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Rabbi Mark Borovitz

A Road Less Travelled: The Journey from Bring a Convict to A Rabbi- Ex Con Spoke at JCFS ANNUAL MEETING

by Elaine Bigalow, posted August 18, 2012

  “Most people don’t know value of Tshuvah”, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, told the 2012 Jewish Child and Family Services annual meeting in June of this year. Borovitz is the senior Rabbi and spiritual leader of Beit Tshuvah - House of Return”, a residential Jewish rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles California for addicts of drug, alcohol, sex, gambling addictions, and other self-destructive behaviors.
Rabbi Mark gave an inspiring narrative of his life leading up to of Beit Tshuvah, the only treatment centre of its kind which merges the AA program with spiritual recovery and religious teaching based upon traditional Judaism. He is a ba'al tshuvah who himself served time in a California State prison. Rabbi Mark’s personal journey toward Beit Tshuvah, discovering his soul, began when he was serving time in Chino State Prison. While in prison he worked as a clerk for the prison Rabbi and began studies with Rabbi Mel Silverman. There he also met Harriet Rossetto, a social worker of the Jewish Committee for Personal Service, who was visiting as a Jewish outreach worker and whom he would later marry. She opened Beit Tshuvah, a house for Jewish ex-cons and addicts integrating back into society, in 1987. Rabbi Mark became a resident there and began work in 1988. He went from being convict to Rabbi, graduating National University with a Bachelor of Arts in Behavioral Science, a recipient of a Masters in Rabbinic Literature, and was ordained as a Rabbi from the University of Judaism. 
Rabbi Mark remarked how in awe he is of what JCFS does. He said in Los Angeles four or five different organizations take pieces of what JCFS does here in Winnipeg with great “szving”, love and heart; he noted that all the people and staff in JCFS are amazing people. He pledged twenty times chai in honor of what they do. He spoke of his being a con man, gambler, thief and an alcoholic. His father died when he was 14 and he plunged into a 25 year life of crime. After his release from prison he continued his life style until a true divine intervention with a startling revelation changed his life – when he was being sent back to prison he told his ex- wife he wanted to stay in prison rather than be bonded out on bail.
Rabbi Mark spoke of his parents and siblings whom he said were good people. He said every time he made a mistake it confirmed the fact in his mind that he was not good enough and wanted more and more to escape. He just kept feeling badly because he did not know what Tshuvah was. Rabbi Mark emphasized that the Torah said 36 times to take care of the stranger, widows and orphans. He said addiction is “the Egypt of our time” and “I needed to escape because I am imperfect”.
“My job is to account [for] my soul each day – assets and liabilities” Doing Tshuvah every day builds self-esteem because in the accounting you notice you are doing good things.
 “I made mistakes when I was young and would not admit to the mistakes”, Rabbi Mark added. “People have secrets in Jewish families and do not talk about them in our community; that is where self-esteem lives in darkness. It’s necessary to bring this stuff to the light, get started with high school kids – “you matter”. You make people know they matter”.
Rabbi Mark said when he makes Tshuvah to his brother Neal who is also a Rabbi; he says “I am sorry I caused you so much worry. My commitment to you is to stay in touch with you”. He talks to him a five am every morning – so he never has to worry. Rabbi Mark made Tshuvah to his sister in law by telling her,” I am sorry for what you must have gone through when Neal was worried about me. I am sorry”. Rabbi Mark explained Tshuvah is being able to say where you feel you harmed and be able to say you are sorry for something that is not right; it acknowledges the dignity and humanity that “I stole from you, seeing you as a person, as a soul, not an object”.
According to Rabbi Mark, he ruined his father’s name. He said he ' stole 6 ½ years' of his Daughter Heather's live because he was in jail. He said love is not enough. She could not trust her father to be there.  Now, some  23 ½ years later he talks to her every day. He, his 2nd wife and his daughter do Tshuvah every day by being transparent with each other.
Rabbi Mark studied Maimonides in prison; he looked at Jacob as his hero because he was a thief. He said those in recovery are passionate; a leopard can change its spots, “because of Tshuvah I can come back.” “In recovery “, he said, “people embrace their imperfections, find their passions and discover a purpose." He described Beit Tshuvah as being about repentance, repairing and new responses, wanting a life of meaning; people who know they are imperfect see the whole story. People in recovery can and have changed.
 “Tshuvah, truth is important in our tradition without that the world cannot stand. Beit Tshuvah maintains everyone is a holy soul, all have to seek wisdom, and we are all hierarchically obliged to help people get back to living.”
Rabbi Mark noted with pride that the success rate of Beit Tshuvah is 65% after five years of recovery. Twenty five years ago Beit Tshuvah started with three clients, and now has 125. The facility is in the middle of gang domain, but the gang men respect what they are doing at Beit Tshuvah. He said the bosses of the gangs stop him outside and report on those in residence who try to buy drugs because they see Beit Tshuvah as a house of God and as being blessed. Rabbi Mark said no one in the neighborhood would “touch our cars unlocked, that is the respect we have”.
Rabbi Mark said 70% of their 7 million dollar budget goes to rehabilitate addicts. They fund raise 3 ½ to 4 million dollars a year. He said that  there are people in our community suffering quiet diseases of addiction and there is always more to be done. (although  JCFS's JACS program is excellent).
Rabbi mark spoke about his visit to schools in Winnipeg where 16 year old kids argued with him why drinking is ok. He said if adults don’t start Tshuvah, kids can’t do it. He said the challenge is in looking at self in truth rather than looking at truth in others, and that it is a daily challenge. He said the way to look at this is set up  columns : (1) what I did today ,(2) what I did not so well, (3) who was impacted, and (4) how am I going to repair it.
According to Rabbi Mark, doing this for a week will be life changing.
Rabbi Mark ended his talk by giving 20 times chai, he said “if you know people who need to recover, being spiritually Jewish, using Jewish principles, I will come back to act as a resource for you”.

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