Volume #37, Issue #1, Fall, 2004/5765
--History in the Making--
Alcoholism and Addiction,
The History of Beit T’Shuvah
and Related Agencies:
Response, Recovery, and Prevention Efforts in the Los Angeles Jewish Community
by Carol Felixson
Beit T’Shuvah’s new 110-bed campus on Venice Boulevard
in West Los Angeles, 2004
“Our Father bring us back to Your Torah. Our Sovereign draw us near to your service. Lead us back to you, truly repentant. Praised are You, Adonai who welcomes repentance.” – Amidah
Was it a coincidence? The dream I had the morning I went to interview Harriet Rosetto, founder and executive director of Beit T’Shuvah—the House of Return?
The dream was typically disjointed, but involved my asking a very drunken or drugged individual to leave my home and not come back until he was sober. In reflection I thought this was a gesture of tough love and felt okay with my response. That is, until in my wakened state, I actually visited Beit T’Shuvah, the only residential Jewish addiction rehabilitation program in the United States. The facility is located in West Los Angeles, California.
Walking through the Beit T’Shuvah doors for the first time had a powerful impact on me. I was overcome with the understanding that, “there for the grace of God go I”. Perhaps a typical response? I think if most of us were honest, we would have to say, “YES, I am, or have been, touched by addiction.” I and others close to me, my family members, friends, colleges, and shul mates have been touched; if not by drugs and alcohol, then by food addictions, or participation in co-dependent relationships.
After I was introduced to Harriet Rosetto and Catherine Schneider, the development officer who joined us, I shared my dream with them. It quickly became apparent that a more helpful response to the individual in my dream would have been to bring him to a rehabilitation center like Beit T’Shuvah. There, he, as others who are recovering from substance abuse, alcoholism and other compulsive disorders, would have been welcomed and assisted in a healing process.
How might this happen?
In Beit T’Shuvah’s case, it’s stated mission is to be a therapeutic and spiritual community based on the integration of Jewish spirituality, 12-step recovery and psychotherapy. It serves as a place of last resort for addicts who have exhausted both their family’s and their own personal resources.
Most reach Beit T’Shuvah’s doors emotionally, spiritually and financially bankrupt. This program aims not only to treat addiction, but also to create decent individuals, healthy families, and a strong community tied to Jewish spirituality and continuity. In addition to treating those who have “bottomed out,” Beit T’Shuvah staff and residents bring the message of recovery and spirituality to those who may be at risk. Outreach and education in school and synagogues stress the importance of community and spirituality in preventing addictive behavior.
An affiliate of Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center for 16 years, Beit T’Shuvah now is its own entity and a constituent agency of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation. It accommodates over 100 residents in various stages of recovery, from those just beginning their rehabilitation programs to those who have graduated to independent living.
But Beit T’Shuvah’s establishment and development as a thriving vital agency and community did not happen overnight. It was a lengthy and complex process.
First an almost adamant denial by the Jewish community regarding the prevalence of Jewish alcoholism and addiction needed to be overcome. There long had been a damaging and self-perpetuating myth that aside for a few infamous exceptions, Jews were not alcoholics, addicts, sex offenders, or had problems with food, gambling, spousal abuse, and crime. This myth caused greater harm than good.
Now thanks to the courageous actions of a few dedicated individuals, Jewish addicts are better able to come out of the closet. And what was once considered to be a shanda, a horrible embarrassment, is starting to be understood as an illness that can and must be treated.
As with any issue of significance, before solutions can be unearthed, questions have to be raised. What is addiction? What are its characteristics? What is sobriety? How is it achieved? What is considered a successful recovery? What are the challenges to such a recovery?
And to those in the Jewish community, a core question is, why have Jews considered themselves to be immune from addictions? For however much we can find biblical references to our “chosen people” status, we are just that—people; with inclinations and illnesses that are as devastating to us and to our families as they are to other cultures, traditions, and religions.
Harriet Rosetto explains, “An addict will steal your stuff and then help you look for it.” She sees addiction as a spiritual crisis. “Between perfect good and perfect evil,” she continues, “is a hole. And addicts try to fill that hole with alcohol, drugs, or other addictions of their choice. They all use something external to satisfy the internal.”
