Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, 90, the internationally-acclaimed psychiatrist and author, died in Israel last Sunday after being diagnosed with COVID-19. He is remembered as a talmid chacham, born to a family of distinguished chasidic lineage, and at the same time an expert in his professional field who addressed substance abuse, domestic abuse, and self-esteem in more than 80 books and articles.
“We were very close to the Rav zt”l. He was very down-to-earth and helped many people. It is a big loss to klal Yisrael,” said Chazaq CEO Rabbi Yaniv Meirov. “We were honored to have him speak at our Big Event in 2016.”
Perhaps the most anticipated of the speakers at all of Chazaq’s Big Events, Rabbi Dr. Twerski brought an uplifting message to the audience from his experiences in raising people trapped by addiction towards recovery. “It was his last event in America, and we remained in touch during the pandemic,” Rabbi Meirov said.
He was born in Milwaukee, the son of the Hornsteipler Rebbe Yaakov Yisroel Twerski, who encouraged all five of his sons to seek a secular education while holding strong in their Jewish knowledge and observance. He did not see his professional work as a contradiction from his heritage. He spoke of how people from all walks of life confided to his father and trusted his advice, but in the postwar society, mental health professionals were more likely to be trusted by people undergoing difficulties in life.
“What was I going to be doing as a rabbi? Bar mitzvahs and weddings and unveilings and funerals. That’s not what I wanted to do with myself,” he said in a 2014 interview with The Jewish Standard. “If I wanted to be like my father, I had to become a psychologist or psychiatrist. My father agreed – and I went to medical school.”
The novelty of a visibly chasidic Jew attending a university run by Roman Catholics resulted in his appearance in Time Magazine in 1959. “To keep the Torah as an Orthodox Jew for six years of studies in Milwaukee’s Roman Catholic Marquette University was something like running a sack race, an egg race, and an army obstacle course at the same time,” the reporter wrote.
After graduating from medical school in 1960, he settled in Pittsburgh, where the visibly chasidic rabbi and doctor worked alongside Catholic clergy as the clinical director of the Department of Psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh. He also founded the Gateway Rehab clinic, and was an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.
Many people who have heard him speak remember the anecdote of the priest who was suffering from alcoholism and could not serve wine at his mass. Rabbi Twerski advised him to use grape juice as an alternative, as many Jews do for Kiddush, l’havdil. The priest brought this idea to the Pope, who then issued a dispensation allowing for grape juice at church ceremonies. He shared such stories in his 2013 book title, The Rabbi & the Nuns.
His connection to popular culture can be seen on the cover of his 1988 self-help book When Do the Good Things Start?, which features Peanuts comic characters on the cover. Not for the purpose of attracting attention, but because from his work experience Rabbi Twerski recognized that this comic resonated with his patients. After the book was published, he met cartoonist Charles Schulz and a friendship was established. The animated characters then reappeared in three more of his books, Waking Up Just in Time, I Didn’t Ask To Be in This Family, and That’s Not a Fault… It’s a Character Trait.
Another book that changed public perceptions of his work was The Shame Borne in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community, published in 1996. The book peeled away taboos relating to domestic abuse among observant Jews. “Now it has become my task to debunk the myth that Jewish husbands are, without exception, kind, devoted, and considerate, and that there is no such thing as domestic violence in the Jewish community,” he wrote in the Jewish Action magazine in 1998. “Even the most serious and life-threatening problems can go unnoticed when there is resistance to acknowledging them.” In that article, he mentions Nefesh, the organization that he founded for mental health workers in the Jewish community.
Rabbi Twerski also wrote extensively on his family’s chasidic heritage in titles such as Not Just Stories: The Chassidic Spirit Through Its Classic Stories; Four Chassidic Masters: The Heart, the Mind, the Eye, and the Tongue; Rebbes and Chassidim: What They Said–What They Meant; and Generation to Generation: Personal Recollections of a Chassidic Legacy; among other books.
Rabbi Twerski retired from full-time work in Pittsburgh in 1995. After the death of his first wife Golda in 1995, he remarried to Gail and he moved to Monsey, where her children and grandchildren lived. He later relocated to Teaneck before making aliyah in 2016 at age 86. He is survived by two brothers, Michel (mara d’asra of Congregation Beth Jehudah in Milwaukee) and Aaron, the former dean of Hofstra Law school; his wife Dr. Gail Bessler-Twerski, four children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. Rabbi Twerski was buried at the Eretz HaChaim Cemetery near Beit Shemesh.
If an entire room of his books is not a sufficient memorial to this unique rabbi, then perhaps the countless lives changed by his words, presence, and writings are the lasting testament to his life’s work.
By Sergey Kadinsky