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Seeking New Lives at 'The House of Return' : Recovery: Beit T'Shuvat tries to help Jewish ex-convicts reenter society and overcome drinking, gambling and other addictions by combining Judaism with a 12-step program.

April 19, 1993|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The scene in the lounge could pass for a study in grunge. The rabbi is in jeans and a sweater, his unkempt, long curls capped with a yarmulke that resembles an African kente cloth hat. It's the only colorful item in the room.

The young men sprawled on the lumpy sofas and busted kitchen and office chairs of unidentifiable grimy colors are in shorts, jeans and sweats. Even the walls are dreary, well past the point where a coat of paint would help.

Rabbi Marc Sirinsky has reiterated his customary "no smoking" rule, which has led to a discussion of evil.

"If we are children of the Lord, why did he create cigarettes and cancer?" a young man says, apologizing for putting the rabbi on the spot but sporting a "gotcha" look of mischief as he asks.

The question is fine with Sirinsky, who uses it to lead the group to his main point: Religion is not separate from real-life issues, no matter how minor they seem.

Another man crudely observes that there is even a prayer for defecating.

"You've got it," Sirinksy nods emphatically. "That says it."

*

Welcome to Beit T'Shuvah (the House of Return), a halfway house for Jewish ex-convicts. Most of the 24 residents were incarcerated for crimes associated with addiction. The house is a therapeutic community for drug addicts, alcoholics, gamblers and offenders with other addictions or compulsive disorders such as theft, embezzlement, workaholism, promiscuity or macherism , a Yiddish-rooted term for big-shot-wanna-be habits such as check kiting or fast-money deals.

Life at the ramshackle house near Alvarado and Third streets in downtown Los Angeles integrates Judaism with the traditional 12-step recovery program developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Residents go voluntarily to the place where the doormat on the front porch says "Shalom." They stay nine months to a year, study the Torah and ethics from the Jewish tradition and Scripture, attend 12-step meetings, and undergo individual and group counseling--including family sessions. Most eventually study and work outside the home as they attempt to rejoin society.

They attend Friday Sabbath services and observe Jewish holidays in the back-yard synagogue, an improvised tent of cloudy plastic sheeting for walls, a chandelier dangling overhead.

For some, Beit T'Shuvah seems a "last chance" effort to get normalcy, decency and sanity into their lives. And the problems they reveal at group meetings can be complicated. As is common in 12-step programs, most residents prefer anonymity.

One man in his mid-30s has lost everything. His wife died of cancer, his two young children are "back East" and he struggles to overcome his drug torments. His desperation was so acute that he recently found himself losing his newfound faith in God, he says:

"This morning, I woke up and got down on my knees and really prayed hard. This turmoil I'm in, thinking of my wife and kids--'If I would have done things differently, if I wouldn't have been an addict.' I prayed, 'Let me forgive myself.' "

He was clean, he said, but still there was this pain. Yet he seemed both resolved and resigned to what he must do next:

"I've got to walk through this pain to get to the other side. I believe there's a message on the other side."

*

In 1981, Harriet Rossetto joined Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center as a clinical social worker, counseling Jewish inmates in jails and prisons and continuing outreach that began in 1921 with the formation of the Jewish Committee for Personal Service.

Jews represent 1.25% of the nation's prison population and, according to statistics used by Gateways, 85% to 90% of them are incarcerated for crimes related to addictive-compulsive disorders.

Rossetto's experience has validated those statistics. But no matter the problem, the woman who founded Beit T'Shuvah in 1987 and serves as its executive director says she began to see only one disease--addiction.

"Most were nice people, middle class, who swore they'd never be back," Rossetto says. "And then, lo and behold, they were back next month. I got fascinated with the whole problem of addiction." And with the families of addicts. Parents, stung and bewildered, invariably protested to her, "But we gave him everything," she says, deaf to the harm in that phrase.

Rossetto's interest heightened at a time when the addiction, co-dependency and 12-step recovery phenomenon came to the forefront in the United States.

She sounds much like a child of the movement: "I've found very few people I can't find an addiction for. Addiction is my metaphor for a fragmentation of being--the workaholic father, the anorexic mother who's all the time having plastic surgery and shopping. Whatever."

Later, during a 12-step meeting she refines her definition: "Addiction is the inability to unify intentions with actions."

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