Theater as addiction therapy in ‘Bliss Point’


The healing power of theater underlies the collaboration between the Cornerstone Theater Company and rehabilitation centers around the city, which resulted in the company’s production of “Bliss Point,” a play about addiction and recovery, through June 22 at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles.

Playwright Shishir Kurup’s research included conducting interviews with residents of various recovery facilities, including Beit T’Shuvah (“House of Return”). 

Tricia Nykin, who had organized several acting workshops while a resident at Beit T’Shuvah, was heavily involved in the play’s development process, working with the playwright and Cornerstone, and she ultimately arranged for a reading for the Beit T’Shuvah residents.

“I wanted to get feedback as to the legitimacy of the script,” Nykin said.

The play focuses on two divergent scenarios that merge unexpectedly at the end. One concerns an addict whose friends come to get high with him in celebration of his birthday. Eventually, a particularly devastating event causes him to crash. The other scenario follows an East Indian journalist who is caring for his sick mother and also interviewing addicts at a treatment center for an article in a major magazine. 

One of the addicts telling her story to the journalist is played by Nykin, who is one of five cast members from Beit T’Shuvah, most of them with little acting experience. In fact, Nykin, who has been a professional actor since childhood and has a bachelor’s degree in theater, is one of only a few professionals in the 15-character play. 

She is also a heroin addict who came to Beit T’Shuvah almost a year ago as a “court commit.”  

“I eventually started selling heroin, and I got caught a lot,” Nykin said. “I got raided three times, and I went to jail, in and out, in and out, about seven times over the course of a year and a half. And then, on March 11, 2013, I went to jail for the last time.  

“The court and my probation [officer] decided they were not going to let me out. So, I was stuck, and I was really forced to look at myself, and it was miserable, it was difficult. And thank God for that, because it gave me the gift of desperation and enabled me to see that I felt freer in those four tiny walls in a cell than I did in the real world. That’s what made me want to change.”

Her grandmother read about Beit T’Shuvah, and her mother eventually got her alternatively sentenced to the center. She was immediately cast in a play the facility produces periodically, and she slowly began establishing a theater program.  

Now sober, Nykin moved out of the treatment residence about five weeks ago into a house where many Beit T’Shuvah staff members reside. She is employed as the managing director of the facility’s theater department.

Jared Ross, another resident who is part of the “Bliss Point” cast, said his own recovery, as well as the play itself, has helped him find a passion for learning and growing again. He said that, as an artist himself who draws, paints and sculpts, he particularly relates to the character he plays, whose artwork is exhibited in the Whitney Museum.

“But, also, [there’s] the dark side of this character — he’s been an IV drug user, which is something that I’ve battled since I was 16. 

“But he does come to a place of revelation, of wanting to survive, to really get his name out there and make it as an artist. And, just like with myself, for that to even have a shot at happening, I have to put the drugs down.”

In order to “put the drugs down,” Beit T’Shuvah residents are required to go to therapy and meet with their counselor every week, as well as a spiritual adviser every week, and go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night.  In addition, both Jewish and non-Jewish residents must attend Torah study every morning and services every Friday night and Saturday morning.

There are also adjunct, voluntary programs, such as music, yoga, mindfulness meditation, creative writing, surf therapy and, of course, theater, which the center’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, believes is therapeutic in that it allows addicts to tell their story and the stories of other people.

“They can see themselves in other characters,” he said, “so it helps them get out of their own self-obsession. It helps them have empathy with other characters, other people. It also creates a community within the community. They know that their success, and the success of the project, is dependent upon everyone working together, so it gets them to be part of something instead of separate from everyone. Plus, they have a great deal of fun and camaraderie.”

The rabbi would like audiences who see “Bliss Point” to come away with an appreciation for the power of recovery and of redemption, “and to see themselves in the cast members,” he said, “so they start to realize that it’s not ‘those people,’ but it’s us.”

 

“Bliss Point” is at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, June 5-22. Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2. For group tickets, email aescalante@cornerstonetheater.org. Pay-what-you-can: Suggested donation is $20.

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.”

You can go home again


On Fridays, the children would line up, all glittery pink shoes and Ninja Turtle T-shirts, and hike up a steep driveway from the preschool yard to the temple sanctuary. They walked single file or in pairs, one teacher in the lead and another bringing up the rear, each holding one end of a rope. The kids, 3 and 4 years old, gripped the length of the rope with their little hands stained with watercolor paint and Play-Doh dye. You could hear them singing Shabbat songs as they walked, and later, as they poured into the aisles and climbed onto the chairs in the temple and tried to sit still for a whole 20 minutes. By noon, when parents went to take them home, they were spent and tousled, excited but worn out by the morning's exploits. In their backpacks, they carried small challahs they had baked for that evening's dinner. 

