Category Archives: Judaism

On “Bullet in the Brain” – A Story from Shavuot


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By Michael Fallon

It was three in the morning at Beit T’Shuvah on Shavuot when I started reading aloud the story “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, eager to share it with those members of the audience hardy enough to stay up that long. There were several people dead asleep on the couches in front of me, but if Wolff’s sharp, funny and startling story didn’t wake them up, at least it would entertain and inspire those still alert.

“Bullet in the Brain” is the story of a man standing in line at the bank for the last minutes of his life. Anders is a book critic, and his cutting and supercilious remarks are interrupted by two bank robbers who take the customers hostage. Anders is so superior and oblivious to the danger he faces that he ends up repeatedly insulting one of the robbers, who shoots him in the head.

The rest of the story concerns the last memory to which Anders flashes back as the bullet travels through his brain. Wolff makes clear Anders was not always a joyless, judgmental curmudgeon, but started out with a love of words, of language, that curdled into a desperate infatuation with his own vitriol.

The story recalls what Anders doesn’t, reeling backwards through his life, like a time-lapse film in reverse: through the years of disappointment with his dull wife and indifferent daughter, his love and affection toward that same daughter when she was a child, the honest horror with which he reacts to a tragedy he witnesses shortly after her birth, the pang of jealously he feels at a colleague’s first published work, and finally his respect toward its worthiness, long before he came to “regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread.”

Finally we come to the moment he does remember: on a baseball field, in the waning daylight, when he was captivated by what a boy from Mississippi said when asked what position he wanted to play: “‘Shortstop,’ the boy says. ‘Short’s the best position they is.’ …Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.”

Anders leaves this world basking in a memory of his youth, of a time when he stood in a baseball field smacking his “sweat-blackened glove and chant(ing), They is, they is, they is.”

I had timed the story out at 9 and ½ minutes, but by the time I finished reading it, I had left only a couple minutes of my allotted time, and so was unable, until this blog, to share my thoughts on this trenchant work, and some of the questions it raises.

Why is Anders so cavalier about the lethal threat he faces? Does Anders, on some level, want to end his life? Or maybe the scene is simply unreal to Anders, for whom everything has begun “to remind him of something else.” He reacts to the unfolding bank robbery as if it were in a movie, and even compares it to “The Killers” – a movie, and a short story by Ernest Hemingway. Only when he is eye to eye with one of the robbers, and can smell the man’s breath, does the situation grow real for him.

Is there an aspect to Anders to which we can relate? Do we never judge people instantaneously, according to preconceptions about their class, how they look, dress, sound, their accent, their tattoos, or lack of tattoos?

Do we take, if you will, everybody’s inventory? When I see a new client at BTS, do I think “Ah, another jerk-off?” Or do I see a human being, frightened, uncertain, defensive, hopeful, wounded…but nonetheless a child of God?

As we experience life, weather harsh experience, compromise and loss, must we become jaded and bored?
Where are we in that trajectory from innocence to fatigue, from awe to cynicism, from tolerance to indifference, disdain and intolerance?

A saying credited to the Talmudist Yisreol Salanter states that most people “worry about their own bellies, and other people’s souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people’s bellies.”

Must we grow tired of life? Become childish: petulant, stubborn, entitled? Or can we remain child-like? Is there a way for us to see the world with new eyes every day, with a sense of wonder and possibility?

I think they is.

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Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body


By Eliot Godwin

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The modern marathon as a sporting event was inspired by the fabled story of Philipedes, who ran from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. After uttering his last words, “joy to you,” he promptly collapsed and died. When I ran the L.A. Marathon earlier this month, I wasn’t bringing any news to anyone in particular, but I certainly felt like collapsing and death was probably in play at some point.

You see, I took the marathon lightly. I went to the weekly training sessions because my counselor suggested I get involved in any and all physical activities offered at Beit T’Shuvah. Running a few miles on Sunday mornings seemed like a logical extension of that. I’d train for the half-marathon and just run the full on race day like no big deal. I rarely considered the marathon as an actual task; in my mind it felt more like just the end of my Sunday running appointments.