Harriet Rosetto Borovitz
Surprisingly, there can be a silver lining to this cloud, an upside to addiction, a hidden treasure! Harriett believes that for those not addicted, finding spirituality in their life is not a necessity. Humility, acceptance, and surrender never “happens” to most people. They think their lives work. In sharing her own hard earned wisdom that “the blessing can be found in the dark place,” she echoes Reb Nachman of Bratzlov’s teaching that “God enters through the wound.”
Paradoxically, the greatest threat to relapse is sobriety. So Beit T’Shuvah is as concerned with helping people to regain their sobriety as they are with helping them to maintain it—one-day-at-a-time. A journey that sometimes consists of eight steps forward and six back.
The same can be said of the history of alcoholism and addiction in the Jewish community. And as any student of history knows, events don’t fall neatly or where and when expected on a time line.
However, we have to begin somewhere….
Prior to Beit T’Shuvah’s founding, a group of leaders in the Jewish community dedicated themselves to helping Jews with problems of alcohol and drug abuse.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Marcia Spiegel convened a forum, out of which grew a program named The L’Chaim (to life) Awareness Program. L’Chaim consisted of weekly meetings similar to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Its founders included Marcia, Gloria Fenster (who later became director), Ted Cohen (founder of The Other Bar—a non-denominational committee of the California State Bar Association that reached out to lawyers with alcohol and addiction problems), Robert Felixson, chair of the program, and others.
L’Chaim’s mission was to carry the message of Jewish addiction and recovery to the Jewish community, opening temples to AA meetings, and educating intake professionals – doctors, social workers, and Rabbis—to recognize alcohol and drugs as causative factors for illness and family strife.
As time went on, the Jewish Family Service, an agency of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, where Phoebe Sharef was assistant executive director, sponsored the L’Chaim program. The Westside Jewish Community Center and synagogues in the area provided free space. L’Chaim functioned with a Hebrew Union College Jewish Communal Service Studies student as a part-time director.
When the Jewish Family Service asked the Los Angeles Jewish Federation to find and fund a full-time professional director for this valuable program, they were turned down. The Federation believed there were not enough people afflicted in the Jewish community to warrant the investment.
The critical challenge, as mentioned before, was to prove to the Federation and Jewish community leaders that there were a sufficient number of people who needed help, who were Jewish addicts. Unfortunately, at that time and to some degree today still, alcoholism and addiction is considered a disgrace. It is not something people are easily able (or brave enough) to claim for themselves or their loved ones.
Marian Loeb, then a County Supervisor’s appointee to the Los Angeles County Commission on Alcoholism, applied for and got a grant for the Jewish Family Service to prepare a survey of the Jewish population in order to determine the incidence of the disease. Much time and effort went into the development of the survey and the training of follow-up workers. When the survey was mailed, those receiving it were outraged. They felt it was an invasion of their privacy and not Federation business. The Federation then requested a “call back” of the survey and it was dropped like a hot potato.
Undeterred, Marian Loeb succeeded in getting a $35,000 per year grant, to be renewed year by year, from Los Angeles County to fund Jewish Family Service alcohol and drug programs. She was able to convince the County that the Jewish community was entitled to the same level of support as other ethnic groups. Thus began the Alcohol and Drug Action Program (ADAP). Gloria Fenster, who earned a degree of professionalism in the alcoholic field, became ADAP’s part time director. ADAP conducted outreach to the Board of Rabbis and various social worker groups. The L’Chaim Awareness Program continued as part of the more formal ADAP Program.
Good things, like the recognition of a problem and exploring alternative solutions to dealing with it, do not occur in a vacuum. So at this point, by taking a historical side step….we can follow the progression of the founding and development of Beit T’Shuvah.
Taking a long look back, in 1921, the Jewish Committee for Personal Service (JCPS) was started by a group of Rabbis and Jewish leaders in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Its mission was to provide social services to Jews in California mental hospitals and prisons. In 1961, with a donation from a grateful JCPS client, Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center was created. All Gateway facilities are located in Los Angeles, yet also serve prisons in other parts of Southern California. JCPS continued as a program of Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center.
