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Recovering rabbi gives back through spiritual advisement

April 1, 2015
by Julia Brown, Associate Editor
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Paul Steinberg is a transformative educator and rabbi, and has been for over a decade. He’s also a recovering alcoholic. As someone who once struggled to merge both aspects of himself, he has found solace in helping others as an educator and spiritual adviser at Beit T’Shuvah, a residential treatment center and Jewish spiritual community in Los Angeles, Calif.

Originally founded as a transitional home for Jewish inmates in 1987, Beit T’Shuvah has 145 beds for adults struggling with addictions and is named after the Jewish practice of repentance, returning to one’s core, and the belief that every person can atone for their transgressions. Its name literally translates to “The House of Return.”

Steinberg made his return in 2014, but it took a while to get to where he is now.    

While studying at the University of Arizona in the early nineties, Steinberg had a mid-college crisis and stopped seeing the reason to go to class. With little faith in the world, he dropped out of school and took a year and a half off to travel, working in odd jobs. That’s when he had a spiritual awakening.

“It occurred to me that either everything in life is completely meaningless, or everything in life is completely meaningful,” he says. “I made a conscious decision that I wanted to live a meaningful life, and dedicate that meaning to learning. What greater meaning could there be than being a learner and being a teacher—giving back what you’ve learned?”

While getting his master’s in education in 2000, he met a rabbi who suggested pursuing rabbinical school. This path had never occurred to Steinberg. “I was touched by spirituality and re-engaging my own Judaism as a spiritual path; I didn’t know what else to do with myself, so I said okay,” he says with a laugh.

Not your cookie-cutter rabbi
While in rabbinical school, Steinberg noticed that he wasn’t like his classmates. As someone who was an athlete in high school, didn’t go to Jewish youth movement events, went to parties on weekends and got into occasional trouble, he didn’t quite fit in.

“They were straight and narrow their whole [lives]. I used to call them “cookie-cutter rabbis,” he says. “That was my judgment, but really it was a mask for my own insecurity.”

Steinberg decided to pursue education over the large, suburban pulpit environment and became a principal of a Jewish private school in 2004, but eventually decided to continue his learning.

Discovering that he enjoyed writing, he became a published author, eventually taking on a three-volume series on Jewish holidays that earned the National Jewish Book Award. As a result, the job opportunities came rolling in.

“It’s a small world, the rabbi world,” he says. “After four years I finally took [a job] and it was exactly the large, suburban, flagship synagogue in Los Angeles that I had vowed I would never go to.”

In this role, Steinberg said there was a lot of hypocrisy, and previous feelings of being an imposter returned. 

“I was having a lot of negative thinking; I wasn’t experiencing the joy,” he says. “The work at the end of the day was meaningful and important, but not in the deepest possible way, and I didn’t know who to talk to about the doubts I was having.”

Steinberg became a ‘Yes Man,’ working harder in order to gain validation through credentials. He went back for his doctorate, became a university professor and served on several boards.

But Steinberg knew exactly where to go to blow off steam, remembering his days of attending weekend keg parties. He began to live a double life. Describing himself as a workaholic by day and alcoholic by night, this pattern eventually evolved into him being a workaholic and alcoholic by day and by night. 

After years, Steinberg was intervened by the people he worked closest to and went to the Betty Ford Center for six weeks. “I hated them for saving my life, basically,” he says.

Upon his return, Mark Borovitz, Steinberg's current boss and head rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah, supported him coming clean to the congregation. However, his boss at the time wanted to keep things under wraps.

Steinberg became isolated again, having feelings of self-doubt and being disconnected. Four months later, he keynoted a national conference for the Jewish Educators Assembly and two weeks later he was intervened and in rehab again. Steinberg called Borovitz and asked for a bed.

Treatment in the Jewish population
Beit T’Shuvah aligns the spiritual principles of Judaism with the anonymous programs. Steinberg says that its denomination is “just Jewish” and that all are welcome, adding that non-Jews often frequent synagogue and seek treatment there.

Of all Beit T’Shuvah clientele, he says Orthodox residents tend to have the most trauma after leaving their tight-knit communities because of the stigma of addiction. “But the bottom line is that the people [we] serve have all the same problems that every other American has, including everything on the spectrum of addiction,” he says.

Steinberg says treatment at Beit T’Shuvah is voluntary and worked out loud in front of 350 people as part of Friday night services.

 “You stand up in front of everybody and are ritually welcomed into the house by the community,” he says. “This could be a guy who’s kicking heroin that day or a girl who has just gotten out of prison.”

Sober birthdays are also celebrated during services. Steinberg says the congregation is primarily made up of residents, alumni, families and friends, synagogue members and the occasional Jews that stumble in because they don’t like the status quo of the traditional synagogue world.