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Even on race day I complained about having to get up so early (4:30 A.M.) and tried to sleep as everyone else stretched and got excited for the race. When the race finally started, I felt great and decided I’d have no problem keeping pace with my friend who had been training seriously for months. This went against everything our coaches had repeated week after week, but I was a lifelong athlete, I’d played a Division I sport in college (12 years ago, mind you) and how long is 26.2 miles, really?

It’s long. By mile eight, I’d given up on keeping pace with my friend but I still thought I’d be able to finish no problem. At mile ten the five-hour pace runner had come and gone and I started feeling…a little less confident. At the halfway point I was supposed to stop and take a van to the block party at mile 19 but something about that just felt wrong. Get in a van while my fellow runners continued to suffer? Quit halfway and go party? It seemed like a metaphor for how I had lived my life thus far. I’d take a passion project lightly so when I inevitably quit halfway through, my lack of follow through wouldn’t carry much sting.

I was drawn to gambling because there was little effort and/or preparation required but lucrative, tangible results were attainable. No effort, cash reward? Sign me up! But I soon found out the principles of life don’t change just because you’re in a casino. Add compulsive addiction to the mix and I was licked. Preparation and discipline are key to any type of success, they just manifest in different, sometimes more subtle ways. I thought I could get by on my wits and guile, like a college student who shows up to a sociology midterm half-drunk expecting to ace it. But college and casinos aren’t real life until you leave.

At Beit T’Shuvah I’ve learned that pain and hardship are inevitable. Our impulses can often be damaging and will always be there, but preparing accordingly to deal with them will afford us a healthy, balanced life. Sitting with discomfort is possibly the most important part of overcoming addiction. My sojourns to the casino were attempts to not only completely escape the difficulty of life but to live life on my own terms, without the pain. And what did I eventually find in the casino? Pain, destruction and misery on a whole new level.

At mile 15 the pain was so great that I convinced myself I wouldn’t be able to finish. After all, I had only trained for the half-marathon, was it so bad if I stopped at mile 19? 19 miles was a lot, a terrific accomplishment. But when I scoffed my way through the halfway point I had committed to finishing. They say running a marathon is more mental than anything. At that point my body was telling me to stop and my mind was agreeing wholeheartedly. I was convinced I would need a wheelchair for months and that my knees would be irreparably injured. But something inside of me kept whispering, “finish.” At the 19th mile block party, stopping was never a real option as my friends cheered me on with hugs and high fives. The surge of confidence and adrenaline I got from this brief interlude carried me until my mind again intervened with the realization that “you’re almost there!” really meant, “you have more than seven more miles left.”

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Through miles 20-23 I saw multiple people carried away on stretchers, heard people talking about a 28-year old male who had a heart attack (I’m 34), and was passed by the older brother of Rip Van Winkle on one crutch. Still I persisted. The pain was unbearable but I bore it proudly like the medal of supreme achievement that would soon hang on my neck. After a few more miles, I could see the finish line! When I finally finished and obtained one of the few remaining medals, a race volunteer promptly removed it from my neck and replaced it with the half-marathon medal that matched my special yellow bib. The look of confusion and exasperation on my face must have been enough to persuade one of the blithe, less-experienced volunteers to give it back.

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I’ve always thought my shortcomings were the result of my refusal to finish what I’d started, not a lack of confidence. I thought I had confidence in spades and I just didn’t care enough to follow though on anything meaningful. But really I didn’t believe in myself enough to allow myself to fail. I was scared of what would happen if I finished something I cared about and it wasn’t all that good. I finished the marathon in six hours and 45 minutes. Over that span, the winner of the race could have run three marathons and still have time left over for a shower, a shave, and a leisurely cab ride to the airport. Instead of being upset with myself for taking so long, I am filled with confidence because I finally committed to something and I followed through to the end. It may not have been the Greeks defeating the Persians, but it was definitely a joyous occasion for me.