The last time I looked, my own kids were putting their little challahs next to a store-bought one in our dining room. That was 15 years ago. Yet I can hardly drive past their old school these days without seeing them and their little friends, loved and cared for and blessed with that unspoken compact between fate and its children — that they will be eternally young, forever standing on solid ground, thriving and triumphant and able, should they ever need at the end of a long, hard morning, to go back to the quiet safety of home. 

That's what the rope is for, what constitutes a major difference between Western and more traditional cultures: past elementary school in this country, the rope becomes the umbilical cord that must be severed in the interest of parents and child; past voting age, it becomes a noose that'll kill you if you put up with it for more than four hours on Thanksgiving. In our neck of the woods, the rope may choke you if you let it. But if used sparingly, it can be the lifeline that's always there, right below the water's surface, in case you feel you're drowning. 

I saw that rope again last Friday night at the famed and fabled “Jewish rehab” clinic Beit T'Shuvah, on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. You don't have to be a patient or a family member to belong to the synagogue, or to attend Friday services, which is one reason I, and many others, were there that night. The other reason, I suspect because I experienced it that night, is that something extraordinary and transformative happens here every week. 

There is, to begin with, the range of characters you find here, and that you'd never see under one roof at a traditional shul. An African-American family sits in the front row, next to an Ashkenazi doctor and his wife, between a young, pretty, school teacher and a tall, tanned man in $3,000 crocodile cowboy boots. There's the six-piece jazz band that accompanies the slender young cantor, and the clinic's senior rabbi and spiritual director, Mark Borovitz, known affectionately as Rabbi Mark, whose personal story — ex-con saved by faith — he doesn't let you forget. 

And there is, to the great credit of the clinic's founder and director, Harriet Rossetto, the intentional shedding of pomp and circumstance, of the theatrical staging of board members and major donors on the bimah and the endless speeches by distinguished gentlemen in suits that is so common at more established synagogues. To my personal relief, there's also the condensed length — two hours instead of the usual four at traditional synagogues, the absence of a why-not-say-it-a-dozen-times-if-only-once-will-do? mentality that will have you recite the same few verses extolling the almighty's goodness and generosity until you forget what you're saying. 

Mostly, though, there's the word itself — teshuvah — and the very astonishing way in which it is realized here. In Judaism, teshuvah represents the process of confession and atonement and the eventual purification of the soul, the kind of thing we hope for around the High Holy Days, and, I dare say, rarely achieve. That is the mission and purpose of the center, its patients and staff. But it's the word's literal meaning — return — that rings especially true here.  

The minimum age for being admitted to Beit T'Shuvah is 18. Many of the patients are not much older than that. They are beautiful, brilliant creatures at the brink of adulthood, radiant with youth and promise. Just the other day, they were singing Shabbat songs and baking challah to take home to their parents. Some time between the moment they walked out of that first synagogue and into this one, they let go of the rope that had kept them on one path with most other kids their age. But now they're back, and the only thing they seem to have lost between that day and this is the sense of invulnerability, the illusion, perhaps, that they will never need a lifeline, never lose their way in the beaming, dazzling light of youth. 

Could anyone have seen, had they examined the palms of those little hands lined with sand and streaked with markers 20 years ago, the road these children would travel thereafter? Is that why they made those small, hard challahs? To leave a trail of breadcrumbs in case they went too far into the woods? 

It's not true, what they say about going home. In some places at least, for some fortunate people, you can go home again. On Shabbat, they even give you a challah in this home. It's larger than what the kids made in preschool and considerably more palatable — as good a reason as any to attend the service.


Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC whose column appears monthly in The Journal. She can be reached at ginabnahai.com.

The big reveal: How design makes rehab more serene


Room 9500 is the bottom rung at Beit T’Shuvah, the first stop for male addicts newly arrived from prison, the hospital or the streets. Six rookies at a time inhabit this snug dormitory as they adjust to life in rehab. For years, 9500 marked a dark and dreary start toward recovery — its windows blocked by bunk beds and dressers, the blue carpet stained and shabby. Longtime residents have called their stint in the room an “initiation,” and not in a good way.

On a recent afternoon, Drew Marr and Nick Martinez found their initiation would be a lot more pleasant.

“Wow, this is awesome,” Martinez, 19, said as he stepped into a fully made-over space furnished with new storage cubbies and polished hardwood floors, designer bed linens and a fresh coat of muted teal paint. “I feel like I’m in a hotel.”

Martinez and Marr, 27, have interior designers Jenifer Porter and Kelley Edwards to thank. “We tried to create a calm, quiet space,” Edwards said. “This is such a crucial time for the residents. We wanted to open up the room and give them something classic and comfortable.”

