Let ‘Freedom’ ring

Let ‘Freedom’ ring

L.A. center brings critical addiction message to local teens

At the beginning of “Freedom Song,” the full cast is on stage. Courtesy Beit T’Shuvah

“So what does this have to do with me?”

Maybe it’s not such a nice question when the evil son asks it at the seder, but sometimes it demands to be asked.

When nice Jewish families are told that they should go see a production mounted by a Los Angeles-based rehabilitation center – a musical about addiction, featuring a dysfunctional family and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – the question seems logical.

The answer is that it has something to do with all of us.

In fact, the musical, “Freedom Song,” as presented by Beit T’Shuvah, the Los Angeles center, is an emotionally wrenching and often profound production that has much to do with most of us. It is here to tell us not only that on some level addiction is the entire community’s problem, but also that liberation is possible for all of us.

Some basic truths: Many Jews have substance abuse problems. Addictions can be not only to substances but also to behaviors (gambling and overeating, among others). And even those of us who do not have addicts in our immediate families are naïve to believe that they do not exist in our communities – or that we necessarily would be able to tell them apart from everyone else.

Beit T’Shuvah, which houses about 100 residents in the early stages of recovery and is a spiritual center to thousands more, provides a range of services to everyone – Jews and non-Jews, people who come from the Los Angeles area, and others who fly across the country because there is no place else like it.

“It is one of the real magical places in the American Jewish community,” Rabbi Neal Borovitz said. Borovitz is rabbi of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge; his brother, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, a former con man and ex-con, now is the charismatic force behind (and the public face of) Beit T’Shuvah.

Harriet Rossetto, a social worker, began Beit T’Shuvah as a homeless shelter and a halfway house. She “met my brother Mark when he was in jail, and challenged him, when he got out, to come and see it.

“He did, and she put him to work in a thrift shop, selling used goods to make money to fund Beit T’Shuvah.”

Today, Marc Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto are married; Borovitz was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, a Conservative seminary at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and the thrift shop, one of Beit T’Shuvah’s many enterprises, “now employs dozens of Beit T’Shuvah’s residents and former residents.” (Another of its new ventures, BTS Communications, is a nonprofit advertising agency that handles Beit T’Shuvah’s marketing needs in-house while training former addicts for jobs in the outside world.)

Together, Rossetto and Borovitz have turned Beit T’Shuvah into a place where hope lives alongside despair.

“Beit T’Shuvah uses Judaism, 12-step programs, and psychotherapy to help people deal with addiction,” Neal Borovitz said. “You never recover from an addiction – you’re always in recovery. The message of Beit T’Shuvah is that every human life is of absolute value.” Its basic message is “how do I become the best me that I can become?”

“I’m not going to become someone I’m not,” Borovitz continued. “How do I emphasize the goodness within me?”

That is a very Jewish concept, the idea that we cannot be anyone else, but that each one of us has the obligation to be the very best version of ourselves that we can be. His brother and sister-in-law took those concepts “and evolved it into a prevention program and a curriculum. It’s all about respecting yourself; if you don’t respect yourself, you can’t expect anyone else to respect you.”

One of the programs that Beit T’Shuvah uses both to help its clients heal and to connect them to the outside world – and to connect the outside world to Beit T’Shuvah – is the musical “Freedom Song.”

The rate of recovery from addiction programs is not high, Neal Borovitz said; in general, Alcoholics Anonymous-type programs’ rate is 12 to 15 percent. Beit T’Shuvah’s is about 60 percent – impressively higher, but that means that 40 percent still are lost. While the “Freedom Song” cast cannot claim a 100 percent recovery rate, its rate is higher than Beit T’Shuvah’s overall statistics. It provides meaning for the cast, and it allows cast members to help other people in ways that are visible and deeply gratifying to them. Addiction is a disease stemming at least in part from a feeling of low self-worth, so the ability to help others is liberating.

A constantly changing cast

“It started with a conversation Rabbi Mark Borovitz had with Craig Taubman in 2005,” James Fuchs said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. Taubman, the prolific Los Angeles-based Jewish composer and performer, has a yearly production called “Let Freedom Sing,” which is made up of separately performed pieces. He “asked us to write a play, which was supposed to be performed one time,” Fuchs said. (Fuchs, a professional musician, wrote most of the music; he is now Beit T’Shuvah’s artistic director and acting musical director for “Freedom Song.”)

The first time “Freedom Song” was performed it was poorly advertised and drew only a small audience; the second performance, held only to remedy that deficit, attracted people from other shuls and disparate parts of the Jewish communities. Those audience members wanted members of their own communities to see it. It’s been playing ever since.

There are about 22 cast members at any one time; when it travels, as it will this week, the troupe will include 25 people. The cast has changed in the years since it first was performed, but there always is overlap.

The musical is divided into two sections; one, on one side of the stage, is a family that gathers for a Passover seder; the other side shows a 12-step meeting. The family part, which is more tightly plotted, is played as it was written; the meeting part incorporates actors’ stories and so can change along with the cast.

There also are narrators, who are ghosts. “We represent lost hope and the renewal of hope,” actor Michael Soter, who plays one, said. “And the juxtaposition of those things – you can lose hope, but you have the opportunity to change that.”

“At the beginning of the play, everyone on the family side is happy. They’re arriving at the Passover seder,” Laura Bagish said. She is Beit T’Shuvah’s music director and choir director, and now she also is director of “Freedom Song.” “By the end of the play, almost everyone is screaming and yelling and fighting. The meeting side is happy and strong.

“It juxtaposes the two sides to show that we’re all the same.

“It’s not to be missed,” she concluded. “It’s the Jewish ‘Rent.'”

On Sunday, the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, along with eight local shuls, is sponsoring “Freedom Song.” Harriet Rossetto will talk to parents before the performance, which is aimed specifically although not exclusively at high school students. A question-and-answer session with the actors will follow.

Bess Adler, BCHSJS’s principal, has seen the production. “For teens, what’s powerful is that it’s really engaging. It’s not lecturing.” They don’t have to be told yet again about the dangers of drug use because “they get it intellectually,” she said. “They are given programs in their public schools. They feel that they know all about it already. But this show is a powerful way of giving them the message that this happens to Jews too. It’s not foreign to the Jewish community.”

Adler knows this firsthand. She first saw “Freedom Song” in Los Angeles, on a conference with other members of Naacchhs – the North American Association of Community and Congregational Hebrew High Schools. “Afterward, one of the other school directors shared with us that he actually had been through the program,” she said. “He had been a compulsive gambler.

“This is a man I looked up to, and I was shaken to the core. Here was a colleague, a man I respected so tremendously. He was a mentor.

“You don’t know who has a problem. Your rabbis, your friends, your mentors, your partners – you just don’t necessarily know. That’s a message brought home by the show.

“It also gives a good message of hope. Of warning – but also of hope.”

Who: Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles

What: Performing the musical “Freedom Song,” and then hosting a question-and-answer session

When: Sunday, March 3, 10:45 a.m. ““ 12:30 p.m.

Where: The Ma’ayanot School; 1650 Palisade Ave., Teaneck

Why: To show the human drama of addiction and the possibility of liberation

For: The entire community

Cost: Free

Sponsored by: The Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies; Temple Avodat Shalom, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, Temple Sinai of Bergen County, Temple Beth Or, Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, Jewish Community Center of Paramus, Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, Fair Lawn Jewish Center/CBI, Temple Emeth

How: Register online; do a web search for the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies and follow the link to “Freedom Song,” or call Bess Adler at 201-488-0834

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