Monthly Archives: September 2010

“GOLDEN STATES OF GRACE”


By Rick Nahmias

I am of the firm belief that every one of us carries something within that is marginalized: some piece of personal history or trait that has been, or that we wish would be, left behind or cast off—the emotional scars or shame left by an abusive mother, the malformed foot, a poor immigrant heritage…

This belief combined with Jung’s idea of the Collective Unconscious has led me to conclude that those whom who society considers or relegates to has cast off as “them” are, in reality, “us.” It has also inspired the creation of “Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited.”

Beit T’Shuvah was the first community (of which there were ultimately eleven across California) to participate in this book and traveling multimedia exhibition, generously opening their doors to me starting back in 2003 when the project began.

In assembling this work as the new book that I will be discussing at Beit T’Shuvah on October 10th, I have hoped to create something of a contemporary visual and interfaith prayer book—one composed of sacred people, places, and things. In the three years it took to gather the images, text, and audio for “Golden States of Grace,” and two years it took to write and assemble the book, I had a lot of time to think about spirituality and where it fits in my life.

Beit T’Shuvah figured prominently in this ruminating.  Not just because it was where the first frames of the project were shot.  More so, as someone born and raised a Jew, with each interaction I have with Beit T’Shuvah, I am confronted with my own decision to live as a secular Jew rather than as the more observant one some of those in my family and daily life would prefer me to be.  In this community I see an alternate way to be a Jew, to find authentic community and self, things I was not readily exposed to growing up just a few miles from here.

Following my bar mitzvah, when the mandated Hebrew School was completed, I could not have bolted quicker from the San Fernando Valley Jewish experience: the politics of Israel I felt ambivalent about, and the grainy black-and-white horrors of the Holocaust.

It was the rare five minutes of absolute quiet at the back of the darkened chapel at the conclusion of Sunday prayers, when we were asked to self-reflect (surely not the term at the time), when I actually connected with something more profound, and saw the possibility of something sacred, even if I couldn’t put a name to it at the time.  Even then, at age ten or twelve, I could go deeper there, into the silence, a place I never could go at school, or with friends, or in the process of my normal day.  It was prayer, yes, but it was silent and because of that, for me, more intense.

As I headed off to college in New York, I carried with me memories of those quiet moments and the solace they brought. At the same time I tried, with little success, to forget the judgment and disdain I felt for “Jew-titlement”: growing up amongst incredible privilege with those I saw as tone deaf to the concept of service or reaching out beyond their comfort zone. Indeed there was deep judgment on my part then, and in all honesty, some of it still lingers today.

But even through those college years there was also a spark of curiosity about the peace I felt in the small darkened chapel at Valley Beth Shalom – and how that might be touched again, maybe even deepened.  That happened in the years that followed, both through the simple exploration of life, and more formally via the unlikely double major of religious studies I combined with my film and TV degree. It was something I was as surprised to pursue as my family was to see on my diploma a few years later.

In that time, and the years that have followed, I was lucky enough to travel extensively and in doing so, have a chance to explore the rituals, ceremonies and the search for the Divine – the sacred moments which fuel each of us viscerally.  “Golden States of Grace” grew out of the curiosity, out of this time, and of my growing connection to those on the outside looking in, those who found dignity, community and, yes, strength in making choices which were far from those that were expected of them but which kept them true to themselves.

Even after working on this project for a cumulative seven years, I can’t deny the deep ambivalence I have towards organized religion, but I have found a way to look deeper into it and the questions it brings up, and to let it fuel me creatively.  Even with the prevalence of mainline religious institutions and middle-class America continuing to exclude and even vilify those they view as beyond the pale – the addicts, the ill, the fallen, those – there are still reasons to be hopeful that we, as a society, can see beyond our religious tunnel vision.

