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Arts & Culture from Prison to the Pulpit: ‘holy Thief’ Ministers to Recovering Jewish Addicts

In the world of unusual life stories, Rabbi Mark Borovitz’s ranks near the top. Sixteen years ago, Borovitz sat in a prison cell, a convicted con man who had lived a life on the edge. An expert at devilish check-writing scams, Borovitz’s life had gone off track with the help of gambling and alcohol.

Twelve years later, Borovitz, in an extraordinary life turnaround, stood tall before family, friends, colleagues and his wife, Harriet, in a ceremony at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles in which he was ordained as a rabbi.

The unusual — and unlikely — path that led Borovitz to that religious pinnacle and to his leadership of Beit T’Shuvah, or house of return, a residential rehabilitation center in Los Angeles, is chronicled in his new book, “The Holy Thief: A Con Man’s Journey from Darkness to Light,” written with Alan Eisenstock.

The story largely is told in Borovitz’s own voice, a thoroughly unique blend of soulful insight mixed with a dose of street-smart profanity. “Holy Thief,” which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, also includes narratives from family, colleagues and friends who have traveled the journey with Rabbi Mark, as he is now known.

In an extended conversation this summer with JTA, before the book’s publication, Borovitz traced his descent into a hardened criminal life to the loss of his father when Borovitz and his brother were young boys, growing up in a Jewish family in Cleveland. It was, Borovitz said, a seminal moment for him.

“When my father died, I lost my anchor. My father was my compass,” Borovitz recalled. “I was screwing around but nothing that bad prior to his death. After his death, it was like, what’s the use?”

From an early age, Borovitz said he connected with synagogue life and with davening, or praying.

He also was deeply attracted to the racier lifestyle of his uncle, who owned a series of bars and strip clubs.

“I began to notice similarities between bars and synagogues,” Borovitz writes. “They were both comfort zones, welcoming places where people, usually men, would gather every day to gossip, to complain, to ask for help.

“To me, they were both holy places.”

In the first seven chapters, Borovitz relives the details of his hustling life. With remarkable insight, Borovitz reveals what he calls the “sins” of his past with the fast-paced punch of a crime novel.

Throughout it all, Borovitz writes, he continued to go to synagogue, though as his drinking increased, his attendance waned.

One Yom Kippur, after leaving Ohio State University, Borovitz was turned away at his synagogue’s door by a friend of his father. “I can’t let you in without a ticket,” he was told.

“Half an hour. Just to say Kaddish,” Borovitz implored.

But his plea went unheard. The incident ended with profanity and left a lasting impression on Borovitz, who said he did not set foot in a synagogue again for 10 years.

“I look back on it today with the same anger and frustration and disgust that I had then,” Borovitz said. “At Beit T’Shuvah, we never turn anyone away who needs help. I’ll never stop anyone from showing up because you never know what they might need.”

Borovitz left Cleveland for Los Angeles, but the new location provided only a change of scenery for his criminal activity, and it was in L.A. that Borovitz first served time in prison.

His no-turning-back moment is part ethereal, part made for screen. After getting busted for a second time, Borovitz writes, he was sitting in the back seat of a police cruiser and studying his handcuffed hands when he realized he had to find another purpose.

It was also, Borovitz writes, a moment of divine intervention. “I knew I was being led,” he writes, describing the moments leading up to his arrest as his Red Sea, his miracle, God calling to him. “I believe we have choice.”

During his second stint in prison, Borovitz changed course, developing a close relationship with Rabbi Mel Silverman, a chaplain he’d met and worked for during his first jail term.

Borovitz describes an exchange he had with Silverman when he had been struggling with a passage from the Torah. “What do you want to study?” Silverman asked Borovitz. “I want to learn how to be better,” Borovitz

replied.

While in prison, Borovitz also met his now wife, Harriet. She was a social worker with a life story as engaging as Borovitz’s and had just started Beit T’Shuvah, in hopes of offering some structured program for Jewish ex-convicts.

On Nov. 1, 1988, Borovitz’s 37th birthday, he left prison for the last time, having served almost two years of his four-year sentence. He also walked away from the life he’d led, seeking out Harriet and Beit T’Shuvah, which was still in its infancy and struggling to survive.

Sixteen years and a sea change later, Beit T’Shuvah is their shared world, an established and unique residential treatment center that includes daily Torah study and Friday night services. Borovitz is Beit T”Shuvah’s work-around-the-clock rabbinical leader.

“I’m blessed,” Borovitz said of his calling, which is “hands-on, person to person. I’m able to use facets of the tradition every day in my work. It’s just joyous.”

Echoing a description by his friend, Rabbi Ed Weinstein — who at Borovitz’s ordination dubbed Borovitz the “holy thief” — Borovitz said, “Without a doubt, I am a wrestler. I wrestle with how to live my authentic soul script. How do I make sure that I don’t let inauthentic needs stand in the way of really serving humanity. I’m always wrestling to make sure I hear God’s call and that I answer by saying, ‘Hineni,’ Here I am.”

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