Showing posts with label Beit T'shuvah. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Beit T'shuvah. Show all posts

Monday, April 11, 2022

Sing a Redemption Song

I alternate between Pesach and Sukkot as my favorite Jewish holiday. I love building and hanging out in our Sukkah. Feeding people I love and celebrating with them is my happy place – and so I love the seder as well. Passover is so much more than that though.

Geulah – Redemption – is much more than a moment in our history: the crossing of the Sea of Reeds on the beginning of the walk to freedom. It is a Jewish value. We invoke it when we participate in freeing someone from captivity or slavery. Some of us remember participating in the movement to free the Refuseniks – Jews in the Soviet Union who only wanted to be free to be Jewish, to teach Hebrew or go to Israel. That was Geulah. Natan Sharansky, a former Knesset member and leader of the Jewish Agency was perhaps the most famous Refusenik.

Many of you know that I have been a mentor for Jewish professionals who participate in the immersion program at Beit T’shuvah in Los Angeles. Beit T’shuvah (literally “house of repentance”) is a residential recovery facility for people trying cope with alcoholism or ay of a number of other addictions. The immersion program is designed to teach clergy, educators and communal workers how to better recognize and help addicted folks in their communities.

A scene from Freedom Song

A few years ago, we brought Beit T’shuvah’s Redemption Song to B’nai Israel. It is a piece of musical theater written and performed by people in recovery. It tells a story of families with addicted members against the background of Passover seders and the Exodus from Egypt. It was and is an amazing show.

Mark Borovitz, emeritus Rabbi of Beit T’shuvah, refers to Passover as the second High Holy Days for people in recovery. For them to achieve Redemption, they must go through the steps of Repentence (T’shuvah). They use the 12 Steps of Recovery to help them do that. The 8th, 9th and 10th steps all look a lot like how we Jews are taught to atone during the period leading up to Yom Kippur:

  1. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

  2. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

  3. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

So as we prepare for own Pesach seder – as we buy and prepare the food, set the table, plan how we will lead the seder – let’s also take some time to reflect. What do I need to do to make sure I reach the other side of the Sea of Reeds? How can I make sure I and the ones I love will find redemption? I suggest making a list, making amends and continue to look to our own actions. Through T’shuvah, we can find Geulah!

We all wish you a wonderful Pesach and a safe journey to Redemption. If you need any help in preparing, let me know!



Friday, October 18, 2019

It's All About The Journey

This was a D'var Torah I wrote for WATE (the Westchester/Fairfield Association of Temple Edcators - the F is silent) for a meeting this morning.

The view from Mt. Nebo today.
Parshat Chol Hamoed raises some interesting questions for us as educators. The obvious one is the focus on the calendar. We live and die by them it seems. Of course as educators, we are working on Chanukah or even Tu Bishvat (for the Type A personalities, not me) while still in the midst of the Fall festivals. As educators, I think we are sometimes living anachronisms – not outdated, but living out of sync with real time as we work to create programs, lessons and experiences that will be implemented months down the road.

But let’s step beyond the calendar. We have three holidays in the rear view mirror and one to go before the Blessed month of Cheshvan (nutty rabbis of the Talmud called it "bitter" Cheshvan because there were no festivals in it – maybe they didn’t want to have to actually come up with other topics to talk about?) and a full return to our regularly scheduled curriculum.

I was learning over Zoom with Rabbi Mark Borovitz two days ago and he asked me an interesting question—especially with Simchat Torah looming. 

“What happens at the end of the Torah?”

[I paused here and invited my colleagues to suggest answers.]

All of those are there. I had said "Moses dies."

Then he asked: “What happens to the Israelites at the end of the Torah?”

I answered that they are at the foot of Mt. Nebo waiting to enter the land.

Now he was almost yelling: “Why does the Torah leave them there? Why don’t they get to enter the land while still in the Torah?”

Then it hit me. It is not about getting there. It is about the journey. It is about getting through each day, moving closer to the goal. 

