MY JOURNEY FROM MOBSTER TO RABBI – A STORY OF ADDICTION, CRIME AND REDEMPTION

Rabbi Mark Borovitz

“Hi, my name is Mark Borovitz and I am an alcoholic in recovery with a pure soul.”

I have been saying this for more than twenty-seven years, since my release from incarceration at the California Institution for Men in Chino, California. I was at my lowest point in December 1986, when LAPD Detective, Jim Bashira, arrested me. He had already arrested me once, in January 1981; so when he saw a wanted poster for me in November 1986, my identity was flagged in his memory. It took only enough time for him to round a corner in his police cruiser and see me crossing that very same street, for everything to come together in his mind. I was taken into custody for the umpteenth time. In jail again, I called my wife at the time. Familiar with the drill, she asked me which bondsman she should call. This time my answer was very different. “Don’t call anyone,” I told her, “the Man Upstairs is trying to tell me something and I have to sit here until I can figure it out.”

I grew up as a nice Jewish boy in Cleveland, Ohio, in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I was not abused as a child and my parents, grandparents and extended family were fine, upstanding citizens. I had two older brothers (one died in 2001 from complications related to multiple sclerosis) and a younger sister. Yet, my earliest memories are of being acutely aware that I did not feel like I fit in anywhere – not with my family, not at school and not in my synagogue community. My inner feeling of not being “good enough,” kept me feeling separate. My father, Jerry Borovitz of blessed memory, always told me that I was worthy and valued and helped me deal with life, but I never found a place of acceptance of myself, or my place in the world.

Like many kids, I stole little things, mostly giving away what I took to “buy” friends. After my father’s death when I was fourteen years old, my mother found herself strapped for cash. To help my family I went to school, went to an after school job, and started reselling merchandise that had been stolen by the Mafia. I found that having money made me feel more at ease. I found that drinking made me feel more at ease. I no longer felt like an oddball when I had money and booze on or in me. In my teenage years, I was doing these illegal activities as well as going to temple and saying prayers for my father, and serving as the president of my youth group. I was split having two separate identities but I could not see the incongruous nature of my life. This divide inside of me kept growing larger. I had to leave Cleveland when I learned someone wanted to “take out a contract” and have me killed! I came to Los Angeles, CA, and continued on with my divided ways: I got married and had the most wonderful daughter; and also continued committing crimes and drinking heavily. Nothing stopped me: not love, not negative consequences, not legal penalties, nothing- that is, until that day in December 1986.

From prison, I called my brother Neal who has been a rabbi since 1976 and asked him to send me a Hebrew Bible and a Jewish prayer book. I also began working with the prison chaplain, Rabbi Mel Silverman, of blessed memory, and began my journey of finding my authentic self. Since February 1987, I have studied and prayed each day. I have grown out of being a rebellious, angry teenager and
grown into a responsible adult. My path has been one of integration and I continue to unite the wisdom I have found in Judaism, the spiritual principles of 12-Step programs, and other faith traditions with “street smarts” and my innate sense about business and how to make a deal. I work hard each day to see the divine image in each person and the spiritual principles at play in every situation.

I have been fortunate enough to be profoundly impacted by many teachers; there are so many who have contributed to my recovery, from finding my calling to work in criminal rehabilitation and addiction treatment, to becoming an ordained rabbi in 2000, and to my current position as CEO and Senior Rabbi for Beit T’Shuvah, a successful nonprofit, long-term treatment center in Los Angeles. I certainly would not have found my way without a lot of help along the path and there is one person who has been a constant companion in my search to find wholeness- my daughter, Heather Garrett. When she was six years old she wrote me a letter while I was in prison for the last time:

“Daddy, I hate you because you are part of me and when you are in prison, part of me is in prison and I didn’t do anything to be in prison. Love, Heather.”
I had already made the decision to change and listen to where God was trying to guide me, but this letter solidified my resolve. For the first time, I realized how much I mattered to my daughter. This experience led me to a new and overwhelming understanding: You Matter! This is the first teaching that I impart to new clients at Beit T’Shuvah. We all matter, everything we do has an impact on other people, the world around us, and ourselves.

I have had the honor and privilege of teaching and learning with many people who have made me the man I am today. One of the gifts of this journey is that I can honor my father’s memory and life principles. I have also received the immense gift of becoming a proud and committed father, no longer trapping my only child in my own imprisonment.

My journey from criminal to rabbi has involved so many people and experiences, they are far too numerous to name and too rich to fully describe. I am grateful for everyone. Trying to listen to what God is telling me continues to be a daily practice. I cannot always hear or understand, but I am a lot farther along the path than I was when I first started seeking that guidance almost thirty years ago. Thank you, God, for always searching for me, for finding me, and for speaking to me in a way that I can understand. My prayer is that this article speaks to all of you in ways you can understand.

Rabbi Mark Borovitz is the author of The Holy Thief and the newly released book Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah: A Daily Spiritual Path to Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing) Rabbi Mark is the senior Rabbi and CEO of Beit T’Shuvah, a non-profit, non-sectarian, Jewish Addiction Treatment Center and Synagogue community in Los Angeles, CA.