Porter and Edwards are two of the 70 local designers who have renovated rooms at Beit T’Shuvah this year as part of a charitable effort to give the Los Angeles addiction treatment center a much-needed facelift. Over four months, teams of decorators donated their time, talent and supplies to transform the facility’s 40-plus primary-care rooms into havens they hope will aid residents as they strive for wellness.

Organized by Heidi Bendetson, a designer herself and founder of the nonprofit Designed From the Heart, with help from entrepreneur Rhonda Snyder, the dramatic makeover will be revealed to the public in an open-house fete on July 12.

The design project has been an unexpected gift for the landmark residential rehab and synagogue, said Rabbi Mark Borovitz, Beit T’Shuvah’s spiritual leader. And it couldn’t have come at a more apt time: The institution is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“This project is in keeping with our mission of letting people know that they matter,” Borovitz said. “It’s a way of telling the residents, ‘Yeah, you’ve made mistakes. You’ve come here at the absolute bottom of your life, but don’t think that you don’t matter.’ It’s our statement of belief in them.”

Bendetson and Snyder pulled the enterprise together at almost no cost to Beit T’Shuvah, which is the only Jewish-run treatment center in the country. They enlisted designers through professional contacts and word-of-mouth, giving recruits only a loose set of criteria to guide their work: You must raise all the funds and materials for your room. The room must be durable enough to support a high turnover of residents. The style shouldn’t be too ritzy or over-the-top — it should be a place of respite for residents slogging through the tough first phases of sobriety.

“The main thing we said to them was we wanted it to be a comfortable space that was therapeutic, that’s good for healing,” Bendetson said. “I’ve been blown away by everything the designers did.”

Before the project began at Beit T’Shuvah’s Venice Boulevard campus in early March, the primary-care units, which each house two residents for four to six months at a time, hadn’t been updated since the center moved to its current home near Culver City in 1999. The bedrooms were dingy and disorganized, with drawings etched into the walls by a parade of former residents. The bathroom tiles were cracked and smeared with a stubborn patina of soap scum.

Facilities manager Craig Miller stripped out the old wiring and furniture, and epoxy-coated the shower stalls. Then the designers came in with their painters, contractors and friends to fashion the new installations.

The renovation was carried out in five blocks of about eight rooms each, while temporarily displaced residents bunked with their peers. In each room, designers had three weeks to complete their work. At the end of each three-week period, residents were welcomed back to their transformed living spaces amid a clutch of cameras clicking rapidly to capture their wide-eyed disbelief, their open mouths, their heartfelt exclamations of, “Oh my God!”

Karen Greenberg said she was “in awe” when she first stepped into her redesigned room two months ago. The powder-blue walls, seagrass carpet and capiz-shell chandelier reminded her of a seaside spa, she recalled.

Greenberg, 38, landed at Beit T’Shuvah in 2008 for a methamphetamine addiction. When she returned for another stay this year, she was given the same room. “It was so messy and chaotic, but I had to humble myself and accept it,” Greenberg said. “Then I found out they were going to redo it, and the designers were truly a blessing.”

Heide Ziecker, Sarah Moritz and Alex Fuller gave Greenberg and her roommate plenty of drawer space to hide the heaps of belongings strewn around the floor. Ziecker had custom storage beds built by Meridith Baer Home, where she works, and obtained two sleek, forest-patterned armchairs from Janus et Cie.

“This is a room that I can really call home,” Greenberg said. “It’s so peaceful and a safe space for us. It’s not easy being back here, but this room helps me get through my day.”

The residents aren’t the only ones to be touched by the experience. Ziecker said she felt privileged to have a hand in a project that could help change lives. “I’m so excited thinking about the people who are going to be in this room for years to come and how this might be a bright spot in an otherwise difficult struggle,” she said.

Bendetson said that’s how she felt when she participated in a similar charitable design project at Good Shepherd, a women’s homeless shelter downtown, in May 2011. Until that point, her career as an interior designer had been fairly standard. But after remaking a room for a woman she’d never met, she yearned for more work that would lift her spirits so profoundly.

“I was so moved that I thought, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life — to get people together and bring them to places that need their help,’ ” Bendetson said.

She founded Designed From the Heart when the Good Shepherd project was over, and began searching for a Jewish organization that could benefit from a spruce-up. Snyder, a longtime friend who currently has a relative in treatment at Beit T’Shuvah, told Bendetson the unique healing center might be a good candidate.

But Bendetson had to chuck a few preconceived notions first. “I had to get over it being a rehab,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Why should you redesign rooms for people in rehab? Isn’t it their fault that they’re here?’ I had to get past the stigma and understand what goes on here and what it’s like for them.”

