It seems like the setup for a corny joke: A rabbi and an ex-con walk into a room. Except here's the punch line: They're one and the same.
Rabbi Mark Borovitz, 60, runs Beit T'Shuvah, a residential treatment center and Jewish congregation in an otherwise nondescript building in an equally average section of Culver City. And though he looks every bit the part now — he has the gray suit, full beard, glasses, steady eyes, calm voice — as a teen growing up in a lower-middle-class Jewish home in Cleveland, he didn't necessarily exhibit traits one associates with a rabbinical scholar.
Borovitz was in his teens when his father died. As the third of four children and the oldest still living at home, he needed to help his mother and sister. His barber, who had ties to the local mob, gave him stolen goods to sell on consignment. It didn't take long for Borovitz to get hooked on crime.
In time, he would work as a thief, gambler, gangster and con man. He was also an alcoholic. Drinking, he says, just came with the territory.
“I lived a good part of my life, both as a criminal and even in sobriety, always feeling half a step off,” Borovitz says.
He's about to prepare for a traditional Friday-night service to welcome the Sabbath, and while the halls outside his cluttered, book-lined office may be lacking in lavish decor, they are certainly not missing bodies. There is a constant buzz of last-minute commotion.
“I didn't have a purpose. And because I felt that I was defective from this place of being half a step off, I didn't matter, and nothing mattered,” he adds. “Because my net worth and my self-worth were so tied up, when I made money, when I made a score, I was something. When I was broke, I was nothing.”
Borovitz eventually made his way to Southern California to help one of his brothers, who'd been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He married, had a daughter and spent his days in and out of jail, selling used cars, drinking, hustling and stealing.
But then, in 1986, he was busted again. For reasons Borovitz still cannot explain, he told his wife not to get a bail bondsman. “The man upstairs is trying to tell me something,” he told her. “I have to sit here until I figure it out.”
Borovitz eventually was transferred from county jail to Chino State Prison. Like many before him, he reconnected with religion on the inside. His other brother, Neal, also happens to be a rabbi –“When he was going to be a rabbi, what could I do except be a crook,” Borovitz jokes. “I mean, you can't measure up, right?”
Rabbi Neal gave his brother the Torah text and a prayer book. Borovitz also studied as an inmate rabbi's clerk.
Reconnecting spiritually wasn't the only way Borovitz's life changed while inside. He also met Harriet Rossetto, a social worker with the Jewish Committee for Personal Service, who was visiting the Chino facility as part of the Jewish Jail Ladies outreach program.
Rossetto had a dream to create a place for Jewish ex-cons and addicts to integrate back into society. She opened Beit T'Shuvah in 1987. After his release from prison, in 1988, Borovitz came to work as the center's rabbi. He got divorced and, two years later, Rossetto and Borovitz were wed.
Borovitz's autobiography, The Holy Thief, co-written with Alan Eisenstock, was released in 2004. Television director/producer Jack Bender (Lost, Alcatraz) has purchased the movie rights.
“I always believed in God,” Borovitz says. “I was never agnostic. I didn't pay much attention to him, but I've always believed in God. What I learned is that God believes in me, too.”
Beit T'Shuvah's philosophy is based on what Borovitz calls “relevant Judaism.” He uses his own program of spiritual recovery and religious teaching, which is based on both traditional scholarship and the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. The facility has 145 people living in the dorms for a minimum of 30 days (most people average three to 18 months). It regularly hosts a packed house on Friday nights and Saturday mornings for the weekly Jewish prayer services.
Not everything has been perfect. In an event of unfortunate irony for a thief-turned-rabbi, the endowment for Beit T'Shuvah was invested with Bernard Madoff, which cost the center as much as $300,000 in 2008. It has since recovered some of the money, and Borovitz believes it will get it all eventually.
He knows that a Jewish recovery center doesn't fit the stereotypes of his religion; the recovery movement is more associated with Christianity. “Part of that is the born-again” teaching, he says, the idea of reinvention. Judaism is different. Although it celebrates flaws, he says, “The myth was 'shikker iz a goy' — or 'The drunk is a non-Jew.' Nobody talked about it. It was too shameful.
“I think society, in general … everybody wants to be perfect,” Borovitz adds. “I think probably in L.A., New York, your bigger cities, it's harder. I mean, look at what we do. We make people heroes, and then we tear them down as soon as they have flaws. In recovery we help people embrace their imperfections, find their passions and discover a purpose.”
This is essentially what Borovitz did for his career path: He took his love for the thrill of the score and redirected the energy toward a more positive direction.
Now, he says, “I hustle for God. I do whatever it takes to help people come back to life.”
He adds, “I get a bigger rush than any con I ever ran.”