September 23, 2019

One of Them

To watch Rabbi Mark Borovitz work the room during Friday night services at Gateways Beit T’Shuvah is to observe someone completely happy doing what he does. As the congregation, more than 200 strong, sings “Yedid Nefesh” and “Shalom Aleichem” and Borovitz, draped in a tallit, shakes hands, hugs, greets and chats, he exudes the aura of a man well-placed in the world.

The synagogue space, on the ground floor of the residential treatment center on Venice Boulevard, is crowded with Jews in recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol. During the service, some of them will express gratitude for their fragile sobriety, for the institution nurturing that sobriety, for the parents, grandparents, spouses sitting next to them, for Borovitz’s guidance. One will bid farewell to a lover about to leave for prison.

Borovitz is their rabbi, and he is one of them: An alcoholic since adolescence, a former drug user, an ex-con who spent a good chunk of the 1980s in state prison and county jail on charges including insurance fraud, check kiting and armed robbery. “I’ve been allowed to come back from my own demise, a demise I created myself,” he told his congregants.

He has been their spiritual leader for 10 years, and the congregation hangs on his words as if he were Reb Nachman of Bratslav returned to impart his wisdom. But he has been a rabbi for just a couple of months, ordained May 16 by the Univer-sity of Judaism (UJ), and while smicha hasn’t changed how his congregants see him, it has changed how he sees himself.

“I feel different,” Borovitz told The Journal. “There’s a greater responsibility. People in the community, laypeople, people that I’ve worked with for years, see me in a different role.

“One person told me that I now have 2,000 years of lineage, and there’s a weight,” he added. “Not a bad weight; it’s a very holy weight, actually, of responsibility, of doing more with the tradition, doing more study, using Talmud and all of the Jewish literature, from the time of Torah till now, in making decisions, in guiding people.”

Borovitz, 48, entered UJ in 1996, after his wife, Harriet Rossetto, director of the Gateways facility, read about the univer-sity’s new Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies and encouraged him to apply. He did so after several rabbis whom he viewed as mentors also told him he was ready to take on rabbinical school. So began four years of juggling full-time rabbinical studies with “part-time” work – 40 hours a week – at Gateways Beit T’Shuvah, which moved last November from a ramshackle building in Pico-Union to a 120-bed facility across the street from the old Helms bakery.

The learning was an unalloyed joy. “Sitting with the holy books, learning them, studying them – what could be better than that?” Borovitz said. “I have a sense of belonging to a conversation that started 4,000 years ago. I got a wealth of knowledge and experience in looking at my own soul and helping others to see their own souls.”

UJ was a good fit philosophically as well. “I’m a Conservative Jew. I was raised in a Conservative shul, I grew up with the Silverman prayerbook, it’s where I am,” he said. “Even when I didn’t practice, what I didn’t practice was Conservative Judaism.”

Borovitz’s training is getting even more of a workout since his ordination as more and more people seek him out for guidance. “I get a lot of calls, I see a lot of people,” he said. “Most of them have a hole in their soul…. It’s an emptiness that I understand of not fitting in, of feeling like, I’m not complete, I’m not whole, I’m not who I want to be.”

As a kid growing up in Cleveland, temple was at the center of Borovitz’s life. He was active in his Cleveland shul through high school, president of its USY chapter.

But he was also drinking and selling stolen property, practices he took on after his father died when he was 14. “I was split,” he said. “I had one part of me that went to temple and loved it, and another part of me that was a thief and a hustler.”

It was the thief and hustler who had pretty much hit bottom in 1987 when Rabbi Mel Silverman visited him at the state prison in Chino. Borovitz told the Los Angeles Times last year that he asked Silverman if the rabbi was going to cut him loose. I can’t do that, the rabbi told him: “You are one of my own. You’re a Jew.”

Silverman got Borovitz studying, and the Chino inmate began to inhale Jewish texts. “It was the only hope I had that something would be different,” Borovitz told The Journal.

Now Borovitz shares the beauty and wisdom of Judaism with the recovery community. “I [do] outreach to Jews who have forgotten they are Jews,” he said. “I’m a gateway back into Judaism.” He also speaks to audiences at mainstream syna-gogues, JCCs, camps and youth groups.

Along with the power of community, he says, Judaism contains many concepts that can be a source of strength and comfort to people in recovery. The idea of t’shuvah (repentance and return) dovetails neatly with the classic 12-step recovery program, especially those steps that deal with acknowledging one’s misdeeds and seeking to make amends with those one has harmed.

But he also invokes the concept of freedom from slavery: “Every day in our davening we talk about litziat Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt. Well, what is my Egypt? What is my enslavement?” Shabbat, too – the idea of respite, of taking time to appreciate rather than to create – is a valuable idea in the process of recovery, Borovitz said.

When Borovitz was a kid, the temple was where you celebrated your victories and sought help for your problems. “That’s what I’m trying to recreate here,” he said. “Beit T’Shuvah’s a place where you can come celebrate; on Friday nights we celebrate sobriety birthdays. And it’s a place to come laugh and cry, and share joy and sorrow.”

After years of not being complete, of not fitting in, Borovitz is exactly where he wants to be. He speaks warmly of his sib-lings, especially his older brother Neal, who has been a Reform rabbi for 25 years and who once spent two weeks in Israel with Borovitz helping him prepare for finals.

Borovitz and Rossetto just celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary. “It’s been ten glorious years,” Borovitz said. “We work together, and everything works.”

Most importantly, Borovitz can’t imagine doing anything other than what he’s doing now. “I am blessed,” he said firmly. “I have a purpose… and I love the connection and the feeling of wholeness and completeness that I, in some small way, help others find.

“I wouldn’t trade my place for anyplace else,” he added. “That doesn’t mean I don’t want to grow and I don’t want to do better, because I do and I will. But right this moment, I am satisfied.”

For more information about Gateways Beit T’Shuvah, call (310) 204-5200 or e-mail