If I have one singular hope for this body of work, it is that our collective eyes remain open long enough to simply acknowledge every human being’s need and right to come to some profound understanding about his or her own connection to a higher power. Be it in a prison cell or in the darkened corner of a small suburban chapel, in the end, “Golden States of Grace” is a study of otherness—the otherness out there, the otherness within each of us, the otherness that begs us to bind together as human beings to celebrate, contemplate, and find meaning in our lives.

I feel honored to be returning to Beit T’Shuvah not just as a documentary photographer, but as a Jew.  And to have Harriet Rossetto’s profound oral history be a permanent part of this project is both an honor and an inspiration. Beit T’Shuvah is a community which has welcomed me with open, authentic and non-judgmental arms repeatedly over the years.  As the first of the “Golden States of Grace” communities I have the honor bringing this book back to, I look forward to completing the journey of sharing this work with the unique and powerful community it has become in my life and the lives of many. Amen.

Rick Nahmias is a photographer and writer living in Los Angeles. His work can been seen at Goldenstatesofgrace.com or Ricknahmias.com. His new book, “Golden States of Grace” is available as a softcover and a limited edition hardcover (with slipcover and signed/numbered signed print.)

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United By Charity


It was 5:30 am, the air was cold and the sun had not made its presence know. In the darkness of the night some of the residents of Beit T’Shuvah packed the big white van headed for Dodger Stadium. Where they going to an early morning baseball game? Defiantly not. However, I think they were going to be part of something far greater.

For the second year in a row Beit T’Shuvah is an official participating charity of the Los Angeles Marathon. As we arrived in the floor level of the stadium parking lot, we were greeted by the other various charities taking part in this year’s LA marathon Charity Awareness Day. Everyone from the blind to mentally challenged, drug addicted to paralyzed, even dogs from the Rover Rescue showed up and though we were all different in our appearances, we were all united by our passion to help better the community and our world.

While different members of our teams ran different legs of the 26-mile course, I realized that this race wasn’t about who wins. The real winners are the people of all different problems and backgrounds that are benefited by the monies raised to support the charities of the event. So in a way we all win.

The most amazing part of the experience for me was to see the residents, some of whom had only been sober for a week, doing something to give back to a community that hey had taken so much from. They have traded in their addictions to participate in an event that helps them just as much as it helps anyone else.

If you want to sponsor or participate in our “Run to Save a Soul 2011,” please contact Nina Haller or Alison Ditlove at (310) 204-5200. Additional information to help this campaign can be found at active.com/donate/beittshuvah on our active giving page.

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The Man with A Joke


By Justin Hewitt

There are many sights and sounds that have become commonplace around Beit T’ Shuvah. They provide the sense and familiarity of home that so many find as they “hold on.” For instance, what would The Beit be without the fiery, sometimes controversial, Shabbot Service? The genuine and sometimes not so genuine Tshuvahs made by residents. Harriet’s always-insightful talks. A counseler asking someone to go test. Unintelligible blurps on the loudspeaker. Ryan saying, ”Thank you for calling Beit T’ Shuvah.” All these sounds and visions make up the hum drum grind that is daily Shuve life. However, there is another sight and sound that is often heard, often unappreciated and always hilarious. “Hey, you heard the one about the nun and the monkey? Do you know Willis?” I am of course referring to the one and only Mark Wiseman. Beit T Shuvah will always be known for a woman with a dream or a bat-toting Rabbi, but I will also always remember the man with a joke.

The first time I met Mark Wiseman he looked at me and said, “Your not Jewish, huh?” “No,” I replied rather timidly. He quickly followed with, “Do you know the one about the Priest?” We both laughed and I felt a little bit more at home. Most people see this side of Mark, a joke-wielding shameless flirt who just wants your cigarette. He plays the role up and residents laugh. They joke back. They smile. They laugh. People just out of prison. Just back from overdose. Lives shattered. They laugh. Mark gets his cigarette. Life on Shirley’s as usual.

