Sarah Graff was a twentysomething rabbinical student studying in Israel when she met someone who’d alter the course of her rabbinical path.
His name was Mark Borovitz, a black coffee-drinking, cigarette-smoking ex-con who was studying to become a rabbi, just as she was.
“He would ask questions about the soul and the Torah that were really intriguing to me, that were deeper and more probing and more interesting than of a lot of others,” she said. “And he would talk about this community of his in Los Angeles, a community of Jewish recovering addicts, and I couldn’t imagine what that would be like.”
Graff, who is now assistant rabbi at Palo Alto’s Kol Emeth, ended up interning twice at his community, called Beit T’Shuvah.
Founded by Harriet Rossetto in 1987, Beit T’Shuvah was originally established to provide transitional living for Jewish men just released from prison. But since more of them had addiction problems than not, it soon expanded to include services for Jews in recovery.
Borovitz and Rossetto will be speaking throughout Kol Emeth’s scholar-in-residence weekend Saturday, Dec. 12 and Sunday, Dec. 13, addressing addiction along with Dr. Barry Rosen, CEO and medical director of the Sequoia Treatment and Recovery Center in Redwood City.
Graff, who coordinated the weekend with the help of Debbie Kurland, has several goals in mind.
“Hopefully, we’ll create an environment where more people feel comfortable coming out with their own struggles about it,” she said.
Second, “I think that there’s a lot that the 12-step recovery program can teach all of us about our relationship with God, whether we’re addicts or not.”
And finally, prevention.
With 110 residents, Beit T’Shuvah is the only center in the nation for Jews suffering from addiction, be it drugs, alcohol, gambling or the latest addiction: Internet pornography and cybersex.
“Most of the people who land here are people who had the obligatory bar or bat mitzvah, Sunday school or whatever, but as soon as they could, they left,” said Rossetto. “We’re trying to reinstate a sense of meaning in the Jewish tradition, because for addicts, spirituality is not an extra — it’s required.”
For Graff, who was then 25, with very little experience with addiction, her time at Beit T’Shuvah — Hebrew for House of Return — was eye-opening.
“I was this naive, young female rabbinical student, and I had no idea what a bunch of drug addicts were going to do with me. But to my surprise, they were unbelievably accepting of me as a person and receptive to what I had to offer as a teacher and fellow Jewish struggler.”
Borovitz, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish family, started drinking and stealing when he was still a teenager.
“I was 15 when I got heavy into selling stolen merchandise,” he said, “and from then until 37, I was a Jewish bad boy.”
It was only in prison that he finally came to a realization: “I had to do something different.” Borovitz asked his brother, a Reform rabbi, to send him a prayer book and a Chumash (the Torah).
He dove into it and began praying. When a Jewish chaplain came to visit him in Chino, they began studying together.
Borovitz sought out Beit T’Shuvah upon his release; Rossetto hired him as an assistant.
Two years later, they were married.
Over the years, Borovitz started taking more of a leadership role, and Rossetto encouraged him to apply to rabbinical school. He was ordained a Conservative rabbi from the University of Judaism in 2000.
“What we do here that’s really different is create community,” said Borovitz. “We have 300 every Friday night for services; we sing, we laugh and we do tshuvah. We celebrate sobriety birthdays. We have created something where people want to keep hanging out. Our graduates keep coming back. It’s another home for them, a place of safety and love, a place of caring and being responsible.”
And for anyone who thinks the 12 steps are essentially Christian, Borovitz says, take another look. The whole concept of tshuvah, or repentance, is a Jewish one.
“Steps four through nine are about the accounting of my soul. It’s about seeing the good and bad, all of me. I do tshuvah and I return to my soul, to my essence in the world.
“When I do that, I can truly stand up and go to people and make things as right as I can. I can’t erase negativity, but I can work to transform it.”
Graff calls Borovitz her mentor, and hopes the weekend will serve as a springboard for more openness about a topic that affects so many families.
“I do think it’s neglected and an underestimated problem [in the Jewish community]” she said. “People also are hesitant to talk about it even when it is going on in their families. I’m not sure people are so horribly embarrassed by it, but people don’t talk about it.”
Who’s talking, and when
Congregation Kol Emeth’s weekend on addictions includes the following speakers:
Rabbi Mark Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto, spiritual leader and creator of Beit T’Shuvah, will speak at 8:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12 at a Shabbat dinner following services.
Borovitz will deliver the sermon at Shabbat morning services at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, during the main service and in the junior congregation. A Kiddush sponsored by Debbie Kurland will follow.
Dr. Barry Rosen, CEO and medical director of the Sequoia Treatment and Recovery Center in Redwood City, will speak about “Substance Use in a Feel-Good Society: Parenting in this Culture” at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13.
Rabbi Mark Borovitz will join the United Synagogue Youth chapter for a discussion at 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13.
Registration is required for the Shabbat dinner. For more information, call (650) 948-7498. Congregation Kol Emeth is at 4175 Manuela Ave., Palo Alto.