December 11, 2019

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.