“I prayed for the first time in my adult life. G-d please help me,” Zac J. recounts sitting in his office at Beit T’Shuvah. The journey up to that moment in 2012 was a rollercoaster ride filled with beautiful moments and dark choices for the thoughtful and sensitive Jewish kid from Redwood City, CA. Born into a “nice Jewish family,” as he describes, Zac was the oldest of three brothers. “I grew up in a middle to lower-middle-class upbringing. My parents were amazing. We had food, clothing, and a lot of love in the home,” Zac recounts. And, while the family moved around frequently, one strong foundational element of Zac’s early childhood was his primary school educational experience. “I went to a wonderful elementary school,” he explains. Filled with positive vibes, no grades, and an involved and thoughtful parental community, Zac recalls having a beautiful experience and an amazing core group of friends.

And yet, while he participated in sports and many other typical activities with his friends, there was always an underlying sense of insecurity over not being “enough.” And it wasn’t just his lack of athletic prowess that many of his friends possessed. He also struggled with his Jewish heritage. “I felt ashamed of being Jewish because I really didn’t know any other Jewish kids and felt no connection to my faith, heritage or community,” he says. This shame would become a powerful life theme and a negative influence on many of the choices to come in his life. And because of this lack of self-confidence, he began experimenting with weed and alcohol. “I stole beers and was so high studying for my Bar Mitzvah I wasn’t even able to read the Torah properly,” he recalls. And to add even more traumatic change to his young life, Zac moved from his loving insular school commune to a public middle school with fifteen hundred students. Not surprisingly, his pot-smoking ratcheted up significantly to help the adolescent teen cope with all the dramatic changes in his life. And as he relates, “It was a gateway drug for me. A switch got flipped right away, and all I wanted to do was get high all the time.”

As a result of his newfound addiction, Zac’s grades began to falter upon entering high school. He also began skipping school to get high and hang with his new set of older friends, who had more of a gang element and affiliation. He still attempted to maintain contact and connection with his elementary school friends. Still, the pull of his new crowd, along with his ever-growing dependence on marijuana, prompted the “good Jewish boy” to forsake his true character, of doing what’s right and being a solid citizen, for breaking into cars and houses and stealing whatever he could to pay for his weed habit. And, as what tends to happen when crimes are committed, Zac was arrested at the age of fifteen for the first time for residential burglary. “So I went to juvenile hall for the first time. My life had gone off the rails so quickly,” he remembers.

After a couple of months, he was released from juvenile hall, but nothing had really changed in his heart or behavior. Still chained to the shackles of addiction, Zac began a pattern of getting high, stealing to keep getting high, going back to “juvey,” getting released, and then starting the destructive cycle all over again. Zac went to rehab a couple of times to satisfy the courts, but nothing really stuck or changed. He was seventeen years old, had been kicked out of a couple of high schools by this point, and was now trapped in the quicksand of juvenile criminal institutionalization. By this time, he had also grown his drug repertoire to include cocaine and meth.

Overwhelmed by his crime and drug abuse, Zac’s parents were forced to set strict boundaries on their oldest son. He couldn’t abuse drugs and commit crimes and still be allowed in the house. “I kept trying to get well so I could come back home, but at this point, I had become a full-blown “tweaker”,” Zac shares. But then something occurred that would forever alter Zac’s life and that of his family. In 2008, Zac’s younger brother, Jacob, passed away at just seventeen. The family was torn apart, and Zac was so destroyed he retreated to the streets and embarked on a four-year drug-fueled odyssey of addiction mixed with criminal activity. Mired in a toxic and destructive relationship, he completely bottomed out on October 11th, 2012, and was arrested once again. This time, however, something finally changed for Zac.

“While I was in jail, I found out my mom had cancer,” Zac painfully describes. His mother had always been his most steadfast supporter despite all his trials and travails.. And, as mentioned earlier, Zac now truly sought G-d’s help, for the first time in his adult life, and asked to be shown a path to healing. To demonstrate that sincere change of heart, he managed to finally get sober while he served his time. He had also heard about a Jewish faith-based rehab facility called Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles.

Zac was reluctant to potentially come to BTS because of the religious aspect, as he had struggled with religion going back to his early childhood. But G-d had heard his appeal and sent him a lifeline in the form of Carrie N. from BTS’ Alternative Sentencing Department. He began a dialogue with her, and when he was released in 2013, he was confronted with a true crossroads moment. Keep getting high and stay in one bad relationship after another or get on a bus, with all his possessions in a black plastic bag, and come south to Los Angeles and attempt a real shot at healing and redemption. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have gotten on that bus. A more powerful force was guiding me here,” Zac retells it.

And then everything changed for him. “I found acceptance. I found a community,” he relates. He discovered it was okay to be the unique and special type of Jew that he was. He found a new route to recovery and found himself powerfully drawn to the “spirit” at BTS. “I realized I was capable and that I mattered,” he shares. He also learned that his drug abuse and criminal past did not define his existence. He was able to find his authentic self and let go of the façade of being a wannabe tough guy. In reality he had just been a scared and broken kid. However, he also understood that he had to take action. He made his bed, did his house job and went to groups. “I cried. I let it out. This place helped me find my path,” he recounts with a triumphant gleam in his eyes. He began an internship as a P.F. (Program Facilitator), which led to him getting his first job at BTS as a full-time P.F. and then graduating to P.F. Supervisor. “I was gifted so much healing at Beit T’Shuvah. Getting to pass it on to others has been beautiful,” he explains.

In addition to all the spiritual and emotional growth Zac underwent while at BTS, he also went back to school. Zac relates, “Prior to coming to BTS, my greatest educational achievement was receiving my GED in juvenile hall. Once here, I went back to school, earned a Certificate in Addiction Counseling, a B.A. in Psychology and am now finishing a Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.” Now nine years sober and having worked at BTS full-time for eight of those years, Zac’s journey has also included stints as a counselor, E.C. (Extended Care) Coordinator, Counseling Coordinator, and Director, and finally his current position as Director of Clinical Services.

He also met his fiancee, Elena, at BTS while she served as BTS’ Family Program Coordinator.  “I’ve been blessed beyond my wildest expectations. Helping others heal has been amazing,” he lovingly describes. And now he’s proud to be Jewish and a Jew in recovery. He’s also mended the broken relationship with his family as well; truly one of the most precious gifts he’s received from his experience at BTS. And he works everyday to honor his brother Jacob’s memory through his actions in recovery. Zac concludes by saying, “It’s been quite a journey. I’m now part of a loving family.” And that family motivates him to wake up every day, with a smile in his heart and a motivation in his soul, to help every single resident at Beit T’Shuvah receive the same transformative experience he received when he sat in the same seat, slept in the same bed and healed that same wounded spirit we all share as addicts, criminals and, most importantly, members of the BTS family.

Spotlight on Zac J. by Randall S.

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