When she and Snyder approached Borovitz, the rabbi warmed to the idea immediately. It was Harriet Rossetto, Beit T’Shuvah’s founder and CEO, who needed to be convinced.

“I didn’t really see what this was about — I didn’t have the vision,” said Rossetto, who is married to Borovitz. “I can see transformations in people, but I’m not so good at transformation of space.”

Gradually, she realized that a clean, professionally decorated room could have a big impact on the facility’s 145 residents. “It’s about supporting their internal changes with an external manifestation,” she said, marveling at the night-to-day makeover of room 9500. “That can make an enormous difference in the message they get on just the first day: ‘Here’s a place that values me and my serenity.’ ”

Through programming and at Friday night services — which are routinely packed with upwards of 300 attendees — Borovitz aims to boost the self-worth of those in recovery, he said. Telling residents they deserve a beautiful place to live instills a twofold sense of value, he added: Not only do they reap the benefits of a soothing environment, but also they’re able to feel the support and care of the larger Jewish community beyond the walls of Beit T’Shuvah.

“Many people go through life thinking, ‘What difference does it make what I do?’ When you think like that, using makes sense — escape makes sense,” he said. “But when you’re involved in your life, when you’re immersed in it, when you realize that you matter to other people, it gives you a different relationship with living. Our message to the residents and the designers’ message to the residents is just that: You’re important.”

As Beit T’Shuvah turns 25, Borovitz and Rossetto hope to deliver this message on a broader scale. Beit T’Shuvah’s leadership recently purchased the building next door and plans to break ground on a remodel next month that would create new office space, meeting lounges and a youth center, among other amenities. Its board is in the midst of a $25 million capital campaign to finance the expansion and finish upgrading the existing facility.

The center’s programs already stretch the boundaries of what is typically offered at traditional rehabs, and Borovitz is eager to grow the catalog further. Residents can take part in surf therapy, basketball, creative writing and photography classes, dance, yoga and even music lessons at their own recording studio. Beit T’Shuvah has a choir and stages musical theater productions each year. Staff members — 80 percent of whom have gone through treatment at Beit T’Shuvah themselves — encourage residents to find their “passion and purpose” in life through elective activities, career training, in-house internships and, last but not least, mandatory Torah study every day at 7 a.m., Borovitz said.

“This program is not only about not drinking or using — it’s about changing the way you live,” he said. “People come because they want to live well and help others live well.”

To that end, Bendetson didn’t want to limit participation in the design project to designers by trade. She wanted to extend the opportunity to anyone with the will and the means. “If they could afford to do it and they asked to do it, I said, ‘Go for it,’ ” she said. “Love and desire are what you need in a charitable situation like this. I called my nonprofit Designed From the Heart, and I really felt that’s what they were doing.”

Local businesses also got in on the spirit of generosity. Lewis Hyman Inc. of Carson donated nearly all of the window treatments for the rooms, Snyder Diamond in Santa Monica contributed hardware and light fixtures, and Lester Carpet Co.  in the Fairfax district provided several rooms’ worth of carpeting.

Renovating a room wasn’t cheap — most units, including materials and labor, cost $10,000 to $15,000 each, Bendetson estimated. But that didn’t dampen participants’ zeal.

“As hard a job as it was to raise the money, afterward everyone said, ‘If I could do this again, I’d do it in a heartbeat,’ ” she said.

Many of the decorators left personal gifts for the residents of their rooms, such as monogrammed mugs or leather-bound journals for them to record their thoughts. Writing desks are a staple in most units. One designer hung a full-size surfboard on the wall and placed surfing photography books on the dressers.

In Mike Sauer’s room, designer Jill Wolff set aside wall space for a meaningful detail — a bronze sculpture of a miniature man pulling himself up a rope. The metaphor is clear to Sauer as he struggles to shake a gambling addiction that emerged a few years after he got sober from drugs and alcohol.

“It seems like one addiction after another,” he said.

But Sauer, 25, said he found hope at his first Shavuot celebration at Beit T’Shuvah this year. “It was cool to stay up all night and have nothing to do with gambling or drinking or using,” he recalled. “Just being together as a community and getting wrapped in the Torah — it was a pretty powerful experience.”

Gently lit by a bedside lamp amid the rich chocolate tones of his new room, Sauer looked around and smiled. “This is an amazing place,” he said. “This is a good place to start the rest of my life.”

For more information about Beit T’Shuvah’s “Grand Reveal” open house, visit

Gilad Shalit faces recovery issues


Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was freed from five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday to a joyous reception, but may need time to recover from his time kept in sun-deprived isolation and other injuries, his father said.