In 1984, Harriet Rosetto joined the staff of JCPS as social worker visiting Jewish inmates in prison. She was frustrated by the cycle of recidivism and absence of any resources to help the offender re-enter the community. She also realized the link between addiction and anti-social behaviors and the resistance many of the Jewish addicts had to the AA program, believing it to be inherently Christian. Even those who had no Jewish practices or affiliations were reluctant to attend meetings in church basements or to say the Lord’s Prayer.
An article by Dr. Abraham Twerski, called Judaism and the Twelve Steps, inspired Rosetto’s vision of a home for Jewish ex-cons and addicts that integrated Jewish spirituality and the 12-step principles of recovery.
In Living Each Day, another of Rabbi Twerski’s books, he speaks of mindful living and of taking life’s journey one-step-at-a-time. He offers examples from Jewish prayers and from Judaism’s sages in how to responsibly handle the present, repent for the past, and lay the groundwork for the future.
In 1987, with a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and a loan from the Jewish Community Foundation, Gateways Hospital bought an old house near downtown Los Angeles and opened the doors of Gateways Beit T’Shuvah. Its original mission was to provide transition living and re-entry services to Jewish men when they were released from jails and prisons. The program broadened over the years to reach out to other Jews, many with no legal problems, but struggling with a range of addictive behaviors. As the program grew, so did the waiting list. Consequently the dream of a new facility that could house more people, including women, with enough space for group meetings and religious services was born.
During this period, though they were two separate entities, the L’Chaim program of ADAP and Gateways Beit T’Shuvah had a cooperative relationship where some of L’Chaim’s meetings were held at Gateways Beit T’Shuvah and vice versa.
L’Chaim’s funding came from Los Angeles County. In addition, by this time the Jewish Federation, recognizing the need and value of support for Jewish alcohol/addiction programs, provided supplementary funding to ADAP. The Federation also continued funding Gateways for its jail visitation program and the Gateways Beit T’Shuvah residence.
At a certain point, the Jewish Family Service shifted the emphasis of the ADAP program to individual counseling. Then as a consequence of the lack of continued promotion and participation, the L’Chaim meetings were discontinued.
Meanwhile, the core of Gateways Beit T’Shuvah’s Los Angeles volunteers who later became its founding board, embarked on a capital campaign. Under the leadership of chair, Warren Breslow, over $5 million was raised to purchase and renovate a new facility.
On November 10, 1999, Gateways Beit T’Shuvah moved with 34 residents into its new 110-bed campus on Venice Boulevard in West Los Angeles. Those in residence interacted with the clinical staff in a healing atmosphere which emphasized faith based recovery and the values of Jewish community.
At a certain point, explained Robert Felixson, a board member of both Gateways and Beit T’Shuvah, “like parents ready to kick the baby bird out of the nest, the Gateways Long Range Planning Committee realized that Gateways Beit T’Shuvah could function on its own and suggested it become an independent agency.” So, on August 27, 2001, after 16 years of benefiting from the guidance and support of Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center, Beit T’Shuvah became its own entity and a constituent agency of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation.
Now in 2004, Beit T’Shuvah houses approximately 100 residents and has a long waiting list. Staffed by a full time Rabbi, Mark Borovitz, Beit T’Shuvah organized Congregation Beit T’Shuvah. The congregation numbers over 1,000, and is comprised of residents, alumni and their families, volunteers, donors, and visitors, who participate in Shabbat, High Holiday and other services throughout the year. All this in addition to regularly scheduled Torah study sessions. The sense of community that Beit T’Shuvah historically and currently fosters is the cornerstone of the critically important response, repentance and return to sobriety, family, and Judaism that those associated with Beit T’Shuvah share.
One of the activities proven to be of great import to the individual and the community is the celebration of a person’s sobriety birthday. Often this corresponds to the beginning or deepening of a spiritual life—a surrender to the Divine, however the individual recognizes it.
Rosetto says, “when one tries to live a spiritual life and most others in the world are not that way, it is very hard. During holidays, and at a recent Shavuot, we at Beit T’Shuvah were surrounded by those who do live a spiritual life.” Forty-five people stayed up all night. In the morning, Rabbi Mark opened the entire Torah and wrapped it, like a large tallit, around the congregation. It was a moment of great drama for those there and reinforced a critically important “circle of belonging.”
