Aussie Jews play key role in apology to aborigines


In what could be described as Australia’s Yom Kippur, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last week expressed the one word his predecessors refused to utter to indigenous Australians: Sorry.

Rudd’s Labor Party wrested power from John Howard’s Liberals last November on a platform that included apologizing to the “Stolen Generations” — up to 100,000 mostly mixed-blood aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and 1970.

The text of the motion on the Stolen Generations, which won bipartisan support, acknowledged the “profound grief, suffering and loss” inflicted on Aborigines.

Australian Jews, some of who have been at the forefront of the decades-long reconciliation effort, applauded the apology.

“To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry,” Rudd said. “And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”

In a historic speech that drew cheers and tears, Rudd said he hoped the apology would remove “a great stain from the nation’s soul.”

Mark Leibler, co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, a national organization that promotes reconciliation, said Rudd’s apology marked a “watershed” in Australian history, but that this should be just the beginning of the reconciliation process.

“The shame as far as this country is concerned will not be cleared up until we bridge the 17-year gap in the life expectancy between indigenous and nonindigenous Australians,” said Leibler, who attended the apology ceremony in Canberra on Feb. 13.

Leibler is also the chairman of the world board of trustees of Keren Hayesod/United Israel Appeal and national chairman of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.

“We’ve suffered 2,000 years of persecution, and we understand what it is to be the underdog and to suffer from disadvantage,” he said.

Jews have been at the forefront of pushing for civil rights in Australia.

In 1965, Jim Spigelman, a cousin of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman and now chief justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, led 30 students on the first Australian Freedom Ride — a journey into outback Australia to protest racial discrimination against Aborigines, who were not entitled to vote and were prohibited from swimming pools, pubs and other public places.

In the country town of Moree, a racist mob attacked the students and, according to newspaper reports at the time, Spigelman was smacked to the ground.

The man most Jews and Aborigines hail as having made the greatest contribution to the cause of aboriginal rights is Ron Castan, a Jewish Australian dubbed by aboriginal leaders as the “great white warrior.”

Castan, who died in 1999, was the lead counsel in the landmark 1992 Australian Supreme Court “Mabo judgment” — named for plaintiff Eddie Mabo — which overturned the legal fiction that Australia was “terra nullius,” or an uninhabited land, when white settlers first arrived in 1788. Aborigines now own more than 10 percent of Australia’s land mass.

In a 1998 speech, Castan implored the government to say it was sorry, citing Holocaust denial in his argument.

“The refusal to apologize for dispossession, for massacres and for the theft of children is the Australian equivalent of the Holocaust deniers — those who say it never really happened,” Castan charged.

In 1999, Howard proposed a motion expressing “deep and sincere regret” for the injustices suffered by Aborigines, but the then-prime minister said Australians “should not be required to accept guilt and blame” for the policies of previous governments.

Aborigines number about 450,000 in an Australian population of 21 million. They are the most disadvantaged group in Australia, suffering high rates of infant mortality, unemployment, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.

More than 100 members of the Stolen Generations were present at the ceremony, which was broadcast live on national television and on giant screens across the country.

“Our faith teaches and emphasizes the universal principles of coexistence and respect for human dignity and rights,” Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick, president of the Organization of Rabbis of Australia, said in a statement. “It teaches the need to recognize and rectify any failings we may display in our interaction between our fellow man. To say ‘sorry’ in a meaningful manner goes a long way in ensuring that mistakes and discrimination will not be repeated.”

In addition to their activism on aboriginal issues, Jews were instrumental in leading the crusade against the White Australia Policy, a series of laws from 1901 to 1973 that restricted nonwhite immigration to Australia.

The president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Robert Goot, said he is proud of the Jewish community’s ongoing commitment to reconciliation.

Rudd’s apology marked “the beginning in a new chapter in the quest by indigenous Australians for complete equality with their fellow Australians,” Goot observed.

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence of the Great Synagogue in Sydney said in a speech on reconciliation this month that Jews must not “deny nor stand by nor stand silent in the face of the pain of the Stolen Generations. It is incumbent on us to acknowledge the wrong, to apologize for the damage caused.”

Noting the importance to Jews of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, the British-born rabbi said Australia should have a similar institution for Aborigines.

“There ought to be a national place where people who have suffered can come and identify with their past and understand that the incursion of their culture and heritage has been recognized and an apology has been made,” he said.

