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It’s Saturday morning. You’re a new resident. You didn’t think things could get any stranger than Rabbi Mark and Rabbi Ben’s banter the night before, not to mention all the cheering and dancing. Then Rabbi Micha’el ushers in the Saturday morning service. The crowd is more sparse than the night before but that just makes the whole thing more intimate. The music starts. Enthusiastic residents clap and sing along. And there, sitting in the front row, with an infectious smile on her face sits Beit T’Shuvah’s unofficial ambassador of goodwill; Cathy Galper.
Cathy has been serving the BTS community for over a decade. Because of her tenacious attendance here, she has seen many residents come and go. She has a keen awareness of how nervous residents feel when they get welcomed in on Friday nights. “I try to give [the residents] hope. I want them to know I’m around if they ever want to talk. A smile, a friendly face, I think it helps when you’re coming into something new. Especially this place where it’s just like what the heck is going on here?” she explains.
Like many of us, Cathy’s journey to Beit T’Shuvah was rife with hardship. She first became made aware of the power of this community at her older brother’s funeral service. He was a resident who was doing very well here—even on his way to becoming a counselor—but something went wrong and he overdosed. At his funeral, hundreds of residents showed up and showered Cathy with love and condolences. “I came on a Friday night, for a memorial service, and I never left,” she recalls with both sadness and warmth in her voice. “I’ve come every Friday night and every Saturday morning. I learned to read Hebrew here,” she joyfully explains. When she first began to read in front of the congregation, she was terrified. Now she leads the Torah readings every week.
Cathy’s involvement with BTS doesn’t end with Torah service. She’s also a member of the Beit T’Shuvah Sisterhood—an organization of community members who raise money for the residents and other events like the marathon. “For example, we do a holiday boutique and all the money we raise—and it’s not a huge amount but it’s enough, we give [the residents] a Chanukah party. We also raise money for the marathon, whether it is for the marathon dinner or just to donate. One year, we did a birthright trip,” she explains. Cathy was the Sisterhood co-president for some time and is now one of its most dedicated board members. A simple and noble mission, to say the least. “ The Sisterhood has about 100 members, 20 dedicated returning members, and 8 board members. The ages range from 30 to 90 years-old. Not only does the Sisterhood raise funds for the residents, but they also do community outreach by raising donations for the homeless. There’s also a great community bonding as well. They host an annual potluck and have been doing mixers to socialize more with each other and the rabbinical staff.
Cathy attributes her newfound sense of purpose and belonging to Beit T’Shuvah. “I’ve been trying to keep my head on straight and when my brother died I was in a really bad place and this place made me take a good look at myself and reevaluate who I was. It has kept me on the right path and allowed me to look at myself in ways I have never looked at myself. I found a community. I found a sense of purpose. I found a way to be honest with myself like I wasn’t before,” she says.
Besides getting her head on right again, Beit T’Shuvah re-introduced her to spirituality and religion. Cathy grew up in a religious family but had no interest in it. She became religious at 55 when she arrived at Beit T’Shuvah. “It is a different kind of religious. There is some real-life stuff in here and lessons and learning. The community part is the biggest. Knowing you belong. A couple of months ago was my brother’s 10-year yahrzeit. I got so upset that Saturday. I lost it. I couldn’t stop crying. The community embraced me—the residents were amazing. It was a hard morning but it was beautiful,” she explains. Cathy attends every adult education class at Beit T’Shuvah that she can, saying, “I just like to learn. It’s fun.” She also attends spirituality class on Saturdays with Micha’el where they studied Heschel for a long time and now they are studying zen. With a spark in her eye, she shares, “It’s so interesting. There are a lot of similarities between Judaism and a lot of differences. Sitting and just being is a really hard thing. Especially for Jews. Most of us can’t sit still.”
As a former 60s hippie who enjoyed the drug lifestyle of that time, Cathy has been in recovery for the last 15 years. She says, “I am lucky to be alive. Honestly, the things I’ve done in my life… The times I drove when I shouldn’t have. I look back and go ‘wow.’” While substances are a thing of her past, she openly talks about her new struggles. Cathy explains that she battles a food addiction as well as being physically disabled after a workplace accident 27 years ago. However, for anyone who has met Cathy, her ability to talk openly about her struggles as well as her absolute compassion only show how strong she is.
Cathy attends every adult education class at Beit T’Shuvah that she can, saying, “I just like to learn. It’s fun.” She also attends spirituality class on Saturdays with Micha’el where they studied Heschel for a long time and now they are studying zen. “It’s so interesting,” she says, “there are a lot of similarities with Judaism and a lot of differences. Sitting and just being is a really hard thing. Especially for Jews. Most of us can’t sit still.”
As a longtime observer of the ebb and flow of Beit T’Shuvah, Cathy has a strong insight into both the success of residents as well as how to endure times of transition. Residents who have a chance to make it. “I’m excited for them and I’m scared for them. I’m hopeful and skeptical at the same time. Living through what I went through with my brother, I feel that every resident who makes it is one for my brother. I see hope. I see lots of hope,” she says. She continues with her observations that those of us who know how to ask for help, have a stronger chance of living a life of recovery. “Asking for help, not being afraid to say that they have a problem, not isolating. I say just don’t be alone, don’t give up and be willing to ask for help. Even for myself, when I’m depressed or upset, and I isolate, I’m not in a good place. I make myself come here and I always feel better when I come here,” she explains. Cathy goes on to express how much Beit T’Shuvah has taught her how to live and how to be a more loving person.
Cathy’s presence at Beit T’Shuvah is as foundational as the walls. Her warmth and welcoming nature are part of the magic of this place. And, if for some startling reason, you haven’t met Cathy, keep an eye out for the young-at-heart 66-year-old with an east coast accent who will be leading (two? Double check to make sure) Torah services for the high holidays.