Beit T’Shuvah is thrilled to welcome our new Elaine Breslow Institute (EBI) Program Manager, Kathryn Vischjager. And the first thing you’ll probably want to know is that her last name is Dutch and translates to “fish hunter,” which is ironic since she has been a vegetarian her entire life.
Kathryn hails from Portland, OR where she grew up in a reform Jewish community. Jewish culture has always played a predominant role in her life. In high school, she even studied in Israel for a semester. “I did all the things… all the things you could do as a young Jewish person, I did them,” she explains. She continues to describe her Jewish upbringing as being similar to being at Beit T’Shuvah: “I was always allowed to be myself, which is why I’m so thrilled I ended up here.”
She then attended the University of Oregon where she was on track to graduate with a major in art but ended up leaving school with a Judaic Studies degree. “Eugene, Oregon is not a place with a million Jews but it’s an okay place to study Judaic studies,” she says with an infectious smile. She made her way down to Los Angeles shortly after because “it’s where the Jews are at,” she laughs. She goes on to explain that “when I was an art major, I freaked out about how I would make art a career. I wasn’t sure how to translate that. And the whole time I was freaking out, I was teaching Hebrew school and loving it.” One of her mentors nudged Kathryn to consider Los Angeles where she could get a Masters Degree in education at American Jewish University.
Kathryn set out to live a life as an educator in the religious world. But something gnawed at her as she ascended the teaching hierarchy. “I went through grad school, I became a religious school principal, it was great. It was where I had wanted to go. But when I got there, what was challenging, is something that we talk a lot about here which is soul vs. role. I felt like a fraud. I was the head of a religious school but I wanted to get tattoos. And I felt like who I was, was different than when I was this religious school principal… and I’ll be honest with you, that messed with me.”
Around the same time she was having her mini existential crisis, she also became a mother. She decided it was more important to be at home with her child for his early years and stepped down from her job. After some time she rejoined the workforce and linked up with Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters. Ultimately, it wasn’t her dream job, so she started to look around and lo and behold she saw that Beit T’Shuvah was hiring on jewishjobs.com (yes it’s a real thing).
She had heard of Beit T’Shuvah from some of our outreach programs. She also has some friends who went through the program. She had been familiar with who we are and what we do for some time. “The reputation Beit T’Shuvah has is amazing. Everyone always says great things so before I even started here I knew this place was awesome,” she explains with exuberance.
So she showed up for her interview with Rabbi Mark, the new director of the EBI. When she came in for her interview, she was “buttoned-up,” her tattoos covered. “It came up in the interview, ‘who am I really?’ I referenced that I had to be buttoned up for the interview. Rabbi Mark looked at me and said ‘that’s exactly how you lose this job’ and I just exhaled a giant sigh of relief,” she smirks. This all makes sense as to why Kathryn is a such a good fit for Beit T’Shuvah. She loves the fact that it’s not about strict religious dogma here but the spirit of Judaism which allows individuals to study and pray in their way.
The EBI is a branch of Beit T’Shuvah dedicated to the deeper understanding of addiction, prevention, and family education. As the new EBI Program Manager, Kathryn helps manage all the events and immersions associated with the EBI, in its joint educational exploration, teaching those most severely fractured through the place where the mind, heart, and soul meet. The EBI also has a spiritual counseling program where clergy are trained to become certified spiritual counselors and take that knowledge with them back to their synagogues. Rabbi Mark has big plans for the EBI and as it grows, so too will Kathryn’s role.
While Kathryn doesn’t come from a world of addiction, she “loves it here.” she continues, “the people are so genuine. I think the greatest human beings come through a place like this because what I regard as the recovery process, I’ve had to do something similar in my own life when I’ve had some serious struggles. I had some real ‘look in the mirror and figure out my self’ moments. So the level of honest self-reflection is something everyone needs to be doing. A lot of people out there just float through life and there’s no reason to self reflect, so I have just the greatest respect and admiration for the people here. I have more respect for an addict who is doing the work than for someone with a lofty title in life who had never taken the time for self-development,” she says sincerely.
Not in a million years did she think she would end up working at a treatment center, but, as she explains, “it’s like what Harriet talks about, you have to be open to where you can go in life to be of benefit.” She also compares herself to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers where you can feel like the outcast until the right opportunity comes up which you are perfectly designed for. “This is that perfect opportunity for me. I have all this education background and I get to use it in a place where I can swear and have tattoos showing,” she laughs. When she looks back at the puzzle pieces of her life, it makes so much sense for her to end up here. And we are glad she landed.