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Sacred Space: Our First Shabbos in the New Building


By Eliot Godwin

Steve Jobs said, “A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Our leader and CEO, Harriet Rossetto, didn’t know what she was supposed to do with her life. A small advertisement in the paper was the spark that ignited Beit T’Shuvah, our singular organization which has blossomed into a diverse and expansive community. Last Friday, the doors of our beautiful new sanctuary were opened for an incredibly moving service, the continued realization of a vision that has spanned four decades.

The building is bright and modern; its lofty, vaulted ceilings an ideal symbol of the freedom Beit T’Shuvah residents feel from the struggle of their addiction. Nearly 400 people attended and witnessed the Hachnasas Sefer Torah (moving of the Torah) before the service. Members of the board, along with several dedicated community members, performed the ceremony under the fresh lights and celebratory applause, and the night was off and running.

Rabbi Mark and Yeshaia opened the service, which was anything but usual. In an earnest sermon, Rabbi Yeshaia expressed the importance of how this is our synagogue; a holy place where we gather together to observe Shabbos and celebrate each other. Rabbi Mark echoed that sentiment in his delightful sermon, preceded by an extended gratitude in which he expressed how grateful he is to the board and everyone who helped create this new space. Atop that list was the lovely Joyce Brandman, who gave a heartfelt speech and thanked the community for inspiring her in so many ways. It was a generous gift from the Saul and Joyce Brandman Foundation that made this new building a reality.

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Several other board members contributed with gifts of their own to ensure the completion of the new campus. Dr. Bill Resnick and Annette Shapiro, who conveyed their excitement and gratitude, also acknowledged the entire board for their leadership and generosity. The event became transcendent, so many people giving so much gratitude; it was truly an awe-inspiring experience listening to generous, soulful people thanking the very people whom they’ve helped immeasurably.

Rabbis Matt and Shira also spoke from the bima, offering their take on why Beit T’Shuvah is truly a holy place unlike any other. New residents were welcomed in and families were recognized for their participation in a family weekend that serendipitously coincided with the grand opening. Sober birthday celebrants were overcome with emotion inspired by the occasion, their success made sweeter by the remarkable setting.

A Torah is considered pasul (void) if a single brushstroke is missing or out of place. This evening was a collection of individuals, unique brushstrokes who comprise something larger than themselves. Without each of them, the community is not whole. On this night, as we gathered outside for Kiddush (taking no risks with the new carpet!), holiness and wholeness was achieved. It was clearly a special night for an extraordinary community. As Harriet found years ago, what she wanted and what G-d wanted for her were one and the same. Someone just had to show it to her.

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Reaping What We Sow


By Eliot Godwin

Nestled in the charming confines of Beit T’Shuvah’s Comey Complex on a cool Saturday evening in February, BTS residents, staff and a few lucky guests broke bread and shared laughs during the first ever Farm-to-Table Harvest Dinner. Conducted by Organic Garden co-founders Davis Watson and Allison Hennessey, whose aim is healthy living and active recovery, the dinner was a rousing success from start to finish.garden

“We’re building a sense of community by connecting people to the land,” Watson said. “Part of why the food tasted so good is because everyone’s hands were on it. We invited the staff and others, and everyone got to know each other better.”  This egalitarian attitude defines the Beit T’Shuvah philosophy, and when residents recognize this, they can’t help but dive in and flourish.

“Community is not just a word here,” said Jonas Eisenberg, a resident. “For Rabbi and Harriet to share their personal time with us was really great— it was an amazing experience.”

It began early afternoon at Beit T’Shuvah where residents harvested a healthy crop of greens and vegetables from the Organic Garden. The yield was so great that only about half of it was used to feed the twenty-plus attendees.

“We got boxes and boxes of food, and the garden looks like we didn’t even touch it,” Watson said before everyone dug into the feast, which featured lamb and kosher chicken stews with dried figs and apricots on a bed of couscous, organic arugula and mesclun mix salad. Soda bread made by celebrity guest Fionnula Flanagan, and freshly baked spelt flatbread with ricotta cheese and assorted toppings, started off the dinner with flavor rich foods.

