The Rabbi Guides the Rehab

From The Wall Street Journal

by HEATHER ROBINSON

Friday, March 12, 2004

HOUSES OF WORSHIP

Faith helps recovery–and gets in the way of some funding.

LOS ANGELES–It’s Friday night, and Rabbi Mark Borovitz is ministering to his flock. A fatherly man with a bushy brown-and-gray beard, he raises his arms as he coaxes his 100-odd worshippers toward t’shuvah, or repentance. “Have you faced the truth about your actions toward your families, your community?” he asks. “To whom do you need to make reparations?”

The worshippers are mostly young people, some of whom are so attractive the gathering might be a casting call. Yet a closer look reveals a few waiflike figures and others who fidget anxiously. These are the Jews no one talks about–the junkies, the alcoholics and the criminals. Rabbi Borovitz is spiritual head of Beit T’Shuvah (Hebrew for “House of Return”), the only in-patient rehab center in the country designed to serve Jewish addicts. As such, its core comprises 12-step principles in a Jewish spiritual context.

During Friday night services, residents–most of whom stay at least six months–have the opportunity to speak. Kalman Kogan, 25, a muscular young man, takes the microphone. “The Jewish people have been persecuted for thousands of years, by the Babylonians, the Romans, the Nazis and others,” he says. “We have survived because we are united. When I came to Beit T’Shuvah, I felt that unity. We are drug addicts and alcoholics, but like Jews throughout history we are helping each other survive. I believe this is a holy place, and I believe God is watching over us.”

In a world where treating drug and alcohol addiction remains a stubborn therapeutic challenge, Beit T’Shuvah claims that 62% of its graduates remain straight and sober after five years. Its staff and many residents believe the key is the center’s Jewish spirituality. Morning Torah study, in which Rabbi Borovitz teaches the center’s 120 residents to apply the wisdom of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible to their lives, is mandatory, as are Friday night services and ethics classes on Friday afternoons.

Rabbi Borovitz frequently shares with residents his own story of redemption through faith. Between 1980 and 1988, he was in and out of prison for crimes including grand theft, insurance fraud and check kiting. In 1987, while serving time in the state prison in Chino, Calif., he began studying Torah with Rabbi Mel Silverman, the Jewish chaplain. In 1988, Harriet Rossetto, the founder and director of Beit T’Shuvah, visited him and invited him to work at the center upon his release. He began to do so later that year, and in 1990 he and Ms. Rossetto were married. In the mid-1990s he was ordained by the University of Judaism here.

Rabbi Borovitz believes that Beit T’Shuvah strengthens residents to resist temptation by providing them with a strong sense of community based on shared religious values. “Addiction is a disease of spiritual bankruptcy,” he says.

Ironically, Beit T’Shuvah’s spiritual approach to healing prevented it from seeking a grant from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “In the world of rehabilitation,” Ms. Rossetto notes, “it’s common knowledge that a spiritual component aids the recovery process.” But she was told that programs in which spirituality is an integral component are not eligible for a government grant, lest such programs breach the constitutional wall between church and state. Only those faith-based programs willing to compartmentalize their programs and use federal money in areas free of religion are eligible.

“I do believe in separation of church and state,” Rabbi Borovitz says, “but I believe each case has to be judged individually. According to the Talmud, if you save one soul, it’s as if you have saved the world. I find it troubling when we’re more worried about the i’s and the t’s than saving a soul.”

The center has private donors, of course. But public funds may be on the way, too. Last week in Los Angeles–before the heads of several faith-based organizations, including Rabbi Borovitz and Ms. Rossetto–President Bush unveiled a program called Access to Recovery, for which Congress has appropriated $100 million. It will allow states to establish, with federal funds, voucher programs that provide addicts with rehab options. Faith, this time, won’t be an obstacle.

Ms. Robinson has contributed to New York magazine, the Forward and Reform Judaism magazine.

This entry was written by and posted on March 12, 2004 at 10:10 am and filed under Features.