By Lisa Lisser
Several weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a weeklong immersion program for Jewish educators at Elaine Breslow Institute at Beit TShuvah in Los Angeles. Beit TShuvah is a residential rehab and recovery facility for Jews and for non-Jews, whose treatment approach is centered on Jewish texts and Jewish values in conjunction with a traditional 12-step recovery program. Beit TShuvah incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy as well, to provide a fully integrated approach to recovery.
Visionary founders Harriet Rosetto and Rabbi Mark Borovitz began Beit TShuvah 30 years ago and have created a true Makom Kadosh, or holy space, which provides a welcoming, understanding and, specifically, Jewish home for rehab and recovery.
So what does this mean? And why did I participate? What could I learn at Beit TShuvah that would enhance my teaching and learning? How would this experience advance my vision to open the world of Torah and Jewish tradition to Jewish adults? We know that adults often re-enter the world of Jewish learning when they are going through transitions (i.e. crisis) in their lives. Would spending a week in a residential rehab facility with drug addicts, alcoholics, gamblers and ex-cons give me the insights and skills to be a more effective educator? I was curious, and I admit, a little scared. Fear and awe. Awe and fear.
What I learned, really took me back to what I already know – that Torah is the gift that provides us with tools to recover our lives, to help us understand our obstacles, and provides us with hope and direction to return to our selves. TShuvah (return) means returning to ourselves and perhaps, returning to a place we have never been; finding our shalem – wholeness.
Beit TShuvah is a place that recognizes that every human being is created B’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. We must respect ourselves and respect each other based on this foundational principal. The residents repeatedly told us that what makes Beit TShuvah different than other institutions they have experienced is the authentic acceptance that comes upon arrival and throughout their stay. Uniquely, “their stay” is as long as it takes, from three months to a year, and sometimes longer. It’s personal and individual. Recovery is not one size fits all. Beit TShuvah is committed to building a community amongst the residents to support and strengthen each other as they address the darkest places in their lives. They engage in daily Torah study, chevruta (partner) learning and immersive workshops addressing big life issues through a Jewish lens. They share their stories and are vulnerable with each other because Beit TShuvah provides them with a safe, non-judgmental space in which to open up.
There are few places in this world where we have the security and safety to work through our issues with a community. Beit TShuvah lives this promise, and is a place of hope in a time of despair.
Let’s be honest; we all have dark places. This is part of being human. We are not all good nor are we all bad. This is the essential message of Beit TShuvah, every human is “Both/And” rather than “Either/Or”. I am good, and I may be bad. I may have been bad, but I can be good too. Both/And.
“Both/And” is a challenge in today’s “Either/Or” world where we get caught up in our materialistic and competitive society. “Both/And” is challenging when we watch our kids struggle to maintain GPAs that will get them into the best schools, and then best graduate schools, and then the best, whatever. “Both/And” is a struggle when we are competing with our neighbors in the race for “whoever has the most stuff at the end wins.” In today’s world, we are either the best or the worst. Today’s world is so “Either/Or” that we measure our self worth in ways that simply do not share space with a “Both/And” narrative.
But this is what Harriet and Rabbi Mark urge us to overcome. They teach that “Both/And” is the Torah principal that we are all created with a Yetzer haTov, the good inclination, and the Yetzer haRah, the “evil” inclination. Rabbi Mark teaches that the Torah tells us the Yetzer haTov is good, and the Yetzer haRah is VERY good. In other words, struggling with our Yetzer haRah to do the next right thing is the path that gets us to TShuvah, return. But it’s hard to do. It’s hard to do when we have lost the hope that we have any shred of goodness left, and it’s hard to do when we feel we have disappointed every one who matters in our lives. It’s hard to do when we simply believe we have not lived up to expectations that we or others have set for ourselves.
Harriet and Rabbi Mark live “Both/And,” because that is the story of their lives. It’s the story of all of our lives. Through discovering “Both/And,” they recovered their internal relationship with themselves and their spiritual relationship with God. Learning to rely on God, and acknowledge God, and being open to accept that there is space for God in our lives permits us to hold “Both/And” within our souls. Letting God in helps us to not feel so lonely. Harriet and Rabbi Mark authentically share with their residents, as they shared with us, the Jewish educators, this universal message that being created in the image of God necessarily requires us to struggle with our own personal “Both/And” lives. Rabbi Mark gave us each two business cards. They reflect the Jewish story that tells of the Rabbi who goes through life with two pieces of paper in his pockets. One says, “The whole world was created for me” and the other says, “I am but Dust and to Dust I shall return.” Greatness and humility. Awe and Fear.
I feel blessed to have been part of the Beit TShuvah experience, and believe that the relationships that evolved there will continue for years to come. Now, my task, and the task of the rest of my cohort, who teach in Jewish communities all over the country, is to share this essential value of Jewish learning with those we teach and those with whom we learn. Torah values are there to guide us and support us when we fall down, and to praise us and honor us, when we stand back up. Each of us will fall during this journey of our lives, and each of us has the power and the gift to stand back up, to experience TShuvah, and to return.
Lisa Lisser is a Masters of Religious Education Candidate, School of Education at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion, New York. You can reach her at [email protected]