Let Freedom Sing: National Touring Play Crushes the Stigma of Addiction
By: Brandon Chiat, Digital Media Manager
"Our story is the Jewish response to addiction," explained Jessica Fishel, Producer of Freedom Song, a play that depicts personal stories of addiction against the backdrop of a Passover Seder.
The performance begins with a clarification: "The stage is not a stage, and the actors are not actors." Indeed, the cast members are not professional actors, but addicts in recovery at Beit T'Shuvah, a Los Angeles-based addiction-treatment center founded on the Jewish principles of authenticity and transparency.
"These individuals have broken off the shackles of drugs, alcohol, gambling, and other destructive behaviors," said Mr. Michael Kamenir, Director of Freedom Song. "Approximately 400 people have been in the cast over the years. We rewrite monologues to portray the actor's unique story of recovery, within the context of the play's overarching plot."
By humanizing the addiction experience through personal anecdotes, Freedom Song aims to increase empathy and transparency.
"Secrets keep you sick," Ms. Fishel said. "We hope to crush the stigma of addiction and mental illness, especially in the Jewish community."
However, not everyone was receptive to that idea. When the Beit T'Shuvah team first attempted to debut Freedom Song, its host-venue backed out due to the play's provocative subject material.
That enkindling message is precisely the point.
"Freedom Song takes addiction and mental illness out of the shadows," Mr. Kamenir said. "Jews tend to keep flaws close to our chests out of fear that those flaws might be used against us. The point of Freedom Song is to open a public discussion."
Undeterred, Beit T'Shuvah self-produced Freedom Song. Nearly 14-years and hundreds of shows later, Freedom Song has become one of the longest, continuously running productions in the country. Now Freedom Song will make its Baltimore debut at Beth El Congregation, an opportunity Rabbi Steve Schwartz hopes will spur a dialogue about addiction and mental illness.
"Synagogue is the communal center of Jewish life," Rabbi Schwartz said. "Hosting Freedom Song in our 'town square' is a way of saying: We know that addiction is a problem in the Jewish community, even if we haven't talked about it much before now."
Importantly, Freedom Song demonstrates that Jewish wisdom is well-suited to address the root cause of addiction and mental illness.
"Audiences are often struck by Judaism's practical response to addiction," Mr. Kamenir said. "There are parshot in the Torah that address the same inner-turmoil that people deal with today."
Ms. Fishel said audiences connect Passover's thematic relevance to addiction, and for that reason, commonly refer to Freedom Song as a "living Haggadah."
"Passover symbolizes freedom, but more importantly, how freedom is not easily achieved," Rabbi Schwartz said. "During Passover, we explore what it means to be free as an individual. Often, people who struggle with addiction describe feeling enslaved and imprisoned."
Freedom Song takes place during a family's outwardly idyllic Passover Seder. However, as the audience soon learns, things are seldom what they seem.
"Everybody's a slave to something," Ms. Fishel said. "Lately opiate addiction [has been the focus of Freedom Song], but for years, Jews have struggled to discuss all sorts of problematic behaviors. Again, your secrets keep you sick. Recovery is impossible when people hide their flaws from their own community."
"We need families to know they can talk to their rabbi about the pain of addiction," Rabbi Schwartz said. "People need to know their synagogue is a safe and appropriate place to grapple with intense emotions and to find spiritual support, hope, courage, and strength during their struggle."
Those conversations align with the original, pioneering vision of Rabbi Mark Borovitz and his wife, Harriet Rossetto. The husband-and-wife team founded Beit T'Shuvah to address what they called "human brokenness": the inner human dilemma inherent to an uncertain world with uncertain meaning and an uncertain future.
"Part of the Beit T'Shuvah philosophy is that recovery means living a good, honest, and authentic life with meaning and purpose," Mr. Kamenir said.
To help share their model of holistic addiction treatment, Mrs. Rossetto and Rabbi Borovitz founded the Elaine Breslow Institute (EBI), a training program for community leaders including first responders, medical doctors, mental health professionals, educators, and religious clergy.
Where Freedom Song takes addiction and mental illness out of the shadows by sparking a critical dialogue, EBI provides community leaders with the resources, skills, strategies, and training required to implement the Beit T'Shuvah model closer to home.
"In many ways, Freedom Song is an onramp to the training and workshops offered by EBI," Mr. Kamenir said. "Both Freedom Song and EBI emphasize empathy to facilitate discussions between families and friends around a topic that is notoriously hard to breach."
To that point, Mr. Kamenir and Ms. Fishel credit Freedom Song for normalizing what was once considered shameful.
"Everyone in the cast bares their soul, and it makes the audience want to bare their souls as well," Ms. Fishel observed. "Audience members, who had never previously come out to their community, have stood up after the performance and admitted they're in recovery. Parents with kids in recovery, who were once very ashamed to deal with those problems, now feel empowered and are proud to support their children publically."
Having organized more formal panel presentations on addiction and mental illness in the past, Rabbi Schwartz hopes the accessibility of Freedom Song will lead to similar revelations amongst Beth El members.
"Art helps us discover truth," Rabbi Schwartz offered. "As the old saying goes: the newspaper tells you what happened yesterday, but a great novel tells you what happens always. Freedom Song, as a play, enables people to see themselves and their own stories within the universal story of the struggle with addiction."
"Freedom Song makes it clear that a person doesn't have to be an addict to need recovery. Everyone has some issue they're dealing with, whether that's mental, emotional, or physical," Mr. Kamenir explained. "A person can't do life by themselves. We all need and deserve help, and it takes a village to offer that support. Freedom Song's message is that, once we open our minds and hearts, hope and recovery are possible, not just for the addict, but for the entire community."
A special thank you to our sponsors who made this event possible: Sol Levinson and Bros., The Associated Jewish Federation of Baltimore, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, and Maryland Faith Health Netowrk. Freedom Song debuts at Beth El Congregation on Thursday, November 7th, at 6:45 pm. The play is free, but you are kindly requested to RSVP in advance.