Rabbi Borovitz works with addicts at Beit T'shuvah in Los Angeles. Addicts do not talk about being cured or being finished with their recovery. Recovery is something that happens every day for the rest of their lives – if they are successful. It ends when they die or when they return to their addiction. 

They don’t get to the Promised Land. Or if they do, they do not get to lie under their vine and fig tree. Their – and our – struggle continues every day.

The Torah doesn’t end with the death of Moses and the people waiting for the Book of Joshua to begin - as if it was just a book in a series like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. The Torah ends by us going back to the beginning and chanting Bereishit: "When God began to create the heavens and the earth."

This is a metaphor made for educators. We get relatively few kudos compared to clergy who are with our members during their happiest and saddest moments. We count our moments of victory over a longer period of time. We don't get or provide a lot of immediate gratification, like people experience with a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a Wedding or even a funeral. 

WE have to wait half a generation to learn if our learners take up the cause of the Jewish people and raise Jewish children themselves. We keep going back to the beginning, like the weekly Torah reading. 

May we all find joy and radical amazement as we finish and restart the Torah this Sunday night. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Morning After

My friend Mark Borovitz, rabbi of Beit T'Shuvah in Los Angeles is a lifelong fan of the Cleveland Indians. We fantasized about attending one of the World Series games together. And he actually made it to game 1 in Cleveland along with his brother and sister. I made it to games 3 and 4 in Chicago, attending with my uncle Stanley, 3 of my first cousins and my college roommate and his wife. Mark and I spoke as I walked to the train for game 4 and talked about how the family connections are what brought a spiritual connection to the series and our appreciation. He posted this on Facebook on Thursday morning, following game 7. Thank you Mark. You are right - as usual.

The Neshama of Baseball (Bonus Edition)

The Morning After

Mark (center), his Brother Neil and sister Sheri
on their way to Game 1
I am sad and elated today. After watching my Indians give everything they had and losing by 1 run, I am elated that they never gave up! The Cubs played a Great Game! We Indians Fans have nothing to be ashamed of... Our team played it's heart out and this was as exciting a 7th games as ever played in my lifetime!

I have watched the ways that all of the fans, Cubbies and Indians, have come together as One Family. I know that we can build on this energy to bring all of us Americans, humans together to BE ONE FAMILY.

Families have differences AND we come together to help each other. Families can fight with each other and be there in good times and bad. I believe that we, Americans, need to come back together in love, Justice, Truth, Kindness and Compassion rather than the bifurcation and hatred that has been rampant over the past decades. We have the technology- Team Spirit; we have the path- what our country was founded on; and the only question left- do we have the will to surrender to God's Will of finding ways to live together, fight together, argue together and love together?

I am sad that my Indians lost this game and so elated and proud of all they accomplished with the odds against them! I am elated that the Cubs Fans are celebrating their victory. Lets join each other in both commiserating and celebrating for both teams and use this as the model for how we deal with victory and defeat! Doing this makes us all winners.

Friday, October 16, 2015


This is from a letter I shared with the parents in our school this fall.

Something New
I am working with a group of colleagues from around the country with Doctors Jeffrey Kress and Evie Rotstein. Jeff is a professor at the Davidson School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Evie—who many of you met last May when she spoke here-is director of the School of Education at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion.

We are studying something called social, emotional and spiritual learning (SESL). Like cognitive (knowledge) and affective learning, they each distinct ways in which we perceive our world and make sense and meaning of it. For the last several years our faculty and I have been developing lessons that utilize something called experiential education—which focuses on things that happen as we learn, distinct from information on a page or screen. SESL actually provides us with the philosophical underpinning to experiential and many other kinds of learning.

We need your help. During the course of the year, we will be constructing a lexicon—a list of words that we will use to describe things that reflect how learners’ social, emotional and spiritual selves are nourished. We will share that vocabulary with you in the weekly e-mails. Please use some of those words when you ask your kids to describe something they experienced or that their teacher or classmate said. Lots of people talk about the importance of spirituality, but because we don’t really have a common language, it is very hard for us to actually do anything about it.

