‘Freedom Song’ is story of recovery

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Twenty-two people, most of them young, took to the stage during the annual Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education at Washington University. Dressed in black and white, with a bare-bones set, they sang and told their version of an age-old story about an escape from bondage. In this case, the escape was not from slavery under a pharaoh, but from the slavery of addiction.

Freedom Song is a musical play about recovery from alcoholism and addiction that draws parallels between Passover and the personal fights of addicts to free themselves from the slavery of addictive behavior.

The play was presented at last week’s annual Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, presented by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education conference. The CAJE conference took place at Washington University from Aug. 2-9.

What made the play such a powerful experience was the cast. All cast members are recovering addicts or alcoholics who have been or are now part of the treatment program at Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, or members of the program’s staff. Beit T’Shuvah, literally “house of cleansing,” is a Jewish congregation and a unique addiction treatment and prevention program.

The play presents two groups of people, side-by-side on stage. On one side is a twelve-step meeting, where members confront their obstacles to recovery including a man who is estranged from his angry, abused wife, and on the other is a family’s Passover Seder, where a daughter, who had been kicked out for a substance abuse problem, returns unexpectedly home. Using songs ranging from rap to religious music, and with emotional honesty and informal staging, Freedom Song sometimes echoes the Broadway hit Rent. Each individual in the cast shares his or her story of struggles with addiction. The play uses the Passover story as a metaphor for their bondage to addiction.

Rabbi Mark Borovitz and Beit T’Shuvah produced the play as part of their Partners in Prevention educational outreach. The musical aims to educate members of the general community, especially young people, about addiction and recovery.

“Beit T’Shuvah is still the only Jewish faith-based residential addiction recovery center in the United States,” said Rabbi Borovitz, who leads the Beit T’Shuvah congregation. “We combine Judaism, twelve-step and psychotherapy.”

“The Beit T-Shuvah treatment program is the creation of Harriet Rossetto, who is a licensed clinical social worker,” he said. “She came up with the idea, followed it through, and is the guiding spirit of the program. We have been in business for twenty-two years now and have had tremendous success. We have impacted and saved thousands of lives and souls, not just of those who are addicted but their families.”

Rabbi Borovitz believes that too many in the Jewish community think that addiction, and all the troubles that can follow, is something that does not happen to them. The Beit T’Shuvah website calls it “the not-so-secret secret” that Jews struggle with addiction just like anyone else.

“That is not so much a problem here,” said Rabbi James Stone Goodman, of Congregation Neve Shalom in Creve Coeur. “Because we have been doing our program for so long.”

While St. Louis does not have a program like Beit T’Shuvah, Rabbi Goodman runs an addiction support group in our area, which he has headed since 1981. “I can tell you from my own experience that denial is not as big a problem now as it was in 1981.”

Rabbi Goodman is the founder and director of Shalvah (serenity in Hebrew), an outreach program that offers support and education about addiction and recovery. He runs a support group that works with addiction treatment programs. “People only come to my program on a volunteer basis,” said Goodman, referring to the fact that Beit T’Shuvah often works with the courts and justice system in treating ex-offenders. “(Rabbi Borovitz’s) program is doing treatment; we’re doing support. But there is always a need for more treatment programs.”

Goodman also said he encouraged members of his group to also attend 12-step programs for their alcoholism and addiction, while his program offered spiritual healing from addiction.

Rabbi Goodman knows Beit T’Shuvah’s work well. “Many, maybe most, of the participants in my group attended the show on Monday and they were very impressed,” said Rabbi Goodman. “One of the members of my group is actually a graduate of the Beit T’Shuvah program.”

The basic structure of Freedom Song was written by Stuart K. Robinson, from material suggested by Rabbi Borovitz. The music and lyrics are by James Fuchs and Rebekah Mirsky, the cantor at Beit T’Shuvah. Robinson also directed the play. According to Rabbi Borovitz, another essential part of the play is the discussion with the audience afterwards.

The play also draws on the personal stories of the cast and other people involved. “The cast are all graduates or current residents of Beit T’Shuvah, and always have been,” Borovitz said. “The beauty is, that of the original cast of 23…80 percent of them are still sober. Eighty percent of them are doing well. Eighty percent of them, over 80 percent, of them are living great lives. Some of them are still in the play, some of them have moved on and we have replaced them with people. We have, I think, six people total who have relapsed into addiction. There are many cast members who have said this play has kept them sober, because it has given them a purpose.”

Since elements of the individual experiences of the performers are integrated into the story, it is always changing. It also is part of the play’s emotional power.

“The inspiration (for Freedom Song) was a program that Craig Taubman was doing in LA called ‘Let Freedom Sing,’ revolving around Passover,” said Rabbi Borovitz. “So he called me and said, listen, let’s do something from Beit T’Shuvah about addiction, because he has been involved with us and knows we talk about addiction and Passover, that addiction is today’s Egypt.” Soon Rabbi Borovitz had recruited composer James Fuchs and Cantor Rebekah Mirsky, and found a writer and director, Stuart Robinson.

“We started in October ’05 and we had about another 5-7 people involved. By January, when we knew we were going to do this we had a cast of about 23,” said Borovitz. “We started it in Passover ’06 and people just started calling us to get it performed. We have done it with so many groups and we keep repeating it, repeating it, because it is always changing. Craig Taubman calls it ‘the real Rent.'”

This performance was the first time that Freedom Song had been performed outside California. Harriet Rossetto, founder of the Beit T’Shuvah treatment program, was very excited about taking the play’s message to other cities.

“This is a great jumping off point for my prevention program,” said Rossetto. “We are really happy (to be here) because in this play …we are talking about things the Jewish community experiences but isn’t comfortable to talk about, and we are really trying to part that Red Sea.”

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