HomeNovember 2011Freedom Song

Freedom Song

The Selichot Service is a time for introspection and penitent prayers in preparation for the work of t’shuvah (repentance).  At University Synagogue, the Selcihot Service has always been preceded by a musical or dramatic performance in keeping with that theme.  It was, therefore, a most appropriate venue for the special presentation of Beit T’Shuvah’s Freedom Song, a dramatic presentation dealing with addiction.
“Every year for the last several years,” said Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, “we have had at least one program regarding 12-step programs here at University Synagogue.  Over time I learned that a number of families in our community had children who were addicted to substances and that many of them had dealt with these issues through the Beit T’Shuvah program.  When I heard about Freedom Song, I wanted to have it performed here at the right moment, and Selichot was that moment.  Carol Richmond, educator and co-founder of University Synagogue, and Education Director Sue Penn of University Synagogue, contacted Jessica Fishel, Freedom Song coordinator, and arranged for the performance this past Selichot.
Freedom Song is an innovative musical set in a Jewish context that follows the inspiring real-life stories of 18 addicts who share a Passover night – very different from any other.  Centered on a family Passover seder, the play highlights the parallels between the freedom from addiction and the freedom from slavery.  As the Haggadah stresses the imperative for storytelling, the play asserts that that the process of storytelling can be a powerful tool — even if the story is shameful.
The staging juxtaposes a 12-step meeting with a family seder.  As the story unfolds, the audience witnesses the seemingly happy family’s enslavement to its idea of normal, and family members keeping secrets about themselves.  On the other side of the stage, the addicts share their tales of deception and self-sabotage.  Audience members are forced to look at themselves rather than pointing a finger at everyone else.
“The idea here,” said Richmond, “is that we are seeing people confronting their specific addictions and challenging themselves to change.  We all have ‘addictions’ of some sort, and this is the time of the Jewish year when we can do the same with those addictions that are not as overt.”
Freedom Song was written nearly seven years ago, and was based on the real-life stories of Beit T’Shuvah residents.  This original production was written by Stu Robinson, Cantor Rebekah Mirsky and James Fuchs and produced by Craig Taubman, Rabbi Mark Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto, LCSW and clinical director.  The play was originally conceived as a one-time production, but has been performed continually since then to thousands of people at synagogues, schools and other organizations across the country.  Each new round of actors writes the stories into the script to reflect a true journey.  As such, it is a living and evolving work.
While the show serves as a form of therapy for the actors, it is also a catalyst for the audience to participate in a dialogue with the cast and share stories.  And so, after the performance, many people from the congregation spoke of their experiences, as well as their anxieties.  One 15-year-old girl expressed her concern about being in an environment where drugs are so prevalent.  The “just say no” approach is not always helpful to an adolescent.  Members of the cast, many of whom had become addicted when they were her age, expressed empathy and offered encouragement and some tips on how to avoid becoming involved.  Honesty and a good relationship with her family were emphasized.
One family who had two young adults, who were addicted, much to their parents’ surprise, spoke about the alienation and estrangement of addiction.  Through Beit T’shuva they not only became sober but came closer to Judaism, are productive members of the community and most importantly, reconciled with their families.
Beit T’Shuvah is an outgrowth of the Jewish Committee for Personal Service (JCPS), an organization started in 1921 by a small group of rabbis and social workers to “serve Jews who were serving time.”  The original mission was to provide transitional living and reentry services to Jewish men being released from jails and prisons.  Over the years, the program has broadened in scope to reach out to Jews who may have had no legal problems but who are struggling with a wide range of addictive behaviors.  Today its mission has expanded to “restore lost souls and return them to themselves, their families and the community through a healing community of Jewish spirituality, 12-step recovery and psychotherapy.”
In 1999, Beit T’Shuvah moved into its campus at 8831 Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles.  It is both a residential treatment center and a full-service congregation offering religious services, holiday celebrations and study.  Today, there are almost 140 residents and more than 2,500 community members who participate in Beit T’Shuvah spiritual and educational programs every year.  Additionally, the treatment center offers outreach to the entire community, including prevention programs, family and alumni counseling and support, court advocacy and professional training.
Beit T’Shuvah has earned local and national recognition as a leader in the field of faith-based recovery.  In an area where the success rate hovers around 30 percent, Beit T’Shuvah achieves twice that.  “Addiction is a condition in which there is chronic relapse,” Rossetto said in an interview three years ago.  “It’s very difficult to give up the thing that makes you feel the best in the world.  And a different way of living is very challenging.  Untreated, the success rate is about 15 percent.  Here, we have a success rate of between 60 percent and 70 percent.”
“Over two hundred people attended the performance,” said Rachlis.  “Everyone was able to identify with the emotions of being alienated and looking for the quick fix.  But the enduring message remains that the only way through the wilderness is by making the journey, and Beit T’Shuvah is making that possible for hundreds in our Jewish community.”
For more information about Beit T’Shuvah, visit the website at http://www.beittshuvah.org.   For more information about the special programs at University Synagogue visit the website at http://www.universitysynagogue.org.


  1. […] Freedom Song « Orange County Jewish LifeShe also had a small role on "Harry and the Hendersons," playing Jessica. Fishel’s mother eventually became her full-time manager. In 1993, at the age of 12, … […]


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here