There are lots of miraculous conversions stories, seeing the light stories, turning one’s life around stories. But let’s admit it – they’re nearly all about Christian conversions, seeing the Christian light. It’s rare – and therefore somehow more compelling – to read about a Jew who turned from crime to religion, from the slammer to the synagogue.
Rabbi Mark Borowitz is the convert. In childhood he had a hero, an uncle who worked the wrong side of the street. Borowitz lost his father in adolescence and went bad in a hurry, trying to support his mother and finding he had a talent for almost any sort of con.
Being on the hustle means, more often than not, being on the run. Habits like fooling people to make a fast buck are linked to other equally pernicious habits like booze and food, two that monkeyed onto the would-be rabbi and held him tight. It’s not a good recipe for family life, and Borowitz’s wife and daughter suffered. He suffered the guilt of hurting them, but not enough to get him to stop, or even slow down.
But something happened while he was serving one of his several-year sentences. He’d latched on to a group of Jewish jailbirds, and through them he got work with the prison’s rabbi. The conning and the skewed motives were still apparent, but something was changing.
In the words of the rabbi, Mel Silverman, “He meant it. He was intent on ceasing his former criminality. He wasn’t sure how to do it. Wasn’t sure which way to go. So we started studying together.” It took real trust to trust a former con man. Took a long time for anyone to fully believe that Borowitz wasn’t just working another kind of angle. Took a long time for Borowitz to believe it himself.
At the age of thirty-seven, he left prison for the last time. He immersed himself in the Torah and found work in a halfway house. In his forties, he realized he could become a rabbi, and he started studying Hebrew. “We’re talking about an ancient alphabet, a mishmash of scratches, lines, dots and curlicues that, by the way, you read from right to left.” He found a girlfriend who became his second wife. He found affirmation on the right side of the street. He became a rabbi in Los Angeles and leads a congregation of people like himself. His talent as a spiritual guide is to talk to cons like a fellow traveler who knows where they’ve been and where they have the potential to go.
The book is episodic and includes input from friends and family who watched Borowitz make his tormented way to religion and rescue. It’s believable and inspiring. Recommended.