Rudd’s apology comes more than a decade after a 1997 inquiry in Australia’s Parliament, called the “Bringing Them Home” report, concluded that the Aborigines suffered “an act of genocide aimed at wiping out indigenous families, communities and cultures.” The report urged the government to apologize and offer compensation to the victims and their families.

The apology offers no recourse to compensation, although the issue is now being hotly debated. It also re-ignited the so-called “history wars” between those who believe the Stolen Generations were kidnapped in a sinister attempt to breed out their aboriginality and others who say it was a benevolent attempt to save half-caste children from the ills of aboriginal society.

For German Teens, Shame Stirred Action


When six German teenagers entered the beit midrash at YULA boys high school, there was an indescribable sense of tension in the air. The four girls and two boys seemed hesitant and slightly anxious as they faced 60 Jewish boys eager for discussion. As a natural skeptic, my personal attitude toward conversing with people of possible Nazi ancestry was not very optimistic.

But within a few moments, the Germans’ anxiety visibly disappeared due to our welcoming disposition. And I must admit that by the end of the program I learned a beneficial lesson, which applies to every single Jew alive today.

Along with other German students, these visitors had participated in translating a German book, “Never Tell Anybody your Name is Rachmiel,” by Rosine De Dijn. The book tells the story of a Polish Jewish single mother who managed to hide her son with a family in Belgium before she was deported to Auschwitz and killed.

Inspired by a visit from De Dijn, the teens began a project to translate the book into English so that the descendants of the rescuers and of the Holocaust survivor, two of whom live in California, could learn of their ancestors’ story.

When the school contacted the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the museum extended an invitation to the students, a teacher and the author. The trip was funded by a German foundation called Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future.

As I learned of their story, my admiration for the noble actions of these students grew, and my pessimism began to slowly decline. However, the images of the atrocities of the Holocaust — and the voices of my Holocaust-survivor grandparents — constantly reverberated in my mind.

Following a brief description of the book, a question-and-answer session opened. With many grandchildren of Holocaust survivors in the audience, myself included, an array of hands propelled into the air. One of the many interesting questions posed to the German teens was, “Do you feel guilty?”

German student Hagen Verleger answered: “I do not feel guilty, however I feel greatly ashamed.”

I was fascinated with that answer, because I realized that shame and guilt are directly connected, but they are far from synonymous.

While the Nazi story ends with shame, it began with an excess of pride. Hitler and the Nazi party exemplified the utmost arrogance in their stride to conquer the world and “ethnically cleanse” society. But after their defeat, surviving members of the Nazi party and the generation of Germans to follow them were internationally blacklisted.

The students explained to us that for a very long period of time not many people would openly admit to being “German” due to the stigma attached to the nationality. Germany went from being the superior race and nation to bearing a universal mark of Cain.

But things have changed for this generation. The students pointed out that the 2006 World Cup competition in Germany saw the German flag flown with pride at this international event, with black, red, gold and the eagle emblem appearing on shirts, signs and venues all over the country. Clearly, this generation of Germans has found a way to deal with their infamous past and appropriately display national pride once again.

Exemplifying this revolution in Germany’s national attitude, the six visitors from Germany commendably presented a translated book — a product of their stirring shame. Although Germany’s actions cannot and will never be atoned for, the German students of my generation took ownership of this inherent guilt and utilized shame to spark a contribution to society.

By willingly encountering Jews, these German teens have exposed the wrongdoings of their fathers with the intent of setting the ethical standards for the generations to follow. It is their version of our “Never Again” slogan.

Hearing all of this, I started to think about what we, direct descendants of Holocaust survivors, can learn from the grandchildren of pre-1945 Germany. After recapping the issues discussed, I realized that what my generation and the German teens have in common is that we are the youth of our nations.

Obviously, nothing previous generations of Jews have done can be equated to the crimes of Nazi Germany on any level whatsoever. But every generation does have its faults. Moreover, it is every generation’s responsibility to recognize and remedy the faults of their predecessors.

As a teen, I find it essential to look at our past and scrutinize Jewish history in order to improve or even attempt to improve my generation and set the tracks for future generations.

One issue that has always vexed me and continues to haunt the Jewish people is that of our lack of unity. Whether the issues are political, religious or moral, they cause serious divisions within our nation, which have devastating effects on our chances for success. Political differences, which resulted in the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a fellow Jew, and religious differences between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel not only split us internally but destroy our reputation in the eyes of the outside world.

