The jail lady, and the ‘inappropriate, cantankerous, short-fused’ rabbi


“The Jewish Jail Lady and the Holy Thief” starts and ends with a laugh, but this full-of-heart story is so much more. Barry Rosenthal’s one-hour documentary is one of experience, strength, and hope, centering on a unique recovery and treatment center, Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, and its two remarkable and unlikely founders.

The engaging, fast-paced film kicks off with Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom introducing Rabbi Mark Borovitz with a string of uncharacteristic adjectives applied to a holy man: “filthy-mouthed, unyielding, inappropriate, cantankerous, short-fused, explosive … common thief, con man, flimflam artist.”

Cut to the man himself walking on camera to take his interview seat, greeting us jauntily: “How ya doing? My name is Mark Borovitz, and I’m the lunatic rabbi, also known as the holy thief.”

Quick on the heels of that scene, we meet Harriet Rossetto, who is no less controversial — a self-proclaimed unfaithful suburban housewife with many affairs, searching for her soul.

The atypical journey unfolds in chapters, the first being their engrossing backstory, which delves into the childhood roots of their trajectory.

“The dinner table was loud and boisterous and argumentative, and I loved it,” Borovitz speaks with affection of his youth. “And my father made sure we all had a voice … My best friend growing up. He got me.”

Sadly, at only 14, Borovitz lost his father, and was forced to become an adult. He earned money to help his mother out by hustling hot merchandise for the Mafia. His double life as a dutiful son and brother and a criminal and drinker was fully formed around 17 years old.

Rossetto, in contrast, was terrified of her fierce and controlling mother: “I think I was a very miserable and unhappy child.” She, too, lost her beloved father at 14, after which she was told that emotions were a luxury, and not to be expressed. “My difficulty in sustaining relationships with men was probably related to the early loss of my father,” Rossetto relates.

The experience propelled her, too, into a double life. “I’m proud to be a misfit, although it’s painful … I was looking for an identity. I wanted to fit somewhere.” Sleeping around with her professors and later taking many lovers, she self-identifies as a love addict, which led to a tumultuous, unhappy life. “I conflated love with desire, with sex and attention. I think I was an attention whore.”

As it turns out, both Borovitz and Rossetto ended up in California and met in a most unusual way, at low points in their lives. Searching for something meaningful, Rossetto stumbled upon an ad for a Jewish social worker who would go into prisons to work with Jewish inmates. “Who better to work with Jewish offenders than me?” she says about becoming the Jewish Jail Lady. “A nice Jewish girl who liked bad boys … I was hooked from day one. I knew I was making a difference.”

She met Borovitz there, who was once again in jail for breaking the law, but had had a spiritual awakening and was now following a religious path.

Seen together for the first time in the film, their closeness is palpable even as they relate their cantankerous initial meeting. Rossetto introduced him to Beit T’Shuvah, at the time a long-term residential substance abuse recovery community where inmates could come when they were released from jail.

Despite their rocky start, Borovitz came to help out after his release, quickly finding his true calling: “I believed in the mission of Beit T’Shuvah, and I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to something bigger than myself.” Eventually, he became its rabbi, and he and Rossetto created an innovative and thriving recovery center, one which has served some 3,500 people since its founding in 1987.

Beit T’Shuvah is based on the Jewish concept of T’Shuvah, which Rossetto describes as a Jewish 12-step idea. “It’s about making amends and admitting what you did wrong. People had this dual life. They had good intentions but terrible actions.”

We learn it had a 35 percent recidivism rate, compared to some 65 percent in the rest of the country. The impact of the organization’s work comes from the powerful stories of those who went through the program.

“There is nothing more moving than to witness the transformation of the human spirit,” Rossetto shares. “It’s a place where just because you’re X doesn’t mean you are not worth healing.”

Straight-shooting to the extreme, Borovitz describes his approach: “I’m an irreverent rabbi. My Torah is a street Torah. How to live it in the street, in real time. And that’s what people in recovery need. They need to know what they’re getting is not some, ‘Oh, I’m on top of the mountain, and I’m going to talk down to you poor souls in the well.’ No, we are all in this well, and together, we can lift each other up. So I go down and speak in the way people can hear … That’s my secret sauce.”

These two tenacious, often irreverent leaders fell victim to founder’s syndrome, and the board kicked them out. Their pain is palpable as they speak about that time, but the two continue to spread the message of recovery. As Rossetto states, “The future is yet to reveal itself. I’m looking for another miracle.”

Rosenthal was a full-time Island resident for almost 20 years. He ran the advertising agency B/R Creative Group, and owned the Hot Tin Roof for three years. Reflecting on the film, he says, “I want people to see that there is hope for recovery, and how at least one recovery center did it. And it is a human-interest story about how these two people met and the renegades they were. And how they made it happen. Their love for the subject, love for people, and hope.”

“The Jewish Jail Lady and the Holy Thief” plays on June 16 at 4 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, and includes a conversation afterward with Barry Rosenthal. For tickets and information, visit