He is a rabbi, and he’s a recovering alcoholic. Both of those aspects of Paul Steinberg’s life are at the core of his mission as a Jewish educator, a role he’s now fulfilling at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.
Steinberg took over as director of lifelong learning at the Conservative shul on July 1 after three years as a spiritual counselor at Beit T’Shuvah, a faith-based addiction treatment center in Los Angeles.
He said he’s glad to have relocated to the quieter neighborhoods of Marin County. “I came from L.A.,” he said, “so it’s a little less stressful here. It reminds me of a smaller town, which is why I came up here.”
Steinberg won a National Jewish Book Award in 2009 for writing a three-volume set titled “Celebrating the Jewish Year,” but his more recent “Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality” hits much closer to home.
The 43-year-old Steinberg has struggled for much of his life with alcoholism, and considers healing other addicts a priority alongside Jewish education. He also battled within himself for a long time about being a rabbi and an alcoholic.
“I spent a lot of time trying to be an ideal of what it represented instead of being me as a rabbi,” he told J. “Today I’m different. I’m rigorously honest and I own myself as a rabbi along with my imperfections.”
Steinberg grew up in Tucson, Arizona, much more interested in sports than religion. He writes in “Recovery,” published in 2014, that he began drinking in high school and continued indulging at the University of Arizona, where he also tried marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy. After dropping out of college, his parents sent him in 1995 to Kibbutz Mizra in northern Israel, where he continued drinking but also became religious.
He returned to the United States and gravitated to rabbinical school, writing that “although the thought of becoming a rabbi was a bit bizarre to me, I did not have any better ideas.” A sense of not belonging accelerated his use of alcohol as a coping mechanism.
“One of the things I think a lot of us deal with is feeling we’re a little bit different, we don’t fit in, we’re not smart enough. That’s one of the things that spurred my addiction, to cope with that,” he said.
“A rabbi is supposed to be a moral exemplar — and I’m just some dude from Arizona who played ball and went to Mexico and screwed around on weekends. At rabbinical school, some classmates knew that’s what they wanted to do all their life.”
But he knew he wanted to be a teacher, so he worked his way toward ordination. After becoming a rabbi, he worked as a Jewish educator in Dallas and Los Angeles while also focusing on writing. Being an alcoholic, and also a workaholic, eventually led him to Alcoholics Anonymous and Beit T’Shuvah, where he worked for three years as a community rabbi and spiritual counselor.
“He’s an excellent educator and he has a deep passion and love for tradition and how it makes people live well,” said Rabbi Mark Borovitz, senior rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah. “He knows how to make our tradition relevant for myriad types of people.”
Borovitz also said that Steinberg’s addiction makes him more authentic.
“I think it helps in that it gives people the confidence that what he’s teaching is really so very important to the way he lives,” he said. “Most people, when they’re helpless, don’t necessarily go to Judaism, and Paul’s an example of Judaism saving his life.”
Rabbi Susan Leider of Kol Shofar first met Steinberg in 2000 when they were both studying to become Conservative rabbis at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, and first brought him to Tiburon as a scholar-in-residence last year.
Though he will focus on the synagogue’s education program for pre-K through 12th grade, and preach on occasion, Steinberg also will reach out to people who need assistance with addiction and other problems, Leider surmised.
“It’s not a formal part of his job description, but it’s a part of his rabbinate and I don’t see how it won’t be a part of his work here,” she said of his spiritual recovery work. “Rabbi Steinberg has chosen to be very open about this, much to the benefit of the many lives he has touched. I think our synagogue is so open to the path of teshuvah [repentance] and someone who has gone through this process.”
Steinberg said teshuvah is a daily process “by which we return to our core essential essence, our core path, our core spiritual trajectory.”
“Life comes along and it breaks your heart and you get stressed out, and we can get lost in ourselves or whatever we’re dealing with,” he said. “Teshuvah is the process of taking responsibility to make amends. And making it up to people we may have harmed.”
Linking Judaism to recovery is a natural process, he said, since both involve changing habits and ways of thinking.
“When bad things happen to us or those we love, those spiritual dimensions open up to us. Nobody wakes up and says I want to be a crack addict or a gambling addict or an alcoholic and ruin their lives. They start asking questions: ‘Why is this happening?’” he said.
“The spiritual stuff is happening. That can aid in the healing process. I may have a biological inclination toward addiction, but that biological leaning can be sort of stemmed by the way that I live my life, including the spiritual aspect.”