Will we look back on our ancestors’ mistakes with futile guilt, unproductively blaming ourselves? Or will we be stimulated by our shame and become motivated to possibly rectify those faults? Will we unify or continue to be fragmented and suffer our demise?

Adam Deustsch is a junior at YULA High School for boys.

Never Been Mugged


This piece was excerpted from the writer’s “Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada” (Other Press, 2005).

Over time I have learned to drive to a few locations in Jerusalem, but I am never sure when I start out if I indeed will reach my destination without getting lost, circling, poring over maps and asking person after person for directions. I have succeeded in mastering the twists and turns of Tel-Aviv, but driving into the hodgepodge of Jerusalem is as daunting as facing the illogic of Boston’s one-way streets after the comforting geometric symmetry of Manhattan.

In the door pocket of my car I have one road atlas of Israel, one map of the streets of Tel Aviv, one map of the Galilee and, at last count, no fewer than five of Jerusalem. I am always apprehensive of taking the wrong road, and winding up where I might be perceived as an unwelcome intruder.

One day my apprehensions were borne out in a way I couldn’t have predicted. All my life I have seen myself as a civil libertarian, a liberal, a peacenik. In sum, a Democrat. But my behavior proved me no better than the most hypocritical old salon communist.

I had driven to the capital to attend an evening meeting, but was delayed in traffic. Night had fallen and I was late. A double outsider, I was frightened of crossing the invisible borders of the “unified” city into intifada territory where, with my poor mastery of direction, I felt I might be an easy target.

I suddenly recalled advice given to me by a fellow American also based in Tel-Aviv: When in doubt in Jerusalem, leave your car in the guest parking lot at the old Hilton Hotel at its periphery and hop into a cab.

With relief, that’s what I did. Opening the back door I slid into the first cab of the taxis lined up waiting to collect passengers at the hotel entrance. I was just sitting back in the seat, starting to relax, when — through his accent — the driver revealed his nationality.

“Blease,” he repeated my destination back to me, “Hillel Street.”

In the mouth of a native Arabic speaker the English “P” turns into a “B”.

I froze, managed to mumble, “I forgot something,” then fled the cab.

Half panicking, I accosted the astounded hotel doorman and pleaded with him, “Get me another taxi.” I groped for words. “I want a driver with, with–” I searched for a euphemism.

Finally I blurted it straight out: “Find me an Israeli driver.”

Even as I stammered the words, I felt waves of shame rising. I was ushered into the next cab in line, obligingly driven by a Jew.

I kept my eyes focused on the ground, but I felt the dark stare of the Arab upon me as he stood idle beside his idling motor. Humiliation aside, he must have hated me for his lost fare. But however he judged me, it could be no harsher than my own verdict on myself.

My years of so-called convictions hadn’t proved strong enough to hold up a feather when it came to reality. I was too chicken to take a 10-minute drive in a registered taxi through western Jerusalem with an Arab driver at 8 p.m. And I was only going from the Hilton to Hillel Street — not from Jenin to Ramallah.

They say a liberal is a bigot who hasn’t yet been mugged, but my anxiety anticipated the unthrown stone. Unassisted, I put the dagger in the driver’s hand. By my blatant action and blunt words in those brief seconds, I did more damage to the cause of co-existence than I could ever counterbalance by a lifetime of dues to the Association for Civil Rights.

It’s no justification protesting that it was the prudent thing to do, an excusable overreaction, that “you never know,” or that I have a responsibility to my family as well as my ideals. For when I heard that driver speak and saw his dark eyes in the rear-view mirror, I was light years away from any convictions. When push came to shove, I was handed the opportunity to show where I stood, and I did. I failed the taxi test.

And I am doubly damned. For I know that, presented with the same test, I might again refuse the ride, again feel relief as I got out.

I can no longer whitewash my true colors. I, too, am a casualty of the occupation and the intifada it caused — and for that I ask the driver’s pardon. I used to just be waiting for peace. Since that abortive ride, I am also waiting for my conscience to give me peace.

 

Cancer and Secrets


I have cancer. It’s thyroid cancer, which has metastasized. In every bone in my body there is a tumor eating it from the inside out.

