The Ultimate Mensch: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Twerski

Rabbi, Psychiatrist, Author, Composer

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Twerski was a Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist who authored dozens of books, helped tens of thousands recover from addiction, and was a blessing to everyone he met.

Born in Milwaukee in 1930, Rabbi Twerski was the scion of two illustrious Hasidic dynasties: Bobov and Chernobyl. His father Rabbi Jacob Israel Twerski was a Russian immigrant and leading rabbi who was beloved by the Milwaukee Jewish community. Abraham was one of five brothers and the first to be born in America. He was raised in a traditional Orthodox home but attended public school.

After being ordained as a young man, Abraham served as his father’s assistant rabbi, and was in awe of his father’s ability to connect with people and counsel them. He later said, “I didn’t see my life as a performer of rituals, and I felt that if what psychiatry is doing is what my father used to be doing, well, then that’s where I’ll go. So I went to medical school to become a psychiatrist to do what I wanted to do as a rabbi.” He graduated from the medical school of Marquette University  in 1960 and served as clinical director of the psychiatry department at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh for many years.

In 1972, Rabbi Twerski founded Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, a program so successful that there are now 22 Gateway centers in Pennsylvania and Ohio, serving both Jewish and non-Jewish patients. The current CEO of Gateway, James Troup, said “Dr. Twerski is our founder, inspiration leader and the person we think of every day as we execute our mission and vision.”

His granddaughter Chaya Ruchie Twerski remembered growing up with her beloved zaydie. “My grandfather used to pray on Saturday mornings in Chabad and when we would walk home from synagogue, every single Shabbos was the same thing. Cars would honk, people would roll down their windows and shout, ’Sending our love,’ or ‘Five years clean, Dr. T!’”

At that time it was rare for an Orthodox rabbi to be an expert in secular subjects such as medicine. It was also a common belief in the Jewish community that alcoholism and addiction were gentile problems. Rabbi Twerski challenged both assumptions by becoming a prominent psychiatrist who wrote over 80 books and helped thousands of Jews and non-Jews recover from substance abuse – all while maintaining his identity as a pious and visible Hasidic Jew. He tackled subjects nobody else in the Jewish world was addressing, such as domestic abuse and drug addiction.

Those who knew Rabbi Twerski remembered that his favorite word was “gem” because he believed that every human being is a precious gem. Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute in Pittsburgh, said of his beloved rabbi, “He would never throw anyone away. He would say, ‘We just have to polish them off and wipe away the dust.’”

Rabbi Twerski was the first Jewish leader to embrace the 12-step program created by Alcoholics Anonymous, despite the program’s association with Christian teachings. A renowned expert in spiritual and secular subjects, Rabbi Twerski wrote dozens of best-selling books, all with the same theme – self-esteem. A fan of the Peanuts cartoon, Rabbi Twerski co-wrote two books with Peanuts creator Charles Schultz. Noted psychologist Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb said of his mentor, “He was a great believer that there was no contradiction. A person could be a person of great faith and a rigorous scientist.”

In his long life, Rabbi Twerski made use of every moment. Besides treating patients, authoring books, and traveling the world to lecture and advise, Rabbi Twersky founded multiple organizations including Nefesh, an organization for mental health workers, the Kollel Learning Center, and Transitions, for boys from Orthodox homes battling substance addiction. Pittsburgh resident Mike Pasternak, co-founder of Transitions, described Rabbi Twerski as “an amazing person who cared about everyone. Every day I spent with him was an experience seeing someone be the ultimate mensch, caring for everybody.”

Besides his work as psychiatrist and spiritual leader, he was a gifted singer and composer. Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld of the Lubavitch Center of Pittsburgh said that Rabbi Twerski “had a beautiful voice and was a great composer of songs… He was an unusual kind of person. A person that was down to earth, but at the same time very spiritual. He had a foot in and was able to reach out and be effective in the entire world.”

Rabbi Twerski died in Israel on January 31, 2021 at age 90 and was survived by his wife Dr. Gail Bessler-Twerski, four children, and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren. His first wife Golda died in 1995. Rabbi Twerski’s will specified that there should be no eulogies at his funeral, instead mourners should sing a melody he composed for the words of Psalms 28:9, “Deliver and bless Your very own people; tend them and sustain them forever.”

For saving lives and blessing the entire world with his saintly presence, we honor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Twerski as this week’s Thursday Hero. May his memory be a blessing.

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