quarter century, while running Beit T’Shuvah, she’s looked deep into herself and seen the darkness that addicts and alcoholics have inside them. It’s that recognition of the darkness within herself, she said, that has given her the tools and the ability to help desperate people become whole.