That’s why I was at the Cedars-Sinai Outpatient Cancer Center on June 25, 2003, having a bone infusion. I sat there on one of those comfortable chairs as the drug slowly slipped into my veins to make my bones stronger.

And that’s where I saw her — an old friend and a former client who emigrated from Iran. We were so happy to see one another. She was there with a friend, who was there perhaps for a reason similar to mine.

We hugged, kissed and chatted, happy to find one another. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to stay in touch. After two hours her friend was done, so she kissed me goodbye and walked away. But before I knew it she ran back to me.

"Mrs. Homa, Mrs. Homa. I didn’t see you here. I did not see you here. My lips are sealed. I will not tell anyone," she said, and kissed me again.

And I said, "No, please, do tell. That’s alright."

"No, I won’t tell anyone, I promise," she said.

Cancer is scary. It is unkind. It takes away your independence and your freedom. But cancer is a big taboo in the Jewish community, even more so in the Persian Jewish community. Having cancer is kept as a secret of great shame to those involved.

You know I have cancer. Perhaps you have cancer, or someone in your family does. Or you know someone else who has it — a neighbor, a friend. Is it our fault we have cancer? Why should we carry shame? What is there to be ashamed of?

They say that thyroid cancer is from exposure to radiation, especially during childhood. Why do we get cancer? Is it the environment? Is it our diet?

Whatever it is, it’s not our fault.

Isn’t it enough that we have to go through treatment — receive radiation, experience chemo — every day of our lives when we have cancer?

Cancer is not something to be ashamed of. Cancer is an illness, like any other illness. You can take proper measures and appropriate steps to fight it. Cancer is not always a death sentence.

The cancer is escalating in the Persian Jewish community. In every family there are one or two people with cancer. But it’s all being hush-hushed and kept secret.

My girlfriend’s sister has breast cancer. My girlfriend was crying the other day because some woman made fun of her sister wearing a wig, asking her whether she has become Orthodox.

When my girlfriend found out I had cancer, she was absolutely shocked.

"But your father-in-law is a doctor, your brother-in-law is a doctor, your cousin is a doctor. How could you have cancer?" she said.

I told her, "It’s OK. I’m prepared to fight it."

I was at a Cancer Center luncheon, and met some Persian Jews there who nodded their heads and came to me.

"Please don’t tell anyone you saw me here," they said.

Why add additional stress by hiding? Accept it, announce it, fight it and try to beat it. That’s all you have to do. Many people that went to Beverly Hills High School have come down with various forms of cancer. But not all of them are speaking to Erin Brockovich. Instead of participating in her humanitarian effort, they are keeping quiet. What a shame.

What a shame to have cancer.

These days you will see me hanging out at the Outpatient Cancer Center, receiving treatment, radiation and bone infusion. You will see me watching people, observing, asking questions, trying to do something — no matter how small — for someone that could use it. I have always believed in doing random acts of kindness. Perhaps cancer will give me another venue to reach my goal to make this a better world; to tell people it’s OK to hurt a little and do what you can to get a little better.

When my dear uncle (of blessed memory) was shot in downtown Los Angeles, we all gathered at my parents’ house. My mom had gone through severe shock; she would not hear that he had passed away. My sister-in-law pulled me to the kitchen and said, "But his son is a rabbi…. How could this happen?"

"Sometimes bad things happen to good people," I said.

This is true about cancer as well. Having cancer does not make you a bad person. You just have to remember that bad things sometimes happen to good people. Then cancer — like any other challenge in life — can be acknowledged, accepted and dealt with.


Homa Shadpour-Michaelson, a counselor with
the Refugee Resettlement Project for the Los Angeles Unified School District,
wrote this article while she was undergoing cancer treatment last year. She
passed away on Feb. 26, 2004. Her daughter, Shanee, can be reached at shanee2@hotmail.com

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
next Shabbat.

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
livelihood.

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
Israeli upbringing.

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
emotional trouble.

“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
good enough.”

Despite an understanding that the addiction is destroying
his life, the addict’s attempts to stop will fail until he gets outside help,
experts say.

“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
said.

“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
don’t mix.”

Getting Help

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
since.

“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
life goals.

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,”
Borovitz said.

He said addicts need to harness God’s power to make their
recovery successful.

“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
Prayer.”

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
for years.

“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,”
Kipnes said.

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
life’s purpose.

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
lives.

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.”