Something Old
Last year, in this space I told you about a week I spent learning in Los Angeles in an immersion program for Jewish educators, rabbis and cantors at Beit T’shuvah. It is the country’s only Jewish residential facility for people in recovery from all kinds of addiction.

At Beit T’shuvah, they breathe spirituality. The rabbi there, Mark Borovitz – is crazy for the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. We spent considerable time studying Heschel’s work. He said:

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

In our school we continue to work on radical amazement. Our growing Tefillah – worship – curriculum is one example, as is our new Hebrew curriculum. Both were developed to respond to the educational and spiritual needs of our students and set them on the road to radical amazement.

In Tefillah, each grade spends part of the service time learning about a prayer. Why do we say it? What is the point? What does it mean to me? Then we pray together.

In Hebrew, we use Modern Hebrew instead of the prayer book – to teach the same levels we used before. The vocabulary and the content are different, but the linguistic skills develop at the same rate. And the content integrates with the rest of our curriculum, covering holy days, values and Israel.

We invite you to be a part of the process as we seek ways to help our learners discover radical amazement in their lives! 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Addicted to Redemption:
A response to Har Nof

Nearly every Friday morning for the last six months I meet Rabbi Mark Borovitz of Beit T'shuvah (BTS) in Los Angeles for coffee. Right at 10:00 a.m. unless one of us is running behind. We catch up on the past week and and study Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Insecurity of Freedom. We have gotten most of the way through the first chapter in half a year of 30 minute conversations. We may be moving too fast. I look forward to our weekly coffee. He is usually at a Starbucks somewhere between his home and Beit T'shuvah, which is in or adjacent to Culver City. I am usually at my desk or kitchen table.

It is only 7:00 a.m. his time and he has already written his weekly d'var torah which will be in the Shabbat service bulletin at BTS which they call the shmatteh. He has also written his weekly blog post for the LA Jewish Journal. I have just arrived at work following the gym and picking up my Cafe Americano. He makes me feel like a slacker and he is a decade older!

I usually don't read his blog or d'var until after we talk.  This paste week it took until just now. I need to share. Mark, thank you for putting this into words and giving me a context. I am signing the pledge.


Combating Hatred:
Honoring The Five Men Who Died in Jerusalem

By Rabbi Mark Borovitz

I am sitting in the lounge at the Los Angeles Airport, on my way to Florida with my wife to help her 102+ year-old mother, Molly, move into assisted living. I am thinking about Molly’s life and how she has survived on her own to this day. She says it is Bridge playing and a great sense of humor, as well as not getting angry with others, understanding that everyone has their way and that we can learn from each other. Juxtaposing this attitude with what happened in a Synagogue this week in Jerusalem is almost more than I can handle.

When we foster hatred in any way, we beget more hatred. When we practice a way of being that is based on personalities, it is doomed to cause destruction. Watching the way the world plays out it’s Anti-Semitism would be a great study, I must admit, if they were not out to get me. Listening to the way the “liberal” establishment has been co-opted by haters and killers is so very sad. Hearing students trash the name of Israel and Jews while saying nothing about real despots like the leaders of North Korea, Syria killing their own people, Iran, ISIS, the Chinese and Tibet, Sunnis and Shiites, the way that our “oil allies” treat their people, Russia and Ukraine, etc. All of these countries are not singled out, yet Israel is. I think that I have finally figured it out.

The “liberal” establishment is angry that Israel didn’t stay down!! Israel stood up, grew up, became self-sufficient, etc. (certainly I am not saying they did everything right) and thus betrayed the “liberal” establishment. The “Poor Palestinians” will never betray the “liberal” establishment because their leaders will not let them become self-sufficient and their benefactors will not allow them to have any power for fear of a revolution. I guess that there is a deal in place that we didn’t realize.

How often does this happen? We go into something with a “deal” in place in our minds and not in the minds of our “partners.” We make up a story and if the other person/people don’t buy into the story or change it, we get angry and walk away. I have seen it in work situations, I have seen it in family situations, I have seen it in friendships, marriages, etc. I have participated and been an unwitting participant as well.

