Rabbi Abraham Twerski’s Copious Blessings.
The trailblazing rabbi died at the age of 90, a week after publishing his 90th book.
Several months after becoming director of the department of psychiatry at Pittsburgh’s St. Francis hospital, founded and run by the Sisters of St. Francis, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski was summoned to meet the bishop. Bishop Wright wanted Rabbi Twerski (whom he would always call Rabbi despite his medical credentials) to counsel the nuns who were having trouble adjusting to the liberalization of the convent by Vatican II.
After a long conversation discussing the project, Rabbi Twerski could no longer contain himself. He said to the bishop, “You know, the historical relationship between the Church and the Jews has not always been pleasant. Isn’t it a bit ironic that when the Church is in trouble, you have recourse to a rabbi?”
To that the bishop rejoined with a smile, “My dear rabbi, even in the worst of times, the popes’ personal physicians were Jewish.”
“Well, then,” Rabbi Twerski said with his signature humor, “if you should make it to the papacy, you already have your personal Jewish doctor. The only problem is that you chose a psychiatrist, and that might cause some people to raise their eyebrows.”
The bishop laughed heartily and gave Rabbi Twerski a bear hug. When the young rabbi was ready to depart, the bishop bowed his head and asked, “Bless me, rabbi.”1
The story is epigrammatic of his life. His professional accomplishments were monumental. After twenty years at St. Francis Hospital, Rabbi Twerski founded the Gateway Rehabilitation Center for alcoholics and drug addicts, which Forbes magazine designated as one of America’s “top twelve rehabilitation programs.” He oversaw Gateway’s expansion to a network of facilities throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio that treat over 1500 clients daily. He founded the Sha’ar Hatikvah rehabilitation center for prisoners in Israel. He authored ninety books on psychology and Jewish spirituality. He lectured internationally and was featured in hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. Yet he did it all as a blessing.
Becoming a Psychiatrist
The scion of an esteemed Chasidic dynasty, the young Rabbi Twerski longed to counsel people. For a few years he served as an assistant to his father, the Hornsteipler Rebbe of Milwaukee, but the duties of a congregational rabbi, performing weddings, funerals, unveilings, and Bar Mitzvahs, did not appeal to him. His decision to become a doctor was clinched one day when he visited a congregation member in the hospital. The patient told him, “Your father was here yesterday. It was so remarkable, because ever since my operation, I was not free of pain. Nothing the doctors prescribed seemed to help. But yesterday, when your father walked in, I felt the pain lift off, as if by magic.”
The young Rabbi Twerski realized that he could not help people by wielding the spiritual powers in which Chasidic rebbes like his father were adept. He would have to find another way, by becoming a psychiatrist.
Still, he was reluctant to break the chain of rabbis that went back many generations in his family. He consulted Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, known as the Steipler, the foremost Torah authority in the Jewish world. Much to his surprise, the Steipler approved Rabbi Twerski’s going to medical school. At the same time, he suggested safeguards that would prevent him from deviating from Torah principles: to study Torah every day, to honor the sanctity of Shabbos by not studying secular subjects or even reading a newspaper on Shabbos, and to pray fervently for Divine guidance. Rabbi Twerski held to these practices throughout his ninety years of life.
While always loyal to Jewish tradition, Rabbi Twerski had the courage to explode taboos. His book The Shame Borne in Silence on spousal abuse in the Jewish community met with bitter opposition, but eventually a chastened community owned up to the problem and set up organizations to deal with it. His book on gambling addiction, Compulsive Gambling: More than Dreidel likewise brought gambling addiction in the Jewish community out of the closet.
Guard Your Eyes
At the age of 79, Rabbi Twerski was retired when two young men approached him. They had an innovative idea of an internet site to deal with Jewish men trapped by pornography. They were providing a free, anonymous site for those ranging from occasional viewers to addicts, with three levels of cutting-edge programs, and a world-wide support group.
