Mark Borovitz is well aware of the damage that addictions can cause.
A former con man and alcoholic who spent many of his formative years on the streets and in prison, Borovitz is now a rabbi and an addictions counsellor. He is also an expert on the subject of Judaism and addictions, and the role that this ancient religion can play in recovery.
Borovitz shared this expertise with the local Jewish community during a Winnipeg visit. The Los Angeles-based rabbi was in town to help Jewish Child and Family Service (JCFS) unveil its plans for a new comprehensive addiction services program.
As a cradle-to-grave agency, JCFS has been looking after the social service needs of Winnipeg's Jewish community for 60 years. Its ever-expanding programs and services address a wide range of issues within the community, and are credited with easing the burdens and improving the lives of countless individuals and families.
Beginning next year, those services will include an expansive program dedicated exclusively to the challenges associated with addictions and recovery.
"JCFS is building on a vision to expand the therapeutic options available to Jewish individuals and families facing a variety of addiction issues," explains social worker Ivy Kopstein, newly hired as JCFS's first addiction service co-ordinator.
"While there are addiction and recovery programs in the general community, our agency believes that for Jews who struggle with addictions, Jewish values and spirituality are important to the recovery process," she says.
Rabbi Borovitz was the perfect candidate to extrapolate on that idea.
Borovitz, 60, is the spiritual leader and executive director of Beit T'Shuvah, a 175-bed residential treatment centre in Los Angeles founded by his wife, Harriet Rossetto. Treatment at Beit T'Shuvah -- which translates as House of Repentance -- revolves around a unique program of spiritual recovery that Borovitz developed during his rabbinical studies. The program merges Jewish teachings with the principles of the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Borovitz's personal transformative journey began when he was serving time at the California State Prison in Chino and was assigned to work as the prison rabbi's clerk. There, at the rabbi's side, the career criminal rediscovered the Orthodox Judaism he had abandoned in his youth and began to turn his life around. Following his release from prison, Borovitz pursued a university education and, at the age of 50, was ordained as a rabbi.
During his Winnipeg visit, Borovitz spoke candidly to community leaders and lay people, as well as to high school students and JCFS staff, about his troubled history.
"My parents were good people and I became an alcoholic and a criminal," he said. "I made a choice to escape into addiction because I didn't feel I was enough, and every time I made a mistake it made me feel more and more that I wasn't enough."
Borovitz also repeatedly touched on the Talmudic notion of repentance and the responsibility Jewish community agencies must assume in recognizing and confronting addictions among their constituents. He reiterated his belief that Jewish teachings and values are central to repairing fractured souls and helping to restore lives to healthier ways of living.
In broaching what has long been considered an uncomfortable and shameful subject, Borovitz helped draw the community into an overdue conversation about the issue of addictions among Jewish community members and the role relevant Judaism can play in overcoming those addictions.
"Addiction is the Egypt of our time," Borovitz said. "Addictions are about needing to escape because you think you are imperfect."
This desire to escape, he emphasized, affects Jewish community members from all socioeconomic backgrounds, in the same way that it affects every other ethnic and religious group.
Now, however, thanks to the new addiction services program at JCFS, Jewish addicts will have access to supports and resources that recognize and embrace their faith's teachings, spirituality and lifestyle, opening the way for their recovery through Judaism.