The murder of five men in a Synagogue is a great example of the hatred of people, God, and principle. The UCLA Student Union voting for Divestiture is a mockery of what College Campus Activism was in my day. We looked for ways to make peace, to heal old wounds, to fight for the rights of all people, not just one group over another. Where do we go from here? Being an optimist, like my mother-in-law, Molly Reiffin, I have an idea.

Let us all sign on to be Addicted to Redemption by: 1) using our minds, heats and souls to connect to Truth, 2) using our sense of humor to not take ourselves soooooo seriously, 3) reaching out to understand each other and see the similarities as well as celebrate our uniqueness, 4) owning our part in our successes and our “missing the mark,” 5) continuing to learn from what did not work and repair and improve our ways to wholeness and peace.

In these ways, I believe, we will honor the lives of the 5 men who died this week in Jerusalem; we will honor and redeem the lives of soldiers who have died in these past 13 years of terror. We will honor and redeem our souls and the souls of our countries. Join me and sign the pledge to be Addicted to Redemption.

Monday, June 30, 2014

An overall anomaly
Just before Pesach, five colleagues and I went to Los Angeles for an immersion program at Beit T'shuvah (BTS). I will write a great deal more about BTS in the near future. It has taken me this long to begin to put into words I can share - in way that woudl be meaningful for others - and I promise it will be worth it. Not because my words will be so special or awe-inspiring. It will be worth it because I want you to get to know BTS and the amazing people who are there. They help people who are addicts (of all kinds) take control of their lives. And to live spiritually fulfilling lives in the real world. 

I know. Who are you and where is Ira? We will explore those questions later. 

For today, I want to share the blog of my friend Rabbi Mark Borovitz. He is "Spiritual Leader, Head Rabbi, COO, and overall anomaly" at BTS. We have been studying Heschel's "The Insecurity of Freedom" - and just being a chavruta pair via skype since I got back from LA. He blogs weekly through the Jewish Journal under the title Addicted to Redemption. Here is his posting from last week. My comments are at the end.


All week I have been thinking about this blog. I am upset, frustrated and angry. All this has to do with what is happening both inside of me and outside of me. Inside, I am upset, angry and frustrated that my message is getting lost because of my bombastic nature. As my friend and teacher, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, has said about me, I am more prophet than Rabbi and there is not a huge market for Prophets these days. At any given time, I am prone to outbursts of angry speech. I cover it up by saying I am just passionate, yet, in truth, it is anger. I am angry inside when I know that there are better ways to live than some of the ways I am living and in some of the ways the world is living. I know that I have no control over people, places and things, yet I also know that I matter and, therefore, can influence others. This paradox frustrates me and I get upset when I don’t live in the tension of this paradox.

I have been Blessed with great vision and the ability to see the soul/God-Image of others and myself. I get upset with myself when my vision of my own Soul/God-Image gets cloudy and I know that I am not perfect. I get frustrated when I KNOW what is the next right/God-Like action to take and I don’t, either because of my own foibles/ego or because I am hampered by others. The same is true when my vision is cloudy in dealing with other people and/or I am unable to find a way to speak to another in a way they can hear. All of this causes me to be upset, frustrated and angry with me. I am writing this to all of you because I am sorry when this happens, I am working on myself to be better in this area and I acknowledge that my Prophet voice is not going away. I do commit to manage it better, however.

Why am I writing about this, you may ask. I am writing about the frustration, anger and upset inside of me because some of it comes from the outside actions of the world. Over 2 weeks ago, 3 young boys in Israel were kidnapped. What is the world doing about it? NOTHING! Where are all of the people who care about humanity? Why are the countries of the world who are, supposedly, trying so hard for “peace in the Mideast” not rallying around Israel and “forcing” Hamas and the PLO to release these teenagers? I am angry, frustrated and upset because, again, Jewish lives are not as “worthy” as others. Where is the justice and compassion for these teenagers? Where is the “caring world” when it comes to Jewish lives?