By this time in his life Rabbi Twerski had received numerous awards as well as three honorary degrees. He could have looked down on these young whipper-snappers as quixotic idealists compared to his lengthy record of solid achievement. He could have chosen to rest on his laurels instead of plunging into a pioneering effort. He could have written a few lines of endorsement and sent them away. Instead, Rabbi Twerski joined forces with them to promote Guardyoureyes.com, which has helped more than 40,000 Jews struggling against pornography addiction. In addition to his public support of GYE in videos and live lectures, Rabbi Twerski accompanied GYE founders Yaakov Nadel and Yechezkel Stelzer on fundraising trips. He traipsed through the snow with them in Toronto, knocking on doors to ask for donations.
In November, 2018, at the age of 88, Rabbi Twerski ignited a firestorm by writing in Hamodia newspaper an article he called, “My Well Has Run Dry.” In it he lamented that he no longer had the creativity to write and to offer new pearls of inspiration. His pain at no longer being able to help—and to bless—was palpable. The letters of protest from his legions of admirers came flooding in. They refused to accept his resignation. And, as always, he bowed to the will of those eager to receive from him.
Just last week, his 90th book, Tallis & Tefillin, Bagels & Lox: Two Components to Living a Spiritual Life was published by Menucha Publishers. The day before he took ill with Covid-19, just a week before he died, he was still in email correspondence with his publisher. And he had already submitted a couple of chapters for his 91st book.
My Personal Encounter
Although I have read several of Rabbi Twerski’s books and heard him lecture in person a few times, I had no personal relationship with him. Nevertheless, a month ago I decided that I needed an Introduction from Rabbi Twerski for a book I am writing. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” I got his phone number and called him. He answered the phone graciously. (How I wish I were as gracious when strangers call me!)
When I explained that I wanted a two-page Introduction from him, he replied that he couldn’t write an Introduction, which would be taken as an endorsement, without reading the book. He gave me his email address, and at 11 AM I sent him the seventy pages I had written so far. Exactly three hours later, a beautiful Introduction appeared in my inbox. He began, “I was thrilled to learn that Sara Yoheved Rigler, who has spent years teaching women about healthy marriage, is now writing a book …”
I read his words with consternation. He had never met me. I doubt he had ever read any of my books or articles. Yet, in his generosity of spirit he was thrilled that I was writing this book. I felt like I was hearing the rustle of angel’s wings.
Self-Esteem: Polish the Diamond
Rabbi Dr. Twerski used to say, “I wrote more than sixty books, but really I wrote one book sixty different ways.” His basic theme was the importance of self-esteem. He considered lack of self-esteem to be the root of all psychological problems, as well as addiction, marital strife, etc.
Years ago, Rabbi Twerski started a rehabilitation program in Israel for ex-convicts who had been imprisoned for drug-related crimes. At the first meeting, he said that recovery depends on developing self-esteem. Avi, one of the ex-cons, objected that he could never develop self-esteem. He was 34 years old and had spent half his life in prison. What could he feel self-respect about?
A young Rabbi Twerski with actor Danny Thomas
Rabbi Twerski replied: “Have you ever seen a display of diamonds in a jewelry store window? Those diamonds are scintillatingly beautiful and worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Do you know what they looked like when they were brought out of the diamond mine? They looked like ugly, dirty pieces of glass… I may not be a maven [expert] on diamonds, Avi, but I am a mavin on people. You have a beautiful soul within you, but it has been covered with layers of ugly behavior. We will help you get rid of those layers and reveal the beauty of your soul.”
Avi stayed in the program, eventually found a job, and remained free of drugs. One day Annette, the administrator of the program, called Avi. An elderly woman had died and her family wanted to donate her furniture to the rehabilitation program. Annette asked Avi to help by picking up the furniture and bringing it to their second-floor location. As Avi was schlepping the old sofa up the stairs, an envelope fell out of the cushions. In it was 5,000 shekels. Avi could have pocketed the money, but instead he handed it over to Annette. Annette informed the family, who donated the sum to the rehab program.
When Rabbi Twerski next saw Avi, he said to him, “What you did was truly exceptional, and shows the beauty of the ‘diamond’ within you.”
Avi had a bronze plaque made and affixed it to the door of the rehab center. It reads: Diamond Processing Center.2
Rabbi’s Twerski’s unending blessings will continue.
- From The Rabbi and the Nuns by Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski (Mekor Press, 2013), pp. 47-49
- Ibid., pp. 188-190