The Brains Behind Beit T’Shuvah
Thirty years ago, Harriet Rossetto wanted to help rehabilitate Jewish prisoners. Then she realized addiction was their biggest battle.
Harriet Rossetto is the founder, CEO and Clinical Director of Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish faith-based recovery community in West Los Angeles. Operating since 1987, her facility is the only rehab in America that combines Jewish principles and the 12 Steps, a practice she believes helps residents connect with a Higher Power while also de-stigmatizing addiction within the Jewish community. Beit T'Shuvah, which is Hebrew for "coming home," has gone on to earn national recognition in the faith-based recovery world. Now, Rossetto has released a memoir of her journey, Sacred Housekeeping: A Spiritual Memoir.
In this exclusive interview, Rossetto discusses if she feels it’s possible to overcome addiction without a Higher Power, the myths about addiction within the Jewish community and how drug use has drastically changed since Beit T’Shuvah first opened.
You originally started out working in transitional services for Jewish convicts. How did that morph into tackling drug addiction?
It became very clear that the people ending up in the prison system often suffered from some kind of addictive behavior or disorder and that their crimes were by a by-product of that. Ninety percent of these people were recidivating when they were released. There was a need to address their underlying addiction issues because the prison system certainly wasn’t doing it. Whatever problems these people had when they got in, they were worse when they got out.
Denial is part of Jewish-American culture and it’s definitely displayed in how this disease in treated.
How has Beit T’Shuvah changed over the years?
We initially envisioned Beit T’Shuvah as a halfway house for people to hopefully re-enter society and be of service but opportunities have continued to present themselves. We moved to the West side of LA 13 years ago and that allowed for a significant increase in beds. But over the years, the clientele has changed drastically. It’s a younger group because people are using drugs at younger ages these days, and we’re often getting people from affluent homes and families.
Because of that, the program has called for different approaches and the biggest one has been addressing what happens once people get sober. What do they do with their lives? We’ve found that people who stayed close to us over the years tended to stay sober so there’s been a great emphasis on providing outlets that replace the addiction and give our residents purpose. We’ve created internships and career services, as well as creative outlets such as a choir and band. There’s now a full recording studio at our facility. A group of residents also work on our marketing campaigns and social media. We’re trying to add anything that will help people engage in life and give them a purpose.
You also have the only rehab facility that combines Judaism with 12-Step principles. How do those go hand in hand?
Addiction is a spiritual malady and it needs a spiritual solution, in addition to the psychological and physical elements. We have a synagogue attached to the rehab and place a strong focus on positive psychology, as well as on other similar interventions. And our experience is that the spiritual part is just as relevant to people who aren’t Jewish as those who come from a Jewish background. People can relate to the teachings because they aren’t punitive. It’s not Orthodox practice, but rather a way to simply look at yourself and realize that you matter. Imperfections are part of life and you can flourish despite them.
Do you think it’s possible to overcome addiction without a Higher Power?
It’s certainly possible, but it’s more difficult. The Higher Power doesn’t even have to be a God. It could be love or truth. It just has to be something that isn’t purely about your own satisfaction. If you don’t have another principle or focus other than feeling good, it will be very difficult to remain sober.
You’ve said that one of your main goals is to de-stigmatize the myth that addiction doesn’t exist in the Jewish community. Why do you think the issue is often swept under the rug?
Denial is part of Jewish-American culture and it’s definitely displayed in how this disease in treated. There’s a myth of perfection and trying to avoid that which doesn’t make you look perfect. Children are the capital of families and there’s a limited scope of what you can do which will be deemed successful. For those people who don’t desire to become doctor or lawyers, or it’s simply not possible for them, there’s a tremendous amount of guilt and shame. Every single person who walks through these doors describes him or herself as the black sheep of their family.
There’s such a focus on not airing your dirty laundry and protecting your image, wondering what the neighbors will say, when the truth is that everybody’s imperfect. God created our imperfections and flaws as well.
In your book, you write about how you tell new residents that you understand their struggle. Did you ever battle addiction yourself?
I never had a drug addiction but relate to many of the people here because I felt like an outcast for much of my life. I was a mass of inner contradictions. There were parts of me that wanted to save the world and parts that didn’t feel good enough. What we teach here is how to accept all parts of self—both good and bad—and direct it towards doing good.
And I can relate to the rebellion that some of our residents have engaged in. I met my husband Mark, who’s now a Rabbi and the spiritual leader at Beit T’Shuvah, when I was working in prisons. He was in there for crimes that stemmed from his drug addiction. I was a nice girl who liked bad boys and finding a Jewish convict worked perfectly. [Laughs]
What goals do you have for Beit T’Shuvah in the next few years?
We just bought the property next door so we want to take what we’ve learned in terms of treatment and offer it as prevention to families and children. We’re also creating an educational curriculum related to that. The goal is to change our image as a place where you come after the fact to a place that teaches you how to live authentically and reconnect with Jewish values. We want people to define themselves by their self worth, not their net worth or whatever else.
And another thing I have to worry about now is that I’m 75. I need to make sure that I have the right people in place to continue the mission when I’m no longer able to. Succession and sustainability are the two main priorities right now.
What advice would you give to people who are in recovery now?
Accept that there is no perfection and that recovery really is one day at a time. It’s a struggle and there are often relapses but as long as you’re continuing the fight, you’re in recovery. Also realize that addiction isn’t about the substances, but about the self fighting the self. Find a place of acceptance where the selves cooperate. And find a passion that will give your life meaning and purpose.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.