Noam Shalit said they were reunited in Israel and that his noticeably gaunt and pale 25-year-old son would require care for improperly healed shrapnel wounds. He said his captors had also treated him “roughly” at times.

“He will undergo a process of rehabilitation. We hope the process will be as quick as possible,” Noam Shalit told well-wishers who feted his son’s return to his Israeli hometown.

“We hope he can resume normal life,” he added.

Being deprived of sunlight while also being locked in isolation with nobody to communicate with save for his captors were other issues that may weigh on his son’s ability to pick up where he left off, Shalit said.

The soldier himself seemed utterly overwhelmed as he was seated for what Israeli pundits saw as a forced interview with Egyptian television, conducted before he even had a chance to telephone his family waiting in Israel.

“I don’t feel so good from this whole event … to see so many people after such a long time … after not having seen people for such a long time. I am on edge,” Shalit said in Hebrew to questions fired at him in English and Arabic.

Later Israeli media said the soldier felt unwell and faint while on a helicopter that ferried him from the Egyptian border to a military base to meet his family. He was nearly hospitalised, reports said.

TRAUMA

Shalit was abducted in June 2006 by militants who tunnelled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and grabbed him from his tank, holding him incommunicado ever since.

They used him as a bargaining card to negotiate the freedom of 1,027 Palestinians held in Israeli jails for carrying out attacks against Israelis.

Shalit said his son had suffered minor shrapnel injuries that had not properly healed due to improper care, though it was unclear whether this stemmed from the 2006 Gaza border attack in which two other soldiers were killed.

Other traumas may also weigh on Shalit’s recovery.

His father said the soldier had so far given him scant details about his time in Gaza.

“At first there were difficult conditions and he was treated roughly but that afterwards mainly in recent years the treatment improved,” he said, but gave no further details.

The Islamist group Hamas has said it treated Shalit well during his captivity.

Former Israeli captives from previous conflicts said coping with liberty again could also pose tough challenges.

Mickey Zeifa, an army reserve colonel who was held as a prisoner of war by Egypt in the 1973 Middle East war, said Shalit would require careful management to enable him to settle back to the life he knew before his capture.

“It takes a very long time for a person to get back on course … you mustn’t crowd him,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

“In my case … the celebrations around me, which at first were flattering and moving, brought me down. Sometimes the return is a trauma in and of itself, no less difficult than captivity,” he added.

Psychologist Rivka Tuval-Mashiach told Israel’s Channel 2 television that Shalit would need time to absorb the fact he has become such a huge public figure during his prolonged absence.

“He will need to be given time even to the physiological changes of light and darkness, not to be afraid to speak. We don’t know if he suffered violence or was tortured, but even in the first instances after he was back in Israel we saw that his frozen state thawed a little, with a first smile,” she said.

Still, Noam Shalit seemed optimistic, saying he felt he had “experienced the rebirth of his son” and that generally “Gilad feels well” and was very glad now to be home.

Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Sophie Hares

A Mensh on the radiowaves to recovery


One afternoon in 1989, Ricky Leigh Mensh hid out in his car in a parking garage in Bethesda, Md., paranoid after a five-day cocaine and booze spree.

“I had experienced so many consequences as a result of my addictions,” Mensh, now 48 — and 19 years sober — said as he prepared to debut his syndicated “Recovery Radio Live” program on KLSX 97.1 Free FM this week. “I had been in and out of jail, broken bones while drunk, broken my nose several times in bar fights — even had developed gout. I had become so paranoid after 13 years of using that I would lock myself in my townhouse and not come out for days.”

Mensh had not slept for five days on that afternoon in 1989 when he realized he was “a cadaver waiting to happen” and phoned his grandmother from a pay phone for help. Forty-eight hours after that “moment of clarity,” he said, he checked into a rehabilitation center and has been sober since.

He went on to become a prominent music industry executive and a voting member of the Grammy Awards — and now he is hoping to offer addicts moments of clarity similar to his own with his “Recovery” program, which premiered locally this week and will continue to air Saturdays from 11 p.m. to midnight on KLSX.

“The show is designed to feel like a 12-step recovery meeting on the air,” Mensh said from his home base in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “Our primary goal is to reach out to those who are still [using], as well as to people in recovery, their friends, families and co-workers.”

Mensh acts as the show’s brash, charismatic host and says he studied past and present recovery shows while developing his unique format. His polished but personable program includes interviews with medical experts, such as Dr. Drew Pinsky (“Celebrity Rehab”); celebrity recovering addicts like bassist Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue; drug-related comedy bits; music inspired by addiction and treatment (think Aerosmith’s “What It Takes”); conference-calling listeners to share stories; and scholarship giveaways to the C.A.R.E. 30-day treatment program in North Palm Beach, Fla. (the regular price tag: $22,000).