Watson’s sister Anna, a food writer from New York City, was the organizing force behind the dinner and head honcho in the kitchen. Beit T’Shuvah residents and distinguished guests alike assisted her with preparation of the meat for the stew, rinsed and cleaned the salad greens, chopped vegetables and herbs, and took her expert direction with smiles and laughter. Rabbi Mark Borovitz happily chipped in, kneading and rolling the flatbread dough with aplomb.

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Anna’s keen, positive attitude kept the machine churning throughout the evening. A travelling food writer, published in large concerns like the Wall Street Journal and Food & Wine magazine, Anna said she was “happy to be here! It’s great to be part of something so unique as this.”

Watson and Hennessey urgently deflect praise for the success of the garden to the community, but it’s their diligent effort and subtle flair for horticulture that has quickly turned a fledgling project into a prodigious enterprise, inspiring many residents to get involved and keep the garden growing.

 “This mirrors how we look at addiction,” said Rabbi Adam Siegel, a spiritual counselor who oversees the garden program. “People tend to live compartmentalized lives and create artificial barriers. At Beit T’Shuvah we are made of all the compartments, and [tonight] showed the level of respect that staff and residents have for each other. Whether it means being part of this program or another program, we are helping people see the holy soul within them.”

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BEIT T’SHUVAH TOP TEN EVENTS OF 2013


By Matthew Greenwald

2013 was one of the most eventful years in Beit T’Shuvah history, marked by tremendous growth, unity, and the strengthening of our overall mission. While the construction of our new temple and the Elaine Breslow Institute dominated the year, we also achieved several other milestones. Here’s a list of the top 10 moments of 2013:

Construction– The construction of our new building next door commenced. In conjunction with this, our main building was radically renovated. The bridge connecting the east and west ends of our facility was torn down in concurrence with the overall makeover and the new Synagogue next door. The bridge had a long and colorful history at Beit T’Shuvah, to say the least. Shirley’s Patio, long known as a place for residents to congregate, was completely gutted and renovated. Although there is no longer smoking in the area, it is still a place where people meet. The patio will also become home to the brick dedication project. The backyard/women’s patio area is in process of being completely transformed, and it will link up to the new grounds next door.construction

The Retreat – In the spring, our entire facility was tented for pests, and all residents and staff were sent to a week-long retreat at the Brandeis Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. From all accounts, it was basically Beit T’Shuvah summer camp.

Harriet’s Book – “Sacred Housekeeping” was released to excellent reviews and healthy sales. This book contains Harriet’s own memoirs including the story of how she created Beit T’Shuvah and met Rabbi Mark. The reviews consistently read: Fascinating, engrossing, inspiringsacredhoouso

Rabbi/Father Boyle – In September, Rabbi Mark and Father Boyle of Homeboy Industries held a historic, joint ‘Dinner and Learning’ event at Beit T’Shuvah to an overflowing attendance.fatherg

White House – Harriet and Rabbi Mark were invited to attend the White House’s Annual Hanukkah Party.whitehouse

Birthright – A group of 30 Beit T’Shuvah residents embarked on a Birthright trip to Israel this past August. This was the first trip to be staffed, organized, and attended completely by members of the Beit T’Shuvah community.

The Institute – The Elaine Breslow Institute, will begin taking Beit T’Shuvah in a whole direction. With the formation of this program, Beit T’Shuvah will begin training medical professionals, therapists, and family members in the symptoms and treatment methods of addiction.

Dr. O’Connor – Dr. Garret O’Connor came aboard, marking the first medical professional to join us as a full-time employee. Dr. O’Connor is both Director of the Elaine Breslow Institute as well as Medical Advisor of Beit T’Shuvah.garret

The Organic Garden/Program – Beit T’Shuvah launched a new Organic Learning Garden project, spearheaded by two new interns, Alison Hennessey and Davis Watson. The project has done several great things: According to Rabbi Mark Borovitz, “This project takes us back to our roots of agrarian society. It gives us the opportunity to be part of our healthy eating and be a working part of creation.” In addition to this, the project has encompassed the community at large around our facility, dramatically improving our relationship with the neighborhood.gardening

Harriet’s Cohon Award – Late in 2013, Harriet Rossetto was awarded the Rabbi Samuel S. and A. Irma Cohon Memorial Foundation award for outstanding accomplishments that benefit Klal Yisroel: the entire Jewish people. We are having a ceremony/dinner celebration at Beit T’Shuvah on January 19th.

