Lesson From a Jewish Prison Chaplan

My name is Mark Borovitz and I am a Rabbi. I am also a recovering alcoholic and recovering criminal, having done two terms in the California State Prison System. I am also a husband, father, brother and son. I am also the Senior Rabbi and Spiritual Leader of--wait for it, it's a mouthful--Beit T'Shuvah, a Jewish faith-based, non-sectarian residential and intensive outpatient addiction recovery center in Los Angeles.

The Jewish High Holidays are a week away, and this time of year means a little more to me, I venture, than the average Rabbi. I was saved by the theme of the Jewish High Holy Days: T'Shuvah which translates as repentance, return and response. When I was arrested, for the last time, in December of 1986, I had a spiritual experience. I spoke these words, "the man upstairs is trying to tell me something and I have to sit here until I figure it out." I still, to this day, have no idea why these words came out of my mouth, except that I had an ecstatic experience of God/Spirit that day and I have spent these last almost 30 years honoring this experience and my response to this experience.

I am from a nice Jewish home in Cleveland, Ohio. My parents were hardworking, decent people, my grandparents were immigrants and love filled our home. I had two older brothers, one of whom died in 2001 and a younger sister. I was not beaten or abused, I just always felt half a step off. I was different and I knew it, I felt out of place everywhere and I couldn't stand the psychic pain I was constantly in. My father died when I was 14 years old and my mother was making $2.00/hour. I also watched how people with money were always "right". I always identified with the child in the fable, The Emperor's New Clothes. When I disagreed, I was told to be quiet because "this person was successful and they must be right." I went deeper into my psychic pain, I could not keep quiet and I wanted to have money so I could be "right". This led to drinking, stealing and hustling stolen merchandise that I got from men in the local Mafia. I was in my glory, I felt accepted by other kids who were drinking, I felt accepted by other thieves, etc. This just kept escalating and I had to leave Cleveland because someone wanted to kill me and the local Mafia squashed it for me. So, I left for California to join my oldest brother and help him in his business. Along the way to my 1986 encounter with God, I got married, had a daughter and kept doing more immoral and illegal activities.

What have I done these past almost 30 years? I began to study with the Jewish Prison Chaplain (a Rabbi named Mel Silverman), we learned about the concept of T'Shuvah together. I studied Judah in the Bible- he did a complete T'Shuvah with his father and his brother Joseph. I began to realize that I was more than an alcoholic and thief. I began to have hope that change was possible. I began to believe that I was redeemable. I began to do a "Chesbon HaNefesh" - an accounting of my soul. Here is the way I did it:

1) I wrote down all of the paths I took that led me to living poorly
2) I wrote down what my thinking was that made it okay for me to do wrong things
3) I wrote down who was impacted by my actions, including God and myself
4) I wrote down how these people were impacted
5) I wrote down what I needed to do to restore/resow our relationship, including an apology, restitution and a plan not to repeat these actions again (because I will feel the same stressors again- I just need a plan to remember what I am capable of and how to stop myself from erring again).
6) I wrote down all of the paths/good that I had done as well
7) I wrote down what my thinking was that helped me to do good
8) I wrote down who was impacted by my actions, including God and myself
9) I wrote down how these people were impacted
10) I wrote down what I needed to do to keep doing good things, how to use my gifts/talents to do more good.

I have done this inventory and accounting of my soul since Yom Kippur of 1987. It has freed me to be the person I was created to be, the person my family raised me to be and the person I have always wanted to be.

This "work" on myself has led me to reconnect with my family, friends (some of them), make new friends, and go to Rabbinical School against all odds. I have been the Senior Rabbi of Beit T'Shuvah for 23 years (I was ordained in 2000 and I was doing the job for 7 years prior). I have had the honor of leading many lost and broken people to a life of hope and change through teaching and living T'Shuvah as a possibility for every last soul, no matter the sin.