It seems like another lifetime that Mark Borovitz was hanging out with gangsters, stealing, gambling, conning and drinking. Today, the felon-turned-rabbi is a radical voice in the recovery community. Rabbi Mark Borovitz, aka The Holy Thief, has run Beit T'Shuvah with his wife, Harriet, in Venice, California, since 1988. He sat down with Renew to talk about his road to recovery; his unique treatment program; and his latest book, Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah: A Daily Spiritual Path to Wholeness.
Renew: Who are you, and what do you do?
Rabbi Mark Borovitz: I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m only 65. I’m an ex-convict, a recovering criminal and a recovering alcoholic. From the time I was little, I never felt like I belonged any place. That led me to a life of crime, a life of misery, and to making a lot of other people miserable. I lost my moral compass. I harmed so many people. Even as I tell you, and it was a long time ago, my heart’s heavy with sadness. In some ways, that never goes away. I’m always trying to get it right. That means I have to live in a way that’s congruent with decency and truth. I’ve changed my lifestyle to a lifestyle of truth, of honesty. That’s what I’ve been doing in my work. I don’t get it right all the time. I’m far from perfect, but less far than I was 30 years ago.
Renew: What is your relationship to addiction and recovery?
RMB: To me, I was never in recovery before because I didn't know I had lost anything. What I found in recovery is, I recovered my soul. I didn’t know I had lost my spirit and my spiritual home. I found a way of being that’s much more congruent with living in God’s world than trying to make everyone else live in mine. My wife and I have built a nationally renowned treatment center. For us, it’s all about how do we serve? How do we remember who we’re serving?
We help people recover their passion and discover their purpose. We’re living in a world that people feel hopeless about. That’s been the theme of our program and the theme of our living. The truth is, I’m just blessed. I really am. My line is, “Life’s not fair. Thank God.” If it were, I’d be in prison for the rest of my life. I have a daughter who is older now. The crime that I committed against her was that she couldn’t count on her father being there. I can’t imagine a worse thing.
I’ve been living my life for the past 27 ½ years dedicated to being of service — and not confusing being of service with, “I’m great.” I get to live life. I get to live life as a decent human being. That’s the who I am in a nutshell.
Renew: How did you turn from mobster to rabbi?
RMB: I was arrested for the umpteenth time. I had a bunch of money on me, so I called my first wife because I didn’t want the cops to get it. “Come pick up this money,” I said to her. “The man upstairs is trying to tell me something.” I don’t know where those words came from. They weren’t in my consciousness. So I started to read a lot of books. I started to read the Bible and prayer books. I was raised Jewish, so It wasn’t foreign to me. I realized this wasn’t the life God had in store for me. Once I realized that, it became quite apparent to me that I had to do something different.
I started to study. I have a brother who is a rabbi. I studied with the chaplain in prison. I realized I had to accept my life had meaning beyond the crap that I was living it with. I got out of prison. I came to work at Beit T'Shuvah. I met my wife. In 1995, I finished my college education. It took me 26 years to get a degree! The University of Judaism opened in Los Angeles. I applied, and they said yes, which was fairly surprising. In Judaism, there is this concept of repentance, returning and response. They saw I made a big change in my life and believed I was deserving of another chance. That’s what I’ve been doing with other people all these years: making sure they get the second and third and fourth chances that they need.
Renew: How do you combine your knowledge of Torah and your street smarts to help recovering addicts find their way in the world?
RMB: Everything that happens to us happened thousands of years ago as well. Look at Adam and Eve. What happened with Adam and Eve is they made a mistake, they went against a direction, and they figured they had to hide. Hmm. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Every time I made a mistake, I thought I had to hide it. The lie is that I thought I could hide it. I started to see all this as relevant to our story.
From there, I started to realize that all of scripture is about helping us live well. When you’re doing that and engaged in that, everything in life changes. Life became doable. What used to be baffling, I had a place to go to search for solutions. That’s what was so amazing. What I thought was unsolvable, all of a sudden, I had answers to problems that used to baffle me.
The idea of how am I hiding? Where are you? What are you doing? I have to ask myself how am I responding to that. As my responses get better and stronger, my life gets better and stronger. I teach that to people. To some people, it’s foreign. To me, it’s duh. Of course God’s calling. You can call it whatever you like; I don’t get hung up on that. There’s a force in this world that is constantly calling me: Mark, you’re important. Mark, you can do better. As I remember that, my life gets better. Once we hear the call, everything becomes clear. Once clarity happens, we’re home free. I help people hear the messages the universe is calling to them.
I used to want to live everyone else’s life. Today, I am thrilled for everyone else’s success, but I love my life. That’s the biggest change in me. Not needing to live their lives has allowed me to live and flourish in mine.
Renew: What makes the Beit T'Shuvah program special?
RMB: Everybody has a spiritual counselor, an addiction counselor and a therapist. The opposite of addiction is connection. My recovery is based on connection. I translate holiness as connection as well. I always remember that I’m connected. In a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible. Living that is really hard and really exciting. I can see that I matter. That’s the other big thing: helping people see and understand that they matter. Most of us live a life of quiet desperation, and I think it’s time we appreciate and revel in the joy that we can get from life.
I was sitting with somebody and saying to them, “You matter.” They started to cry: “Are you sure? Are you really sure?” I said, “Of course, I’m really sure.” “How do you know?” the asked. I said, “Because my world would be so much worse off without you.” The person sat there, and he just kept crying. I said, “Stop for a minute. Where would your sister, mother, brother be if you weren’t here?” He looked at me and said, “I never thought I mattered.”
That’s the thing. We have this lie we tell ourselves that we don’t matter. The truth is, everybody matters. Every individual is important. We’ve lost that knowledge. In losing that knowledge, we’ve made it into a world where nothing matters. Our job is to remind people they matter and to help them flourish. My world is less if you’re not here. As that dawns on somebody, how they matter, the level of recognition causes them to really be different people. Then that’s where recovery really happens.
Renew: What is its underlying message of your new book?
RMB: The underlying message is we have to recover the questions. We’ve spent a lifetime, most of us, having the wrong questions and the right answers. If my questions aren’t the right questions, then I kind of missed the point. The new book is really about how to make sure I don’t miss the point. The point being we matter.
It’s about finding the right question. If I can find the right question, then the rest of it doesn’t matter. As I find the right questions, then all of sudden, I can find the right question to ask you so your life is better. The book is about finding the right questions. For example, if the question I ask myself is, “How do I numb myself from the pain of being human?” Then drugs and alcohol are the right answers. If I ask myself, “How do I go through this pain instead of run away from it?” Then drugs and alcohol aren’t the right answer. The cover says, “You will be holy.” It means it’s already started. Where am I at on my holy journey? I’m not hung up on getting it right. I’m on a journey.