Joe isn’t the kind of guy who springs to mind when most people think of a typical drug addict.
The son of a prominent rabbi and graduate of Talmudic Academy, Beth Tfiloh Dahan High School and the University of Maryland, Joe — who did not want his last name published — is a 32-year-old attorney who lives in Northwest Baltimore with his wife and baby.
He seems to have his act together, but that wasn’t always the case.
“In my early 20s, after returning to Baltimore after college, I developed a prescription painkiller addiction, which eventually led to using street drugs,” he says. “I spent several years in and out of recovery.”
Eventually, Joe found his way to Beit T’shuvah, a residential treatment facility for Jewish and non-Jewish addicts in Los Angeles founded by Rabbi Mark Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto. After seven months of treatment there, he discovered that “the opposite of addiction is connection. I learned that connection with my family, friends and community were key to my recovery and to recovering my passion and purpose in life.”
Personal connections feature prominently in “Freedom Song,” an original musical to be performed in the Offit Auditorium at Pikesville’s Beth El Congregation on Nov. 7 from 7-9 p.m. Preceding the show at 6:45 p.m. will be a performance by the Helping Up Mission Choir of Baltimore.
Co-sponsored by Beth El, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Jewish Community Services, the Maryland Faith Network, Sol Levinson & Bros., The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore and other groups, the show is inspired by the true stories of recovering addicts treated at Beit T’shuvah.
Originally conceived in 2006, as part of a Los Angeles-based Passover festival, “Freedom Song” was written by former residents of Beit T’Shuvah, with Rabbi Borovitz and Stuart K. Robinson, and features original music and lyrics by Rebekah Mirsky and James Fuchs. The play explores being a slave to addiction and how addicts can free themselves from the disease and its self-destructive behaviors.
The production not only raises awareness about addiction but is also therapeutic for the approximately 450 recovering addicts who have performed in the play since its first production.
“It’s tremendous,” says Jessica Fishel, producer of “Freedom Song.” “It teaches people to make a commitment, to give back, to show up!
“We’ve had people in the show for eight years, and others for three months,” she says. “On average, people stay in it for six months to a year, but we’ll drag them back for performances sometimes. We say, ‘Once you’re in the play, you’re never out.’”
Most of the performers in the play are not professional actors or musicians. But Fishel says the show is “so real that it doesn’t feel like people are acting.”
The staging of “Freedom Song” is part of the play’s power. “One side of the stage is a family Passover seder; the other side is a 12-step meeting,” says director Michael Kamenir. “[In both scenarios] we find out that things are seldom what they seem. The family at the seder has a daughter in recovery who has been estranged. On the other side, the 12-step meeting shows the challenges and triumphs of people in recovery. The play shows the wreckage addiction can cause, the damage, anger, denial and shame … and finally the acceptance, healing and hope. That’s a huge part. As we recover and become better human beings, our families can recover and become stronger.”
Kamenir says the show is, first and foremost, a vehicle for discussion during the post-show discussion with the cast, crew and Beit T’Shuvah founders Rabbi Borovitz and Rossetto. That’s something Louis “Buddy” Sapolsky, former executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, says is crucial.
Sapolsky says he wishes he saw “Freedom Song” years ago when his own daughter was struggling with substance abuse. Now that she is in recovery and flourishing, he says it’s his mission to “do everything we can to help others” who find themselves in similar situations.
“We have to help people in the Jewish community to become aware and know what to do when they’re confronted with this,” says Sapolsky.
A Beth El congregant, Sapolsky says he is grateful that the synagogue’s Rabbi Steven Schwartz was willing to take a lead in co-sponsoring “Freedom Song.”
“When a faith leader like Rabbi Schwartz gets behind this and communicates to his congregation that this is important, that can have a huge impact on people,” Sapolsky says.
Howard Resnick, prevention and education manager at JCS, says he hopes the play will provide support and encouragement to addicts and their families.
“Unfortunately, the current epidemic is hard to ignore, especially since the issue of addiction is alive and well in our community,” he says. “It has come to people’s attention because people are dying.”
Resnick says JCS and its partner organizations have been providing addiction-focused educational programming to the community for the past two-and-a-half years.
“We’ve talked to their intellects with data, and in some ways we’ve talked to people’s guts through the stories and voices of addicts,” he says. “But through [‘Freedom’s Song’], we’re able to approach it in a creative and dramatic way that encapsulates so many stories. So many of these stories are universal, so many different people can identify. That’s what good drama does.”
Joe, who has been in recovery since September of 2015, says he has seen the play twice and can attest to its universality and depth.
“’Freedom Song’ is my story and the story of anyone else who has ever felt lost or disconnected from their passion and purpose,” he says. “It is a story of redemption and returning home, both physically and metaphorically, to our true selves.”
For information about “Freedom Song,” click here.
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