Exodus From Addiction and Shame


These are the Ten Plagues of Prison Life, and we take a drop of grape juice out of our cups for each: Damage left in the wake of destructive addiction. Abusive relationships. Low self-esteem. The embittered spirit. Wrong attitude. Weakening mind and body. Daily degradation. Deprivation. Captivity. Separation from loved ones.

Freedom has a different meaning for the Shalom Sisterhood, a group of 20 inmates who meet twice a month for Jewish study at the California Institution for Women (CIW). As they gather for a seder in the meeting room of this college campus-like institution set among the dairy farms and truck repair shops of Chino, the Shalom Sisterhood considers anew the story of the Exodus and the freedoms of mind and spirit available to them.

Their seder is just one of many held throughout the area that reinterprets the ancient story to shed light on contemporary issues (see sidebar).

Before attending the March 18 event at CIW, Rabbi Paul Dubin wondered what kind of seder is appropriate in a prison. As a board member of Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center, the sponsor of the event, and former executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, Dubin wanted to help the inmates connect their prison experience with Jewish life. He read the haggadah they had prepared and was impressed. "They’re covering the very thing that would have worried me: How do you speak about freedom in a place like this?"

Dubin spoke at the seder about "all those enslavements that warp the spirit and blight the mind, that destroy the soul, even though they leave the flesh alive."

In the "Haggadah Shel Assurim" ("Haggadah of Captivity"), developed by the Shalom Sisterhood with Rabbi Mel Silverman before his retirement last year, the Jewish prisoners include their own stories. Margaret Tanner, who wears a small necklace charm reading "Try God," reads from her selection, "Many women have said ‘I wasn’t arrested, I was rescued.’ This is true for me."

Dawn Ayers is chair of the Shalom Sisterhood. At the seder, she reads her "Letter to Heroin," a declaration of freedom included among many of the inmates’ meditations in the haggadah. "Each day I find courage and strength, not from you, but from my spiritual fold," she reads, "I regret that I had to lose everything to set myself free…. I will stay sober and out of your bondage."

Kim Braun was a preschool teacher from Porter Ranch. Following her divorce and a bitter custody battle, Braun began writing bad checks and got involved in computer hacking. She vows that when she is released, "I’m never even going to have a parking violation."

Mona Blaskey is a mother of nine. When her own mother died last year, she went out drinking with a friend. The night turned violent when a drunken argument with a friend led to a shoving match; an aneurysm burst when her friend fell. It was Blaskey’s first run-in with the law. She is serving six years for attempted murder and will serve half the time for good behavior.

Braun and Blaskey consider themselves lucky. Blaskey recalls her first meeting with the Shalom Sisterhood. When the women introduced themselves and the amount of time they were serving, she says she was "heartbroken" — many of the women at this seder have "indeterminate" sentences of seven, 15 or 25 years to life.

On her left hand, Blaskey has a Star of David tattoo. She says the seder makes her homesick for her father’s Orange County home, where she would spend hours cooking for her family.

Rather than cooking a meal with family, on this night the Shalom Sisterhood enjoys the treat of nonprison food, with dinner contributions from Art’s Deli in Studio City and Gateways Hospital pitching in for the catered chicken dinner. Boxes of matzah and macaroons are available to take back to their rooms; what hot food is left over, Shalom Sisterhood members pile onto plates to share the joys of Passover with roommates. No door is left open for Elijah, but strangers are invited in.

The seder was sponsored by the Jewish Committee for Personal Service (JCPS), a service of Gateways Hospital that helps to bring Jewish life and values to prisoners and acts as advocates on their behalf. JCPS Director Judith Sable visits CIW every other week. Since Silverman’s retirement, the prison budget has not supported a visiting rabbi. Though the women say they trust and respect CIW chaplain Father Neil Fuller, Sable is their only regular connection to Jewish life.

Sable, a social worker who visits prisons across the state as a "religious volunteer," says the hardest part of her work is convincing those outside the system that Jewish prisoners are worthy of their help. She points to the sincere efforts of the Shalom Sisterhood, evident at the seder table, to improve their minds, bodies, spirits and lives.

"I would stake my life on it," Sable says. "These women would not commit another crime. They’re upstanding citizens and they’re still here." She wants to offer more to them than twice-monthly visits. "We’re working on doing some shonda-busting," she says.