A few days into my stay at Beit T’ Shuvah I was told that I would be Mr. Weisman’s roommate. I thought, “Ohhh, here we go,” only to find out that I had been buffaloed by Wisman’s act. I walked in and a gracious and respectful Mark had greeted me. I was soon to find out the truth about Mark. He silently cares about The Shuve as much as Rabbi or Harriet. I know it wasn’t always this way, but unbelievably, improbably it is. Whenever I loaned Mark a dollar, he paid it back before he had to. Whenever I needed a dollar he loaned one to me. He keeps constant tally of how his friends are doing. He goes out of his way for people in small but important ways. Best of all he makes those around him laugh. He is the unofficial mascot of Beit T’ Shuvah, a testament to the healing power of community. Rough, unpolished and crass but possessing a carefree spirit to channel a song or dance for people to adore. An unlikely hero. A hulking mass of personality. Surely a doctor if laughter is the best medicine. Thank you Mark! You have my cigarette.

I implore those who read this blog to comment with your best Wiseman story.

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Go to Rehab – Become a Graphic Designer?


By Kendl Ferencz

Starting college right after you graduate high school is generally anxiety producing and nerve racking. It involves scheduling classes, buying books, getting a school ID, finding your way around campus and meeting new people.

Its been 6 years since I graduated high school, and the vast majority of those 6 years have been spent either loaded or in a rehabilitation center. When I was 18 I had a scholarship to an art school in Philadelphia, but because of my drug addiction I decided I would much rather live in a car than in a dorm room. It is one of my biggest regrets and every time I would bring it up at any one of the many rehabs I’ve resided in, I would get the “but you have life experience that no one else has” speech. While I nodded my head in agreement, I would be thinking, “I would rather have a college degree.”

During the past 6 years I would tell my parents, my counselors and when I happened to be on a run, my loaded friends that I was intending on starting school when a new semester started. This would happen literally every Fall, Spring, Summer and Winter semester for years. I would never actually enroll. I am tremendously good at making plans in my head, yet never really putting forth the action to make them a reality. I am sometimes under the impression that if I think about them enough, they will just spontaneously happen for me. I’ve recently learned that is not the case.

For once in my life I put in the work to accomplish something I have been thinking about doing for an inordinate amount of time. It all started when I got the opportunity to intern with John Sullivan at BTS Communications doing graphic design, which is what I originally had gotten a scholarship to art school for when I was 18 and ruined with my bright ideas and massive drug addiction. I proceeded to tell him the same sob story I had been telling everyone else for years, except he didn’t give me the life experience speech. He told me I should go to school. He had me sign up for the Fall semester at Santa Monica College‘s Academy of Entertainment and Technology.

Upon realizing that basically every class that the college offered was already full, I went back to John expecting him to tell me I could always go next semester, which meant I could avoid responsibility for a little bit longer and get a pat on the back for trying. I was wrong. Instead I was told to make a list of the classes I was going to take, and try and crash them on the first day. Thankfully I didn’t have to crash, I ended up staying up late one night to see if any classes opened up when the school drops students who have enrolled but have not paid. I got every class I wanted.

The toughest part was showing up the first day. I convinced myself the night before that I wouldn’t be able to find my class and even if I did I would be late, and because I would be late the professor would immediately hate and judge me, then my life would be over. In the morning upon discovering that traffic was a nightmare, my head started going in the same direction, telling me there was no possible way that I could ever make it on time and that all my fears were about to come true. Instead of giving up like I generally do, I decided that I had come too far this time. I at least had to make it to the school.

Not only did I make it to the school, but I also found my class on time. No one was judging me, and the professor didn’t hate me. It doesn’t seem like much, but this entire thing involved walking through immense amounts of fear for me. I had to be in action instead of at a standstill. I had to continue taking direction instead of turning and walking away, direction that I wouldn’t have gotten if it wasn’t for the internship that Beit T’Shuvah gave me. It was a life lesson for me; I finally showed myself that I could do something instead of just wishing it into a reality, and now that I’m finally in school no one has to listen to me talk about doing it anymore.

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