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The Miracles and the Wandering of “The Jewish Jail Lady and the Holy Thief”

Who would ever believe that a Jewish Felon and a Promiscuous Divorcée could come together to create and maintain vibrant nonprofit that saves countless lives? Who could then conceive of a time when they would be exiled from their own organization for being politically incorrect?

By John Lavitt

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 10-27-2022

The unexpected and brilliant love story of Harriet Rossetto and Rabbi Mark Borovitz is entirely on display in a new documentary that was screened at the 14th annual Reel Recovery Festival at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood. Forged into a documentary by Barry Rosenthal and Victor Velle, “The Jewish Jail Lady and the Holy Thief” must be seen to be believed. It is a messy, sometimes dirty, story of redemption and love. And it is well worth experiencing!

Together, after a bumpy start and one or two arguments, these two holy souls created the extraordinary legacy that is Beit T’Shuvah (the House of Return or Redemption in Hebrew). Beit T’Shuvah is a Jewish residential addiction treatment center that brings the most desperate souls back from the brink. The treatment center offers a comprehensive program of Jewish spirituality, psychotherapy, and the 12-Steps.

However, before I go any further, I am quite aware of the dangerous nature of Harriett Rossetto. You do not want to get on this formidable woman’s bad side because she is on a mission to reveal the truth no matter what. Thus, I better clarify that Harriet started the original Beit T’Shuvah at Lake Street, and this ex-con coming out of prison named Mark Borovitz joined her a bit later. She had met Mark while visiting the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino. A state prison with a questionable reputation at best, Harriet was not crazy about that visit because she had thoroughly disliked one of the inmates who confronted her with a bunch of nosy questions: a Jewish know-it-all named Mark Borovitz.

Although they bumped heads initially to the point of spiritual concussions, Mark sought out Harriet after being paroled. Needing help in the nascent days of Beit T’Shuvah and knowing that this guy was a go-getter, she took him on as her secretary. She thought if she could get her new thrift store off the ground to help support treatment costs for broke Jewish convicts, then maybe Mark could run it. As a formerly promiscuous divorcée who liked the bad boys, Harriet promised herself that she would not get involve with this guy. She had no idea that she was opening the door to the great love affair of her life.

Harriet Rossetto is The Jewish Jail Lady

But hold one second because we need to take a breather before diving deeper into their story. There needs to be a moment or two of self-revelation. First, I am not a journalist with an axe to grind, but maybe there is a debt to pay in this case. I was admitted to Beit T’Shuvah at the end of 2003 after my friends did an intervention with Rabbi Mark Borovitz. I was a broken soul, addicted to heroin and cocaine, and I was on the verge of ending it all. When the other residents at a Jewish rehab refer to you as the Holocaust survivor, you know that you look pretty bad.

Today, in 2022, I have been clean and sober for coming up on fifteen years, and my life is a true testament to the wonders of what Rabbi Mark and Harriet created together. I stayed at Beit T’Shuvah as a resident for over ten months, and I owe this couple the start of my recovery. Attending Torah Study in the morning for the first several months and becoming part of a religious community, I slowly learned how to be a human being again. Indeed, what Rabbi Mark and Harriet did so well was to build the foundations of new residents not on the sand of false promises but on the stone of hard truths.

Truth is hard because it is real, but it does not mean that it is not also loving and compassionate. Truth is what you make of it. Harriet Rossetto explains, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection. When you become part of a community of authentic, transparent people, you overcome addiction and celebrate connection.”

Moreover, another revelation must be revealed right now (I do love a little alliteration). Leonard Buschel, the founder of Writers in Treatment and the Reel Recovery Film Festival, was a counselor at Beit T’Shuvah when I was a resident. When asked about showing the documentary at the festival, Leonard said with a smile, “It is wonderful to see that the couple I used to work for as a substance abuse counselor as the subjects of such a bracing and truthful feature-length documentary. Rather than hide behind rationalizations, they reveal themselves free from the burden of vanity. Ego does not get in the way of their authenticity.”

Indeed, whether they are discussing the distant foibles of the past or the recent trauma of being exiled from the organization they created, Harriet Rossetto and Rabbi Mark Borovitz reveal themselves with the confidence of a united front. Despite being torn down by 21st century legalese because Rabbi Mark had three bad minutes and a bit of a tirade, they do not waver from each other. They do not sway from a path that has saved thousands upon thousands of lives, including my own.

Rabbi Mark Borovitz is The Holy Thief

Since he first went to rabbinical school and took up the calling, Mark Borovitz has been known as the boisterous rabbi who sometimes screams and curses at his flock. He is not your typical holy man, occasionally ranting like a prophet on a pedestal. After all, over the years, when so many have died, and even more have relapsed, Rabbi Mark has known what is at stake. He intimately understands what needs to be done.

Throughout his sober journey, Rabbi Mark Borovitz has rebuilt relationships, overcome prejudice, and struggled to save the most damaged souls. Given his track record of success, shouldn’t he be allowed a screw-up here or there? Shouldn’t the scales be balanced so that a mistake of angry words does not lead to exile after years of saving lives and doing God’s work?

Alas, in the self-righteous judgments of the 21st century, where an innuendo can lead to being canceled, it seems like fate that Rabbi Mark and Harriet would eventually pay an unfair toll. However, they did not turn on each other in that darkest moment. Harriet explains, “Yes, there could have been a tendency to turn on each other at that time, but we chose not to violate our marriage vows. When we got married, we had written a vow that we would never use the vulnerability of the other person against them in hurt or anger. We have honored that vow for thirty-two years. From our perspective, one and one make three because my relationship with God and his relationship with God is what binds us together always.”

Standing beside his beloved wife, Rabbi Mark expressed a beautiful sentiment, “The glue that held us together got even stronger. Our journey reflects what we have been doing at Beit T’Shuvah since the beginning. We continually renew our love, vows, connection, and laughter. Our relationship is our home. It is the promised land for us.”

Rabbi Mark Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto Together

Since leaving Beit T’Shuvah, if Rabbi Mark Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto have experienced a sense of wandering in the desert as the Hebrew people did after the miracles of Moses freed them from bondage in Egypt, at the very least, they have been walking together. Hand-in-hand, with determination and love, these two holy souls tell their story without blinking in “The Jewish Jail Lady and the Holy Thief.”

In the end, what percolates in me year after year is how Rabbi Mark described the Golden Calf that the Hebrew people built and worshiped when Moses left them for forty days and forty nights, the same time Noah and his family were on the Ark when the world was remade. Moses ventures up Mount Sinai to commune with God and receives the Ten Commandments. During this time, despite experiencing the miracles of their deliverance, including the parting of the Red Sea, the newly-sober Hebrew people relapse into idolatry.

In Egypt, the Apis Bull was an object of worship, and many scholars believe the Hebrews were reviving this familiar yet foreign practice in the wilderness. When Moses comes down from the mountain, he is not happy to see his people dancing around that Golden Calf. From the teachings of Rabbi Mark, the Golden Calf was a relapse by the Hebrew people into old behaviors. It was a loss of faith and a giving in to fear.

I hope I never give in to such fear and lose my footing. Today, sobriety is the foundation stone that provides this recovering soul with the freedom to live an authentic life. As trailblazers, Harriet and Rabbi Mark continue to do the same, courageously embracing a new song that vibrates across their lives with the holy chords of faith and love.