You don’t have to go to prison to find a Passover seder with a contemporary interpretation of the Exodus. With the service itself encouraging us to place ourselves in the sandals of the Israelites, Passover is uniquely suited to tie together history and personal experience. All around Los Angeles, Jewish and non-Jewish groups offered fun, thought-provoking, inspirational, celebrational seders that take off from the Exodus into a new land of celebration.

At Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, the freedom vibe rings in from West Africa at the popular Reggae Passover. Alan Eder & Friends bring their "Songs of Freedom," joined by African dancers and choirs from the temple and Parks Chapel A.M.E. Church.

If you prefer gourmet to reggae, Wolfgang Puck has it covered — Spago’s seder, with braised Morrocan lamb and tarragon gefilte fish, has become a tradition in its own right, and proceeds go to charity.

The seder may focus on women’s issues, as at Temple Judea in Tarzana or the National Council of Jewish Women. Or reading a haggadah together might aim to bring singles to the Promised Land of their beshert, as did a Passover dinner this year at Meet Me Café. Perhaps the most popular "new order" for Passover is the interfaith seder, of the type Leo Baeck Temple held this year, where members of any community can recognize elements of their own historical struggles in the retelling of the Passover tale.

Whatever the community, whatever the goal, the story of Passover can speak to anyone who has struggled, anyone who has been set free. In congregations and communities across Los Angeles, Passover celebrants are saying, "We’ll leave the door open." — Mike Levy, Staff Writer

No Longer Alone


Murray Cohen and his wife of 52 years, Lillian, were both Holocaust survivors. Since Lillian’s death nine months ago, Murray spends most of his days inside. Without the attention of his daughter Barbara, Murray would hardly eat, shower or speak.

Murray is a fictional character who might resemble an elderly neighbor, parent or relative you know. His story is not uncommon from many unwritten stories unfolding behind locked doors throughout the Los Angles area. For individuals like Murray, who are suffering from loss, and for those like Barbara, who care for them, The Maple Counseling Center (TMCC) in Beverly Hills provides a service that hopes to unlock the hearts of these pained individuals.

“The Senior Peer Program aims to diminish the stigma and sense of shame associated with seeking mental health services later in life, through the use of senior peer counselors,” said Carol Katz, coordinator of the program. “Someone their own age is available to these individuals on an emotional level, and helps the individual feel less lonely in their experience of loss. Those who felt alienated in their experiences of loss and nearing the end of life are able to feel more understood and self-accepting after talking with senior peer counselors.”

The Senior Peer Program was created in response to a request by the Beverly Hills City Council to aid its substantial population of seniors; the program is available to all seniors residing in the Los Angeles area. Each counselor is required to be 55 years old and up, and the clients are a minimum of 62 years of age. In addition to one-on-one peer counseling sessions, bereavement groups are available throughout the year, as are senior adult support groups. The program also provides counseling for homebound seniors in Beverly Hills.

“We were approached by the City Council to provide a low-fee counseling program for the senior community,” said Astrid Schwartz, an MFCC with the center. “In the beginning, we were supported by both city and federal funding. Today, the only funding is given by the city, and TMCC absorbs the difference of the cost.”

A sliding-scale fee, starting at $10, is charged for each individual counseling session. The fee is based on each person’s ability to pay.

Those seeking to set the highly confidential and personal counseling process in motion should begin with a phone call to TMCC, at (310) 271-9999. Before counseling can begin, an intake session is required to establish the preferences of the individual seeking assistance as well as collect information about patient history for the counselor. Individuals may request male or female counselors and may also request counselors of similar faith and background. The counseling sessions begin once this information has been processed and a fee has been established. This entire process takes about seven to 10 days.

Schwartz, who is also the supervisor of the Senior Peer Counselors, has witnessed the transformation of some of those in need over the past 13 years.

“In dealing with loss, the individual is thrown back to unresolved losses. The issues of aging, death, grieving and loneliness come out. Seniors need to know that they don’t have to go through this process alone,” said Schwartz.

“It is never too late to change,” said Katz. “We all have things to work through, and we all struggle to embrace the end of life. The process of being heard by someone who cares and someone who can empathize has a tremendous value to the individual, no matter what their age.”

The Maple Counseling Center is located at 9107 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills. Carol Katz is in charge of coordinating intake appointments for Senior Peer Counseling and can be reached at (310) 271-9999.