Rabbi Mark Borovitz
All those in attendance had the opportunity to teach whatever was meaningful to them and how it related to recovery. They listened to each other and shared. These were not people who had a prior connection to Judaism. The evening fostered a sense of lineage that was very powerful. Rosetto said, “Even if one is not feeling good at every moment, one can still have the sense of a unique purpose. A sense of legacy. That one is a link in the chain of those who have purpose.”
That night a great paradigm shift took place. An ‘ah hah” moment of getting it. Getting that there is something greater. “This type of experience is necessary for sobriety to take hold,” Resotto believes. But, she continues, “The high’s have to be followed up by the everyday, by the ordinary.” Rabbi Mark reinforces these peak moments with daily study sessions.
And speaking of Rabbi Mark . . . he is considered to be an extraordinary spiritual leader, speaker, champion, and coach who has almost achieved urban legend status. He was an alcoholic since adolescence, a former drug user, and 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. In 1988, Borovitz was visited in prison by Harriet Rosetto, who two years earlier, had founded Beit T’Shuvah. As part of her regular routine at that time, she scoured area prisons searching for Jewish souls to save. Rosetto says that when she first met Borovitz, he was abrasive and arrogant, but she was undeterred. She challenged him, “When you get out of jail, come join my team.” Borovitz never forgot that challenge, and when he got out the next year, he showed up at her doorstep. As Rosetto puts it, “I gave him a job.” It turned out to be the match made in prison. In 1990, they were married.
Borovitz was the halfway house’s spiritual leader for a decade before he was ordained in 2000 by the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Now a Rabbi, he often speaks of living one’s obligation. He asks of himself and others, “What is the next right thing to do?” And preaches that, “We are here to be of service to God, our community, our souls and the souls of others who are in (spiritual and emotional) need.”
At Beit T’Shuvah this is achieved through spiritual and therapeutic means. But the residents have to first decide that they are ready to change. Only then can action follow. Rosetto and Schneider (who seem so connected that they finish each others sentences) say, “Sometimes people come for the wrong reasons or at the wrong time, leave and then come back and the program works for them.”
The program, based on residential care, is a combination of cognitive therapy, accepting what happened, and “12-step Judaism.” Participants are encouraged to “do the program first and later they will understand.” An “if you build it, they will come” sort of attitude.
Come…they have and they do. Helped, as is often said on Sesame Street, by the Number 10. For Beit T’Shuvah has two important sets of ten.
The first is Beit T’Shuvah’s 10 Commandments:
1. To honor the values of Torah.
2. To help those dedicated to recovery through Judaism.
3. To preserve the atmosphere of a Jewish home and integrate the values of Jewish Family life into the daily routine of our residents.
4. To provide individualized treatment by teaching each member of the community according to his own way.
5. To integrate Judaism, Torah, and 12-step spirituality.
6. To remove the shame associated with addictive and behavioral problems throughout the Jewish community.
7. To carry the messages of Judaism as a path to recovery into the community.
8. To establish a place of worship that will celebrate life-cycle events, Shabbat and Festivals, including the High Holy Days.
9. To prevent addiction through community education programs.
10. And to never turn away a Jew in need.
The second set of ten mirrors the first.
The 10 Steps to Prevention of Addictive Behaviors: and Recovery of Our Humanity and Souls, developed by Rabbis Edward Feinstein and Mark Borovitz:
1. I am a holy soul. I have chosen a wrong path that has brought destruction and separation from myself, my family, and my community.
2. I will perform a searching and fearless inventory of all the separations and destructions I have brought to my family, my community, and myself.
3. I will acknowledge the good I have done and with gratitude, the gifts that are mine, even though I have chosen paths of separation and destruction.
4. I will confess aloud to another person all of the good and all of the separation/destruction that I have done to self, family, community and God. I will also acknowledge with gratitude the unique gifts that I possess.
5. I will make a list of all the people that I have harmed by choosing this wrong path and establish a plan for restitution and reconciliation. I will also establish a plan to make real my resolve to choose a different path in my life and to avoid the path that has brought this separation and destruction.
6. I will make amends, where possible, to those that I have harmed in order to repair the separation and destruction that I have wrought.