Pinsky has lauded the show as “the embodiment of recovery” and as a powerful example of the way the media can be used to transmit the message of recovery.

On the air, Mensh often shares parts of his own story, which began as he grew up in and around Washington, D.C., attending his maternal grandparents’ Orthodox synagogue.

“But unfortunately, my mother married not one but two violent men,” he said of his father and former stepfather; beatings and severe emotional abuse were de rigueur. Two days after Mensh graduated high school, he found his suitcase packed in the living room along with a note that read, “Get the f— out.”

He fled to the efficiency apartment he had already rented for the summer and was showering the next morning when a roommate offered him a lit bong through the shower curtain.

“I took my first hit, and it filled the black hole inside of me that all addicts feel,” he recalled. “It set me free from all my anger, and made me feel more comfortable in my own skin.”

Over the next 13 years, Mensh snorted cocaine (sometimes off the turntables at his disc jockey gigs), added acid and Quaaludes to the mix, and imbibed to the point that he blacked out, only to awaken in a ditch or a stranger’s car or bed. Although he managed to hold down radio jobs and even to found several profitable businesses during those years, his disease eventually spiraled out of control. In 1989, Mensh’s therapist, who had also treated John Belushi, told him that the only difference between Mensh and the late comedian was that Belushi “was dead, and you aren’t yet.”

His first day of sobriety was March 25, 1989.

Cut to August 2007, when Mensh — who by then had been voted one of the 30 most influential people in music by Source magazine — was mortified by a tabloid TV show about celebrity addicts such as Britney Spears.

“The shows were ridiculing these people, whom I see as sick, as fodder for their revenue,” he recalled. He also perceived that stars like Spears were using (or encouraged to use) “recovery” as a way to gain publicity for their latest albums or films.

“The tabloid media was bastardizing our beloved 12-step programs, and I wanted to do something to portray them in a positive light,” he said.

The result was “Recovery Radio,” which got its start on a Palm Beach station and is now in multiple markets. The show is expanding to include other kinds of addictions (on Super Bowl Sunday, the topic was gambling, for example). And plans are in the works to do live shows from Los Angeles — such as broadcasting from a 12-step meeting in a federal prison — and in other cities.

“As a Jew, it’s important to me to reach out to other Jews,” Mensh said. He cites the perception within the Jewish community that Jews don’t tend to be addicts, which “made me feel like even more of a schmuck while I was in rehab. There’s also the idea that Jews are too smart to abuse drugs and alcohol, which is part of the B.S. I told myself to keep me in denial while I was using.”

“We want to reach out to people who are still sick and suffering, whomever they may be,” he added.

Judaism From the Bottom Up


One of the most exciting experiments in Jewish transformation is taking place right here in Los Angeles.

Beit T’Shuvah is one of the nation’s only homes for rehabilitation and return that integrates the 12 steps and Judaism. To hear Rabbi Mark Borovitz’s interpretation of the Torah portion on a Friday evening is to understand what Abraham Joshua Heschel meant by "Judaism from the bottom up" — the crucial reconfiguration of our people that must take place, Heschel said, if Judaism is to answer the redemptive call of the next generation.

Judaism asks the essential questions, if only we’d listen, wrote Heschel in "Pikuach Neshama: To Save a Soul." "For what purpose am I alive? Does my life have a meaning, a reason? Is there a need for my existence? Will anything on Earth be impaired by my disappearance?"

Each Shabbat, Borovitz asks these questions of a packed crowd of 300 addicts, convicts, malcontents and their families at the House, on Venice Boulevard near Robertson. Usually, he quotes Heschel along the way. Sixty men and 40 women live at the complex, in three programs that constitute a life-skills training school more than a typical rehab. That ‘s because Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto, Beit T’Shuvah’s founder and CEO (and Borovitz ‘s wife) do not think of addiction as a terminal Jewish abomination, a shanda. They understand, as so many others are coming to know in their own lives, that addiction itself is only a symptom, (as Borovitz repeatedly says), an indication that we are in our "wrong skin" and have work to do.

Emblazoned on the Beit T’Shuvah stained glass window is the Talmudic challenge: "In the place where a penitent stands, even the perfectly righteous cannot reach." At a time when the standards of Jewish financial and spiritual ambition have reached excessive new heights, Beit T’Shuvah asks: do we mean this?

"Each of us has a Moses in our lives, leading us to freedom," Borovitz told the crowd last Friday. He spent 17 years in assorted criminal activities leading to jail and prison — as he says, stealing everything that wasn ‘t nailed down. His own Moses was a prison chaplain, Mel Silverman. Today Borovitz, who received ordination two years ago from the University of Judaism, is a chaplain at Los Angeles County Jail.

