On Tuesday evening, March 2, Chazaq and TorahAnytime hosted a virtual shloshim event in memory of Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski zt”l. Rabbi Twerski was a pioneer in psychiatry, a giant in Torah, and a giant in all that he accomplished for klal Yisrael and the world.
Rabbi Chaim Twerski, nephew of Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, spoke first. He shared how when his uncle came to Milwaukee, it was a dark place. It wasn’t a place for a Jew, even in galus. Yet, he became known throughout the Jewish and non-Jewish world. He was able to inspire everyone. He requested that there be no hespeidim as he worried that people would exaggerate. “He was a true anav.”
Rabbi Chaim Twerski said that he felt compelled to speak about his uncle since there are so many important lessons to learn from his life. “He was a brilliant person.” When he was nine or ten years old, he took to playing chess. A rabbi was visiting his family and challenged him to a game on Rosh HaShanah. Later, his father called him into his study and said, “You played chess on Rosh HaShanah?” He gave reproof, but he didn’t leave him without feeling good about himself. After the reproof, his father said it was beneath him to do that. Then he added, but did you beat him?
His father would never say anything that would make him feel bad about himself. Rabbi Twerski always noted that.
As a young man, he corresponded with the Steipler Gaon. He asked him for advice on his career choice. “Should I be a rav or a doctor?”
The Gaon responded that being a rav in America today – in the 1950s – is a disgrace to you or to the Torah. However, he gave him certain conditions if he was going to choose to be a doctor. He should learn Gemara an hour a day and musar for 15 minutes a day. He should not read anything secular on Shabbos and he should be careful with davening with a minyan and he should go to mikvah.
Rabbi Twerski was an all “A” student in medical school but he fell behind in payments. There is a famous story that happened. The director of the medical school was close to the celebrity, Danny Thomas, and he told him about the financial problems of this rabbi, who needed $4,000 to catch up on his tuition. Danny Thomas gave the money for Rabbi Twerski to continue his medical school studies.
Rabbi Twerski went on to become a psychiatrist, because he saw that people were going to psychiatrists and psychologists and there were no religious Jewish ones. “His career was to help people.” He took a residency in the University of Pittsburgh, and when he graduated, he was offered the job as clinical director of the department of psychiatry at St Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh. He then began his career. He saw how devastating alcoholism is and he became an expert in addiction. He founded Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh. He helped thousands of people to regain their lives. CEOs, priests, many different people, and Orthodox Jews benefited from this place. For many years, he was the pioneer of recognizing the problem and seeking the solution for alcoholism and drug addiction.
Rabbi Chaim Twerski shared, “He was always available for everyone who needed help.” He treated over 40,000 people in this institution. His first book was titled, Like Yourself and Others Will, Too. Lack of self-esteem is the theme of many of his books. He saw this as a root problem for many disorders. He published 80 books. “Each is a marvelous achievement in itself. Each book is a gem.”
He focused on the downtrodden, the weak, and the depressed. “He opened the door for Orthodox Jewish practitioners.” When he started, he was the only Orthodox psychiatrist. He opened his eyes and others’ eyes to problems that are ignored.
He wasn’t afraid to write about a sensitive topic that brought him criticism. He wrote a book titled The Shame Born in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community.
Rabbi Chaim Twerski shared how his uncle always dressed, spoke, and acted like a Jew. Once, a Jewish person who was not observant told him that it was embarrassing that he dressed that way. She said, “You are embarrassing us.” He responded in Yiddish that he was Amish. She then said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. It’s wonderful the way you keep up your traditions.”
His uncle then replied, “For the Amish it’s right, and for me it’s wrong?”
Rabbi Twerski treated many non-Jewish patients, including nuns and priests. Rabbi Twerski lived in Israel for two months a year, and while he was there he tried to help prisoners. “He did not give up hope on any person.”
Rabbi Twerski would say to someone who was discouraged, “You have a wonderful neshamah. You have to polish it and make it shine.” One man who was helped by Rabbi Twerski and was told that he was a “diamond in the rough” put the following sign on the Gateway Rehabilitation Center: “Diamonds Polished Here.”
He had the truth of Hashem in his mouth. He turned many away from sin. “He was an agent of Hashem. He was a man of perfection, a man of deeds, and a man of wisdom. His Torah should continue to enlighten the world. His life should be a lesson for us all.”
Next, Rabbi Ephraim Twerski, a second nephew of Rabbi Dr. Twerski, spoke. “Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski was a giant of a man. There are many things we can learn from his life and lessons we can incorporate into our lives that will be z’chus for his holy neshamah.”
According to the Gemara, Yisro was attracted to klal Yisrael for three reasons: 1. He heard about the Splitting of the Sea. 2. He heard about the battle with Amaleik. 2. He heard about the Giving of the Torah.
The Hebrew letters in the word tzibur stand for tzadikim, beinonim, and r’sha’im. The definition of a rasha is someone subservient to his desires and addictions. Beinonim are people fighting the yeitzer ha’ra, and tzadikim are able to conquer the yeitzer ha’ra. Within each of us are all three types of people. We need to know that there is a tzadik within us that can grow and bring us closer to Hashem. We need to know that Hashem addressed all three parts of us. “My uncle taught us to see the tzadik in each person. The only way to see that in another is to see that tzadik in ourselves. My uncle taught the world about self-esteem. You can only love another person as much as you love yourself. We need to assist others in finding the tzadik within them.”
Rabbi Ephraim Twerski continued: “My uncle was a unique individual. He was a pioneer in addiction. Not only did he help klal Yisrael, but he helped the world in general. He was a shining light to help people, to help people to train professionals. He changed the world forever. Thousands owe their lives, both physical and spiritual, to my uncle.”
Following this, Rabbi Berel Wein shared his thoughts about Rabbi Twerski. “He was a person of exceptional qualities. He was brilliant. He had a personality that exuded confidence. He knew who he was, so he had this greatness about him.” Rabbi Twerski attended university and medical school but he was always a chasidic rabbi. ”He saw G-dliness in everyone and he tried to help them and he did.”
Rabbi Wein imparted that he taught not to blame others. He taught patients to realize that from now on you’re on your own. You’re not your parents. What will you do now?
This was a significant life lesson that Rabbi Twerski taught: not to blame others. “People saw a Jew in the fullest sense of the word in him.” He was asked to speak to large groups of psychiatrists and psychologists. People were surprised, at first, when they saw how he dressed. Rabbi Wein shared, “I called on him so many times. I had alcoholic people in my shul and I didn’t know what to do. I would call him and he helped. When you help a person, you help a whole world.”
Rabbi Wein added, “He had a unique breadth of wisdom, all-encompassing love of humanity, and fierce loyalty to Torah and observance. His departure leaves a void in the Orthodox Jewish world and the world in general. I feel a personal loss of a good friend, a man of genius, talent, and accomplishment. He did so much for the Jewish people and the world generally.”
By Susie Garber