I am not just speaking about Jewish lives, however. I am upset, angry and frustrated that more is not being done to protect women in Nigeria, the Congo, the United States, and throughout the world. Like Jews, women must be considered not as worthy as men. If there were hundreds and thousands of men being tortured, raped, killed, kidnapped, etc., there would be war happening to save them. Yet, where are the Nigerian women? Where is the justice and change in status for women all over the world? Where is the “caring world” when it comes to the plight of women?

I am not just speaking about Jewish lives and women, however. I am truly frustrated, angry and upset that last Saturday was the 50th Anniversary of the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwermer AND the Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Bill they died to bring into fruition. The Congress has done nothing to rewrite this bill. So many people died, were injured, jailed and fought for everyone to have the right to vote in this country. Yet, 50 years later, we sit on our hands, don’t show up to vote and allow some of the basic rights that our soldiers died to uphold just go away.

Where is the justice and compassion for the poor and the downtrodden? Where is action of “all people are created equal”? Where is the “caring world” when it comes to people other than “them”?

I am not just speaking about “the others”, women and Jewish lives. I am also angry, frustrated and upset about our Veterans. We have treated these young people abominably. We send them off to fight and teach them to not trust anyone they come into contact with except ‘their own’. What do we do to help them re-integrate into society here when they come back? Very little!! We don’t even help them when they seek help. Where is the justice, compassion and gratitude for their service? Where is the “caring people” when it comes to serving those who serve us?

I know that I am being bombastic again. Yet, I believe deep in my soul that I am speaking a Truth that few of us want to face. I don’t have all of the solutions to these experiences and challenges. I do know and believe that “Evil flourishes when Good People do nothing.” I know and believe that just as in the 50’s and 60’s we are in need of a grassroots movement to effect change in the way we are living. I do know that this movement has to begin inside of each of us first. One of the lessons of History for me is that the movement of past generations and eras doesn’t take hold unless the changes and the movements are rooted in the souls of each of the leaders and participants of the movement.

My commitment is to keep working on my insides and outsides. This is how I live Addicted to Redemption. I am asking you to help me keep this commitment and to join me and make your own commitment to Redemption so that we can make the world Addicted to Redemption and bring about the world that has been envisioned in every Spiritual Discipline.

When Mark shared his blog on Friday I had a visceral reaction and shared it with him:

Wow. Stunning. I am reading about Mark the Prophet and remembering that most prophets did not end so well. It left me worrying for you and forgiving anything you might imagine I could forgive you for. (Actually there is nothing - your prophetic voice inspires me in ways that my hyper-rational self cannot believe!)

Then you make a sharp turn into the real issue - how "never again" is made into a hollow phrase by all of us every day. I leave on Sunday to chaperone a group of teens on the first phase of their Israel trip - by visiting Prague and Poland. We will be exploring and learning about over 1,000 years of Jewish life and then visiting Therezin, Krakow (and Schindler's factory), Auschwitz and the memorial to the Warsaw ghetto. With all of the evils you spoke of, from three young men in Mississippi to 3 young men near Kfar Etzion, the entire meaning of this journey changes.

Trips like these began in order to teach lessons like "never again." They continued to teach how the Third Reich was Egypt and Israel is again the Promised Land. 125 years ago, the early Reform rabbis in America mostly disagreed with the idea of a Jewish State being reestablished. They felt America was the promised land. In the 30's and 40's, most who held that opinion relented and the movement became staunch supporters of the Zionist dream and later of Israel. But they still held to the idealized view of the United States. I am angry with you. The lessons have not been learned. By anyone. Not just the three Jewish boys in Israel. Not just the women in Africa and in other places.

Our job as Jews, as Americans, as Humans is to protect those who need protection from evil. It is to stop genocide. It is to help one another reach our potential.

This Shabbat, I am sad angry with you. By next Shabbat in Poland, I pray that the teenagers with whom I am traveling will teach me about hope and show me the potential for good and for bringing redemption.

Shabbat shalom,