7. Having done my T’Shuvah with others, I will now rejoin my covenant with God.
8. I acknowledge that I am God’s partner in the covenant. I accept the responsibilities of being God’s partner in the tasks of repairing my relationships, my family, my world and myself.
9. I will meditate on my covenant with God and its responsibilities, at home and away, day and night I will teach them to my children and to others.
10. And finally, I will renew my covenant with God each day through the study of Torah, through prayer and through acts of chesed or lovingkindness.
Our Talmud says, “to save one soul is to save the world.” Saving one soul, saving oneself then, might be considered a great act of chesed. But it only happens incrementally. Over the years, Beit T’Shuvah staff have noticed that once someone’s behavior has changed, then their thoughts/feelings follow suit. It’s a difficult path and “success” is defined on an individual basis.
Maintaining one’s sobriety is actually harder than gaining sobriety. Each year, Schneider says, “It actually gets harder.” Rosetto adds, “Its like laundry. You clean it and put it away. It gets dirty. You clean it and put it away…endlessly.” Maintenance and working a goal over and over is hard. This is where God’s will, surrender, and community makes a difference.
Such a difference, that for the institution’s first 10 years in order to publicize its programs, Beit T’Shuvah staff and volunteers gave endless lectures on Jews and addiction. Now, people call them. However, no matter what stage of development, life always has struggles. One of Beit T’Shuvah’s current struggles is how to maintain flexibility and be an accountable community agency while still being true to its initial vision and ways.
What seems apparent is that the way of Beit T’Shuvah’s success is based on the premise that the staff and volunteers are “think out of the box people,” as Harriet is fond of saying.
They believe that their process and content have to be congruent. That one must walk-her-talk, and that it is ok to fail…to try things that don’t work. They further believe that rules exist to serve people, not vice versa. The staff cannot ‘hide’ at Beit T’Shuvah. They bring themselves to their participation, not just their roles. An atmosphere of ‘all of us’ is fostered. Staff talk about their own struggles. They share what they have learned. And they have to admit the down side to everything. Balance is crucial.
Those involved with Beit T’Shuvah might be called visionaries. They have dreams, but unlike those of typical dreamers, their dreams are associated with action. This is exemplified by the wise individuals who serve on the Board who are dedicated to making sure that the next generation of donors, staff, and volunteers are not only cultivated but are in place. Because the future is now.
The response, recovery, and prevention of alcoholism and addiction in the Los Angeles Jewish Community might be compared to the two sets of the Tablets of the Covenant, which were housed and transported in the Ark. One set was whole and one set was broken, yet they were both honored and carried together. Similarly, we humans house our whole selves along with our broken selves. Our wholeness has the potential to help heal our brokenness. And the broken has the potential to be a reminder to the whole that its light is only hidden and is just waiting for the right circumstances to be revealed.
In the second Haftorah of Consolation: Isaiah 49:14-51, it is stated that Zion [the Jewish people] feel forgotten and abandoned by God. God, in response, seeks to stem this feeling by proclaiming His Divine care and promising that the Nation will be returned to its homeland. In like manner, Beit T’Shuvah has taken note of the Jewish addict and alcoholic’s despair, and created a nurturing Jewish home for those in need of care who are on a journey towards their healing and transformation.
“Behold our affliction and deliver us. Redeem us soon because of your mercy, for you are The mighty Redeemer. Praised are You, Adonai, Redeemer of the people Israel.” —Amidah
For more information on Beit T’Shuvah see http://www.tshuvah.org/. Or contact them at 310.204.5200, 8831 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90034,
Historical references came from independent research as well as materials and news clippings provided by Beit T’Shuvah. Interviews were conducted with Harriet Rosetto, Beit T’Shuvah executive director; Catherine Schneider, Beit T’Shuvah development officer; Rabbi Mark Borovitz, Beit T’Shuvah spiritual leader; and Robert Felixson, Beit T’Shuvah board member, founder of L’Chaim, and Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center board member.
About the Author
Carol Felixson is a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times. She is director of education/community outreach for a UCLA managed biological field station in the Santa Monica Mountains and the botanical garden on campus. Felixson is an active member of Congregation Mishkon Tephilo, and serves on the board of advisors for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life/Southern California chapter.