This is one of the sadder things I’ve read:
One Friday night 33 years ago, when Yisroel Richtberg was 12 years old, an older boy sneaked into his dorm room at his Chasidic yeshiva in Israel, pulled off Richtberg’s pajama pants and raped him. The same thing happened the next Shabbat.
The boy told Richtberg (not his real name) that if he ever told anyone, the two would be blacklisted at all the yeshivas, and the attacker said he would kill himself.
Richtberg didn’t tell.
…he sank into a cycle of depression, shame and isolation,
one that would lead to a 20-year addiction to prostitutes, pornography
and drugs, fronted by a double-life as an upstanding Chasidic rabbi,
businessman and father of 12.
Today, Richtberg is alive to tell his story because he got help from
therapists and 12-step programs. He has made it his life’s mission to
help others conquer an addiction so coated with shame that it resides
at the very bottom of the hierarchies of addiction.…
Richtberg is a Chasid with a scraggly beard, wide-brimmed hat, long
coat and knickers tucked into his thin black socks. Thick glasses cover
his tired blue eyes, and his Yiddish accent belies his American birth
and Israeli upbringing.
Two years after Richtberg was raped, his parents transferred him to
a new yeshiva in Jerusalem, hoping to reverse his baffling
transformation into a depressed and isolated C student.
A rabbi at the new yeshiva, an ad hoc counselor for boys who have
sexual problems, was the first person Richtberg told about the rape and
his subsequent behaviors: compulsive masturbating, viewing pornographic
materials and a sexual relationship with another boy. (Years later,
Richtberg found out that the boy, after he married and had a family,
While the rabbi was more compassionate than others in the yeshiva
system who scolded and blamed Richtberg, he was not a mental health
professional and was more interested in getting Richtberg to stop his
behaviors than in healing him. Richtberg said he would promise the
rabbi that he would stop, but then would come back crying in shame when
“Today I know I was an addict from the start because I had so much
pain, and I didn’t have a person to talk to about my pain, and I tried
to do something to cope,” Richtberg said.…
Richtberg can mark each of the milestones in his life with another
boundary crossing. When he was 19, on the advice of the rabbi who was
counseling him, he married. His first introduction to the female body
quashed his desire for men, but enhanced his addiction.
He stayed clean for three weeks after he married. But the first
night his wife cooked dinner, he took a bus into Manhattan’s redlight
district instead of going home.
“I cruised the streets and went to some peep shows,” Richtberg recalled, “and came home about 3 a.m.”
It was his first time at a live show. “Today, I know it was too hard for me to deal with my life, and I had to run.”
He celebrated the birth of his first daughter by seeing a prostitute
for the first time. As his habit grew more expensive, he left kollel,
where he was studying full time to earn rabbinic ordination, and
started a business.
At around that time in 1983, his third child was born, a son with a
serious genetic disease. “I knew for sure that Hashem is punishing me,
and that’s why he gave me such a sick child,” Richtberg said. “And I
kept promising myself that I’m going to stop.”
Two years later, another child was born with the same disorder, and
two years after that another child was born with a different chronic
illness. Another child died in infancy.
With each trauma, Richtberg crossed another boundary. He began to use drugs — first marijuana, then cocaine, then crack.
“At a certain time, it’s hard to say exactly when, I gave up,”
Richtberg said. “I stopped making promises and decided to live a double
life. My goal was to make a lot of money and to make sure that my two
worlds don’t mix.”
Getting into drugs killed Richtberg’s illusion of control. Within a
year and half, he lost his business and started bouncing checks within
his own community. In 1990, he pleaded guilty to business fraud for
which he later served a 20-month sentence. His double life was falling
It took a well-timed external kick to finally induce Richtberg to
get help. The nurses who lived at Richtberg’s home to care for his
disabled children told his wife that they thought he was on drugs. His
brother-in-law brought him to a clinic.
Richtberg yo-yoed through the first few months of therapy, which
focused only on his drug problem, until his therapist insisted that he
go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and intense outpatient
rehabilitation. Richtberg went on his last cocaine binge in October
Richtberg said he stayed away from prostitutes for a full year. But
then one day, he found himself in Manhattan, in tears and with a
prostitute. The next day, he and his therapist came up with one last
hope: Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA)
Richtberg went to a meeting that day and has been clean since.…
“When I was first forced to go to AA meetings, I felt that it’s
goyish, it’s not for me,” Richtberg recalled. Meetings are often in
churches, God is invoked as the higher power and sessions end in “The
Richtberg wove together the 12-step process with the Jewish path of
teshuvah (repentance), growing closer to God and stronger in his
Judaism as he made amends with himself and others.
“This is like a cancer, my addiction, and based on the prognosis, I
can’t stay sober,” Richtberg said. “But there is a God who can help
keep me sober if I turn to him every day,” he said. “Every day, I get
up in the morning, and I say, ‘Tati [Daddy], I’m powerless, I can’t
stay sober and I’m asking you for a toivah [favor]. Please keep me
sober for today. I’m not asking more, just for today.’ That has been
working for 10 years.”…
Richtberg, who hides his secret from his Chasidic community and the
small congregation he runs, believes his ordeal also has a divine
purpose. He makes himself available to rabbis, doctors and mental
health professionals. He started an SAA group in Israel and he often
runs the minyan at international SAA conventions.
And if in his past life his milestones were marked with sinking
deeper into his addiction, he said they are now marked with saving more
On the very day last year that his son, disabled from birth, died as
a teenager, Richtberg got a call from an Israeli friend who was in the
United States and needed the support of a fellow recovering addict.
With Hatzolah paramedics still in his home, Richtberg at first
explained that he just couldn’t. Then he called back and told the man
to come right over.
“My son left in the spirit of somebody who was reborn,” he said. “I helped somebody recreate a new life and another one left.”
In the 10 years that he’s been clean, Richtberg and his wife have
had three healthy children. On their anniversary this year, his wife,
who considered leaving him when he revealed his secret, told him she
now treasures each minute she is married to him.
“If you ask me what is the basic change that has happened to me in
the last 10 years, it’s that 10 years ago, I did not believe I had
anything to give, that there would ever come a time in my life that I
would have something to give,” Richtberg said.
“Now people feel that I’m something,” he said. “People value me. Sometimes I still have a hard time believing it.”
[Hat tip: Sheyna Rofeh-Filosof.]