"We all have to make teshuvah," he told me. "If we each made amends and expressed gratitude around our Shabbat table — as we do here each Friday — the amount of addiction would be lessened. We would break the myth of the perfect family."

Recently, I wrote about the Addictions Conference held at the Skirball Cultural Center by our own Jewish Federation. It was a good first step for the so-called "rest" of us, the Jews who would rather not have 12-step programs in their synagogues for fear of offending the upscale gentry. (Another option in town is the Chabad Drug Rehabilitation Program, which treats dozens of addicts each year.)

But the battle is fought day after day. It begins with teshuvah, the radical notion that we are both imperfect and capable of change.

This is heavy stuff, but at Beit T’Shuvah, life itself is no parlor game. Borovitz and Rossetto are making it safe for Jews to say the unthinkable: that Judaism is for the lost, not only the found; for the wanderer, not the self-satisfied; that God will not lose faith with me, even if I have temporarily lost my way.

Borovitz, along with Rabbi Ed Feinstein, is revising the 12 steps used universally by Alcoholics Anonymous, and recasting them as 10 Jewish steps, beginning with "I am a holy soul. I have chosen paths that have led to separation and destruction."

Meanwhile, I am rising to applaud them on the eve of their annual fundraising dinner, to be held this Sunday, honoring community activist Annette Shapiro. After 15 years with Gateways Hospital, Beit T’Shuvah is on its own now, dependent on community support. You can’t get into the sold-out dinner, but you can visit any Friday night and see what ‘s coming down.

Backstage with Jon Voight at Chabad Telethon ’99


Backstage at Chabad Telethon ’99, Jon Voight was like the Beatles song — “Here, There and Everywhere.” One moment, the erstwhile “Midnight Cowboy” was huddling in a corner with a telethon point person, putting last-minute touches on a speech. Moments later, he was hovering around the extensive buffet, somewhere between the chili con carne and the roast brisket. Then the Academy Award winner was catching up with friends and obliging fans with autographs and photo opportunities.

“Here, There and Everywhere.” One might say the same about Chabad itself, which has outreach chapters popping up all over the map, and the Telethon ’99 advertising campaign blanketing the city with everything from billboards and lamppost banners, to truck-side displays riding up and down Pacific Coast Highway Sunday.

A regular Chabad fixture, Voight was one of many celebrities who spent the evening singing the praises on camera of Chabad’s work. Anthony Hopkins, emcee Fyvush Finkel, Edward James Olmos, Sean Young, Shelley Winters, Dick Van Patten and Len Lesser (“Seinfeld’s” Uncle Leo) all turned out to help make Chabad’s 19th televised fund-raiser a success. The final tally: a whopping $4,701,412 in pledges.

Broadcast locally on KCOP, the telethon has become a familiar, annual parade of taped testimonials and live talent. Eclectic entertainment took place before the camera and backstage, from the comedy of Sid Caesar to bagpipe sensation “Wicked Tinkers” — each segment culminating with the obligatory tote board updates and circles of dancing Chassidim.

Overheard behind the scenes was a parent’s firsthand endorsement of Chabad’s programs. Recounting the plight of her teen-age son, who was undergoing drug rehabilitation at the organization’s Olympic and Hauser facility, the mother said that she had tried a leading rehab center, and all they did for her son was charge him a bill running in the thousands of dollars. Things changed when she enrolled her son at the Chabad center.

“They didn’t care about the money,” the woman said. “They said, ‘Just bring in your kid.’ … Chabad is the only one that cares about the kids.”

Last month’s North Valley Jewish Community Center shooting echoed throughout the evening, as the messages of Chabad leader Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin and his celebrity guests often alluded to the incident and the importance of combating hate and prejudice in the world.

Commenting on the Aug. 10 tragedy, Voight told The Journal: “I’ve traveled all over the world. People are coming together more and more. This was an isolated, insane act.”

Onstage, Voight reiterated his sentiment, also adding that the Jewish community will survive this latest tragedy because “the Jewish people are eternal. They will never be overtaken.”

Career Opportunities


Even though Elizabeth Arkin joined Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) in September, she’s still writing resumes and looking for work — though not for herself.

That’s because, as vocational counselor of the rehabilitation program for Los Angeles proper — the Westside, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, etc., it is Arkin’s occupation to help those with disadvantages land career opportunities in today’s competitive job market. At JVS, an affiliate of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, with the help of the Department of Rehabilitation, Arkin individually assists those with severe disabilities — such as blindness, mental and psychiatric illness, orthopedic problems — on the finer points of seizing employment. Part of that process involves coaching the people she works with through job preparation, resume writing and interview skills.

