February 19, 2020

Prison to Promised Land

Morris “Moe” Treibitz is doing surprisingly well today, having survived homelessness, heroin addiction and a decade in prison for armed robbery.

Sitting on the tree-enclosed front porch of the Stanley House, one of the first sober living homes in California in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District, it’s hard to picture this soft-spoken 42-year-old as an ex-con. With his sweet smile and unfailing politeness (he even apologizes for wearing a rumpled T-shirt), Treibitz seems to be someone now determined to do the right thing in every way.

Treibitz lives at and works for the Chabad Treatment Center’s Aleph Institute, a nonprofit Jewish organization dedicated to assisting Jews isolated from the regular community, including U.S. military personnel, prisoners and people institutionalized or at risk of incarceration because of mental illness or addiction.

Aleph provides the inmates with access to religious materials and attorneys, ensures they receive kosher food, and that their families have moral and spiritual support. It even helps inmates before and after prison, complying with parole and probation, arranging for community service, housing, employment and financial support.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Treibitz grew up in a Modern Orthodox home in Deal, N.J. He dropped out of high school at 16 in order to run a baseball card and comic book business from home. Although he was making good money, he was spending it just as quickly. In addition, he was irresponsible with his investors’ money (the investors being primarily family members). By 17, Treibitz owed thousands of dollars. At the same time, he also started using drugs, primarily cocaine, Xanax and Valium. To get drug money Treibitz said, “I started stealing — doing armed robberies of gas stations and drug dealers.”

At 21, the law caught up with him. “They kicked down my parents’ door and pulled me out of my bed. They brought me outside in my boxer shorts with handcuffs.” Treibitz was sentenced to 12 years in a maximum-security prison.

While in prison, he tried to make the best of his experience. “I completed a lot of programs,” he said. “I got my GED there. I took some college courses. I also became certified to facilitate certain behavior modification groups such as anger management and alternatives to violence.”

However, while serving his sentence, Treibitz became addicted to heroin and eventually overdosed in 2015. He was in a coma for seven weeks and had to have a tracheal tube inserted. “That was my third OD,” Treibitz said. “The first two times were not in prison. This was my worst and they didn’t think I was going to make it. [They also wondered] if I did wake up, would I have brain damage?”

“I can relate to the Exodus from Egypt. I look at it and relive my own exodus from myself and prison and everything negative and anything that HaShem has not intended me for. I’m in the Promised Land now.” — Morris “Moe” Treibitz

When Treibitz finally came out of the coma, he spent the next 11 months in recovery in the prison infirmary, and was prescribed the powerful opiate Vicodin. “So, I became addicted and started using again,” he said.

Released in 2015, Treibitz recuperated at his parents’ home in New Jersey but when they confronted him, he confessed to still using drugs. “I told them I needed help,” Treibitz said. His parents contacted a nephew who worked with troubled kids on the East Coast, who referred them to the Chabad Treatment Center in Los Angeles.

“I knew about Chabad because they would visit us in prison, so I was already sold on them,” Treibitz said. And despite his incarceration, he never let go of certain rituals. “I’m not the most religious person, but I always kept kosher. I also put on tefillin in the morning, and celebrated the Jewish holidays to the best of my ability.

“Of course, I was also brought up not to rob people and do drugs, especially on Shabbat, but that never stuck with me,” he added. He also confessed that during his prison years, he felt bitter toward God. “Why did he do this to me? I used to think he was like a magician — if he wanted me to be out, I could be out. It took me a while to realize that I made all the choices that led to addiction and prison.”

In early 2016, Treibitz arrived in Los Angeles, where he met the Aleph Institute’s Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, who offered him work at Aleph’s Project Tikvah, where Treibitz now helps youth facing incarceration or those who have been recently released.

“I know how much it means to them to be helped to stay clean, receive this assistance, how much this is going to affect their lives, so they don’t have to go through what I went through,” Treibitz said. “If I’d known about Chabad before I went to prison, I probably never would have gone to prison.”

Chabad also finally gave Treibitz a feeling of home. On the East Coast, Treibitz said, “I never felt a part of the community. My father’s family was Ashkenazi, my mother’s family was Sephardic, so I never felt I fit into either 100 percent.” But, he said, “At Chabad, I got a second family and for the first time in my life, felt that I fit in. Everybody there, even the staff, has faced the same issues I went through.”

Today, Treibitz said there is no way he will ever return to prison. “Chabad did the trick,” he said, and “my relationship with my parents and family has never been better.” He credits that to Chabad’s Director and Marriage and Family Counselor Donna Miller, who early on facilitated a counseling session with his family. “It was a great experience;” Treibitz said. “I want to keep living and working [at Chabad]. I run an anger management group, and I’m taking an online course to be an alcohol and drug counselor.”

Among his regrets is that he wasn’t able to apologize to all the people that he’d hurt over the years. “They deserve to be able to confront me and tell me how I made them feel,” he said, “but the courts did not allow me to have contact with them — I guess for safety or security reasons.”

As Passover approaches, his second Passover as a free man, Treibitz said, “I can relate to the Exodus from Egypt. I look at it and relive my own exodus from myself and prison and everything negative and anything that HaShem has not intended me for. I’m in the Promised Land now.”

Mark Miller is a humorist and journalist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written on various sitcom staffs. His first book, a collection of his humor essays on dating and romance, is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”