“I was living a secret life that was all about maintaining my addiction. It was miserable … and I lost everything.”
These may not be the first words you’d expect to hear from a spiritual adviser at an addiction recovery center. But for the nationally recognized Rabbi Paul Steinberg, being authentic and owning his personal “stuff” — that is, the inner angst at the root of his own addiction — is exactly what makes him so special.
He’s a recovering alcoholic who, having been through the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program himself, combines his personal addiction experience with his academic and spiritual work in rabbinical school to guide and advise young people and adults who are fighting similar battles.
For a little over a year, Steinberg has served as a spiritual counselor and educator, and the director of the Elaine Breslow Institute at the Beit T'Shuvah (Coming Home) treatment center and synagogue community in west Los Angeles, Calif.
The center features a substance-abuse prevention program and outpatient therapy for teens and their parents. They also offer year-round educational programming for hundreds of teens in the local community’s schools, camps and youth groups.
“Arts are a huge part of the program here,” Steinberg said. It offers “a broad palette” of unusual therapy options for addiction recovery in addition to spiritual counseling, such as yoga, music, creative writing, beach meditation and equine (horse) therapy.
Beit T’Shuvah’s residential treatment program serves 175 people at a time, and is open to youth and adults over 18. One does not need to be Jewish to be in treatment, or need to be a member to attend the synagogue.
“I realized I could be a rabbi, I could be a Jew, but I would have to be authentic,” Steinberg said, because “you cannot give what you yourself do not have.”
He recommends this mantra for new counselors and said it’s at the root of the philosophy behind Beit T’Shuvah’s treatment programs, regardless of the individual’s faith practice.
“For me, recovery is synonymous with spirituality,” Steinberg said. “Being sober doesn’t keep me sober.”
Learning what would keep him sober was a lesson in how addiction takes hold in the first place. Addiction — whether to drugs, alcohol, gambling, work or other destructive behaviors — is merely a symptom of an inner “split” that causes angst, he said.
“We’re drawn to external things in order to define who we are. That’s very much a part of my story. I was feeling very uncomfortable with who I was.”
Who do you want to be?
As an apathetic undergraduate student, Steinberg felt he was having a “midcollege, existential” crisis. Like many young adults, he felt alone and lost, so he dropped out of school and joined a kibbutz (a commune) in Israel. He ended up working alongside Ph.D. scholars and revered Israeli military officers, doing menial labor and odd jobs.
“They were working in this commune, picking peaches and surrounded [geographically], by the way, by 16 enemies — by the ‘fire of terrorism,’” Steinberg said, “and I thought, ‘What makes these people do what they do?’ I thought, ‘They really care.’ So I asked myself, ‘Do you care? Do you want to be a good person?’”
Steinberg returned home to Tucson, Ariz., a transformed man, committed to finishing his undergraduate studies and then going to California to enroll in rabbinical school. But those same feelings of inadequacy — the inner split between who he wanted to be and who he truly was — came creeping back and soon started to take hold in the form of addiction. His secret life was built around holding himself together as a revered spiritual leader, while feeling shame that he wasn’t good enough in general, he felt, to be in that position.
“I felt I couldn’t show all of me,” he said. “I didn’t foresee how it would affect me to stand in front of so many people and have to represent something that I held to be so sacred. It grew worse and worse over time, until the split cracked too far open.”
This was “rock bottom” for him. Steinberg lost everything soon after: his job, his position in the community, his home. Fortunately, his employer at the time intervened, and he was soon going through the 12 steps and slowly rebuilding his life.
Prescription for the spirit
He started taking notes in what’s often called “The Big Book,” (“Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism”) about what resonated with him in terms of his Judaism. But what began as a personal journal became a book published last fall, “Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality: Reclaiming Hope, Courage & Wholeness,” melding his two worlds and opening up more concrete ways of understanding how to help people facing addiction.
“I view the 12 steps as a spiritual program,” Steinberg said. The internal split he had struggled with for so long is actually described in “The Big Book” as an “allergy of the body,” an “obsession of the mind” and a “spiritual malady.”
If addiction is a sickness of the spirit, then what is the proper prescription?
Steinberg recommends several steps in the traditional AA program that have helped him most: Step 1 — admitting to being powerless, and Step 4 — taking a moral inventory. Most effective for him in his work have been prayer and meditation, intellectual inquiry and literature, and being of service to others.
The other key to Steinberg’s success as a leader and to maintaining his sobriety is having a program — a set of activities or experiences with a specific goal in mind — accessible for the good, the bad and the ugly days that go along with recovery.
"We try to redefine success [for youth] and base it in spiritual principles and values,” said Steinberg, noting that he spends a great deal of time studying the literature from a number of different religions in search of the similarities and commonalities that bridge them to AA to optimize the recovery process.
The commonalities, found not just in different faiths but in spending time with people who have experienced the same pain associated with addiction, is what helps Steinberg most in his current role. He said he’s finally able to be himself, and in doing so, is able to serve people from diverse backgrounds because there’s a shared sense of purpose that transcends their differences.
“There’s an incredible healing power of being in a community,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can live in a healthy way isolated by themselves. …
“I have experienced miracles by the love I’ve felt from other people. But sometimes the world comes and stacks itself up against you and makes it easy to forget that,” Steinberg said. “To be in recovery, we need other people, and we need a mentor, a teacher, a spiritual guide. That’s what a sponsor is; that’s what I get to do.”
Long-term, these connections are what help him and the young people and adults he serves stay sober.
So what does Steinberg do when he’s the one feeling down?
“Every morning, I practice the 11th step, which is a meditation. I go through my day and think about who I’m going to see, and I think, ‘I want to be present, I want to be clear, I want to be engaged, I want to be honest,’” he said. “This is what saves my life every day.”