“My goal is to build a bridge for my client to that job,” says Arkin.

Goal is the operative word at JVS, as Arkin’s work will also include a new program getting off the ground called GOALS, an acronym for Gaining Opportunities and Life Skills, aimed at assisting people with disabilities. JVS job assistance for the disabled is absolutely free.

One such client that Arkin works for is Judy Stearn, 49, who is blind.

“We’re in contact every day,” says Stearn. “We brainstorm together about ideas. She has gone into different employers.” Stearn adds that Arkin paves the way for her before she meets with employers and gives them an idea about her personality and abilities, so that they are comfortable by the time they meet Stearn.

In Stearn’s case, Arkin explains, “She had a lot of skills to begin with. We’ve worked on her resume.”

Arkin’s collaborative relationship with Stearn began when she made a trip out to Stearn’s home.

“I was able to observe her computer which has assistive technology or adaptive equipment,” says Arkin. “I was able to see how people who were blind use a computer.”

After that initial visit, Arkin helped Stearn prepare for her desired job in customer service.

“I would go in, I would visit the employers… look at the job, see how many tasks were involved,” says Arkin of her approach. She set about finding an employer willing to accommodate Stearn’s adaptive equipment. As the JVS administrator describes it, Stearn uses voice-activated technology: “Software that speaks to you and you feel it with a Braille display.”

So far, the road to finding Stearn a job has been kind of bumpy. Among the challenges Arkin and Stearn are tackling together: finding the right hours, the right proximity from Stearn’s home, and, of course, willing employers.

“It’s very difficult for blind people to get jobs because of people’s attitude toward us,” says Stearn. “So it’s not an easy thing to break down the barriers and get jobs. Sometimes the employers flipped out. They’d ask, ‘How are they going to do this? How are they going to do that? Who’s gong to take care of them?’ Well, I can take care of myself, thank you very much.”

In fact, Stearn had worked for many years doing medical transcription, but took a break to raise her child, now nine. So her present challenge is re-entering the job market.

“She’s very positive. She’s also thorough,” says Stearn of Arkin. She says that her counselor is “interested in what she does, so that makes it even better for employers to work with her, and vice versa.”

Nevertheless, there are no guarantees of a happy ending — despite all of the efforts of Arkin and Stearn. Four months into the JVS program, Stearn has yet to find a job. Stearn remains optimistic, and she does have an interview scheduled in January. Above all, Stearn appreciates the individual attention she gets from Arkin, who also works with seven other clients on an ongoing, one-to-one basis.

“I think we work well together,” says Stearn. “My personality plus [Arkin’s] clicks. We both have a lot of vitality that allows us to be cohesive.”

Still, a helping hand from the outside would be more than appreciated, and anyone in the community with a job lead, or those interested in learning more about JVS programming, can contact Elizabeth Arkin at Jewish Vocational Service. Call (323) 761-888, ext. 163.

A Good Deal?

German companies may benefit from a proposed settlement that could shut out future restitution

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


The $5.2 billion settlement in the works to compensate wartime slave and forced laborers is a good deal for German companies, banks and insurers, but not for a wide range of claimants who suffered under the Nazi regime, warns Barry Fisher.

Fisher is a Los Angeles human rights lawyer, who is co-counsel in numerous Holocaust restitution lawsuits and represents not only Jewish interests, but also those of the Romani people (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, the disabled and others.

The hundreds of German companies which profited from the exploitation of up to 1.5 million slave laborers, mostly Jews, and forced laborers, mostly non-Jews from central and eastern Europe, are to put up at least half of the $5.2 billion, according to the not yet finalized agreement.

But that figure is less impressive than it seems, because the companies are likely to reap a tax break making up to 50 percent of their contributions to the “humanitarian fund” deductible, says Fisher.

What upsets the attorney more is that with the final adoption of the pact, German industry, banks and insurers will be shielded from any and all future claims — with the assistance of the U.S. government.

With the “legal peace” or “legal closure” foreseen under the agreement, German banks, which profited hugely from the forced “Aryanization” of mostly Jewish businesses and property, would no longer have to worry about future claims.

German insurance companies would be similarly shielded for all time.

While the humanitarian fund is supposed to also cover outstanding Aryanization and insurance claims, Fisher is skeptical that the fund is large enough to do the job. And he is unhappy that the U.S. government would be bound to oppose any future claims, once the settlement is signed.

Always, in the background, is the ticking of the biological clock, as the supposed beneficiaries of the fund, now mostly in their 70s and 80s, die off.

Fisher notes that even the $1.25 billion Swiss banking settlement, signed well over a year ago, has not yet been legally approved.

He and other attorneys fear that any payouts by the current slave labor fund are still one year off, if all goes well.