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Judaism and The Blues – Part Three


In part one and two of our Judaism and The Blues series, Rabbi Mark Borovitz weighed in his thoughts  the relation between the two as emotions and concepts. In part three below, Beit T’Shuvah musical director James Fuchs discusses and illustrates the musical similarities between the two, as well as pointing out the parallels of their origins.

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Judaism and The Arts: Freedom Song Update


 By Stephanie Lager

In writing our Judaism and the Arts blog we didn’t need to look far to find the perfect topic for our next post. Beit T’Shuvah’s very own creation, Freedom Song, has been exploring performance art as a way to engage audiences with the relatable feelings of addiction, family dysfunction, and personal slavery in a side-by-side musical presentation of an A.A. meeting and a Passover Seder. The three-act play’s cast is made up of Beit T’Shuvah residents, alumni, and staff members, which culminates in a Q & A session that ties the whole performance together.

freedomsongJessica Fischel, the show’s coordinator and an associate of Beit T’Shuvah’s Prevention department, weighs in on why she is so passionate about promoting Freedom Song. Even though Freedom Song performs for audiences as young as 7th graders Jessica says, “I’ve never spoken to a kid that didn’t relate to someone in the play. Everyone can see a bit of themselves and their family on that stage, regardless of being an addict or not.”

Jessica gets the most pleasure from witnessing firsthand the impact Freedom Song has on everyone that sees it, from people coming up to her after a show, seeing audience members’ eyes well up with tears, and receiving letters that attempt to put into words the profound impact it had on their life as they realize that they aren’t alone.

With a constantly changing cast, Laura Bagish, the show’s director, announces current updates and reflects on what we can expect from this profoundly moving performance.

With almost all new cast members, Freedom Song is preparing for their first new show on November 13th at 5:30 p.m. at the Jewish Federation, which is open to the public.

In response to the new cast, “It’s a process for me, starting over with a new cast each time. For me, to have new people that are enthusiastic, makes me enthusiastic, and helps me keep it fresh,” Laura says.

On being the director, “It’s taught me patience; I hadn’t a lot of acting experience before, and being the director for the last few years has taught me a lot of how to bring the best out of people, and how to be brave and overcome your fears.”

We also had the distinct pleasure of interviewing one of the newest cast members, Shayna Aken, and picked her brain as to why she decided to join the cast.

Eager to express her enthusiasm, Shayna explains, “I joined Freedom Song because I really want to stay sober, and do it by being connected to the community. I used to act in plays and theater when I was younger, and I also wanted to get back to that part of myself—the real me—while I’m at Beit T’Shuvah. It was like I forgot my passion, and what I really like to do, and how I define myself.

On how it helps her: “The play helps me in my recovery by being accountable, and having a commitment. The other people in the play count on me to be there, and that’s really important in terms of my recovery. In a way, it’s like having a smaller community within the Beit T’Shuvah community that I can have a connection and camaraderie with—we’re doing something in the real world together, a true team effort.”

On the character she plays: “It’s funny that I actually play a character that I have the same name as, and it’s a woman who’s really been through it: she’s had abusive relationships, and she’s working in recovery. She doesn’t have a lot of sober time, but she’s already helping the newcomer, and she stands up for herself. And I like that very, very much.  It certainly mirrors my life; I can relate to it a lot.”

We are thrilled to announce the upcoming performance from this new group of cast members on November 13th at 5:30 p.m. at the Jewish Federation. If you haven’t seen Freedom Song yet, you’re not just missing out on a part of our community, but a performance that will make you reflect on what you may be living as a slave to.

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