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An exodus out of addiction

Beit T'Shuvah is both synagogue and drug rehab center.

April 10, 2010|By Kurt Streeter

As a reminder of how much his life has changed, Rabbi Mark Borovitz wore a starched blue prisoner's shirt.

He reveled in the symbolism, stroking his beard, dancing a jig, smiling broadly. Then, from a low stage in a well-lit sanctuary, he looked out at his congregants and turned the tale of Exodus into a parable on fighting addiction.

"How," he shouted, "are you going to get out of Egypt this year? What's the inner slavery you are going to leave behind?"

For many inside the temple this night, the question cut to the bone. They have long been chained to trouble -- to drugs or drink or sex, to gambling or stealing or running cons. The story of the Jewish flight from bondage is one they can deeply feel.

It was Passover, the beginning of a Seder feast at Temple Beit T'Shuvah, the House of Return. Occupying a drab two-building complex in Mid-City Los Angeles, it is both a full-fledged synagogue and a drug rehabilitation center, home to 120 addicts, men and women, most of them Jewish.

Its guiding principles are steeped in the Torah: 12 steps meets the 12 tribes.

Borovitz, 58, a burly, effervescent ex-thief who spent most of the 1980s behind bars, and his wife, Harriet Rossetto, 72, a social worker and free spirit, run Beit T'Shuvah. Rossetto founded the place 23 years ago.

The rabbi scanned the sanctuary, packed with residents, guests and plates of symbolic food: lamb bone, boiled egg, matzo, parsley, apple paste and horseradish. He raised a glass -- kosher grape juice instead of wine -- and sang a Hebrew prayer.

A chorus of voices joined him, straining to the heavens for redemption. They came from every corner of society. A mother who couldn't say no to crack. A businessman who lost his house to gambling. A musician who ditched his family for heroin. A lawyer who succumbed to rum.

At the front of the room, near the rabbi, sat Rachel Lurie and Luke Chittick, holding hands. During last year's Passover, they were in back, still new to Beit T'Shuvah, still fresh from the brink, still uncertain if sobriety could bring anything good.

The Seder last week was "a milestone we've looked forward to for a long time," Luke said. It wasn't just that they were a couple now, propping each other up. It was that they felt their lives had meaning. They could see a future.

Rachel and Luke arrived at Beit T'Shuvah in November of 2008. He came first, just after his release from a hospital after another bout of alcohol poisoning.

When Luke entered Beit T'Shuvah, he was 27, bloated and ashen. His brother had found the temple, and because Luke was still woozy, he did not know where he was.

"Just what the hell am I doing in a synagogue?" Luke, the son of a Lutheran minister, recalls wondering.

That day, he was at the bottom of a descent that had begun at the University of Massachusetts and quickened when he moved to Los Angeles in 2004, hoping his handsome looks would lead to acting jobs.

What he found instead was a bartending job -- and OxyContin, the prescription pain drug that mirrors heroin. It seemed to fight the depressive storms that had swept over him since childhood.

"Everything just blew up in my face," he says, remembering terrible moments -- like the day he snorted OxyContin from the grimy floor of a urine- and feces-soaked public bathroom in Tijuana.

By 2007, he was able to replace OxyContin with something cheaper: vodka and bad wine. Soon, living in a string of shabby Compton motels, he had a routine. Drink for two hours and pass out. Wake, drink again, pass out, wake, start over.

He was strapped to gurneys in mental wards. He flunked his way out of rehab stints by getting drunk. With each failure he hated himself more, but he could do nothing to change.

He was taken to an emergency room one day, his blood-alcohol level at 0.53, when a doctor pulled his brother aside.

"You know the actor in 'Leaving Las Vegas'?" the doctor said, speaking of Nicolas Cage, who in the movie drinks himself to death. Luke "is Nicolas Cage."

Rachel understood those depths too well. She grew up in a middle-class Canadian family that practiced a conservative brand of Judaism -- a family that, according to her mother, never quite figured out how to deal with their rebellious daughter.

At 15 she ran away from home, living for a spell on the streets of Toronto. That year, in a rough part of downtown, she was cornered by a neo-Nazi skinhead and sexually assaulted.

By her mid-20s, even though she had kept a string of bookkeeping jobs, Rachel was sinking fast, getting loaded on drugs or alcohol almost every night. Yet somehow she kept her family from knowing the extent of her addiction. She was good at lying.

"Smart enough," she says, "to manipulate, so I could get what I want."

As her drinking and cocaine use increased -- some nights she would go through nearly a gallon of vodka -- she grew delusional. She shut herself inside her apartment and barely spoke. White-hot anger was her preferred mode of expression. She suffered a nervous breakdown.

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