Mort Barr doesn’t take credit for the Rabbi Dr. Avraham J Twerski Learning Center.
A 74-year-old New Jersey native who made aliyah four years ago, Barr is quick to say that the new center is a collaboration, pointing to the contributions of the rabbi advisory board, and of Rabbi Daniel Myers, Twerski’s son-in-law and rabbi of Kehillat Menorat Hamaor, where the center is located in Beit Shemesh, Israel.
“Every fire has the first spark,” Barr said, “but if you don’t have kindling wood you can’t create the fire. So, maybe I was the spark, but I wasn’t the kindling.”
Barr hopes the center, still in its nascent stage, will become the global hub for lectures, classes, workshops and educational materials about and by Twerski, who died in January of this year.
Born in Wisconsin, Twerski spent decades in Pittsburgh. He received psychiatric training at the University of Pittsburgh and founded Gateway Rehabilitation Center here, devoting much of his life to treating drug and alcohol addiction. He authored more than 90 works on a variety of subjects, and even wrote many songs which became popular in the Lubavitch community.
Barr said the center is meant to honor the legacy of the late rabbi who made aliyah nearly two decades before his death and would often attend Shabbat services, give lectures and lead Ne’ila services on Yom Kippur at the synagogue where the center is based.
Menorat Hamaor is unique in many ways, Barr said. Its members hail exclusively from the Anglo world, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and South Africa. English is the primary language spoken outside of prayer. Because of the unique makeup of the membership, the synagogue operates more like a community center.
“It’s a diaspora shul,” Barr said. “It’s more than a place where people come and pray and go home.”
The 20-year-old synagogue ceased construction on its building 14 years ago, but Barr said it was never completed. The building is basically a one-room synagogue — and now home of the AJT Center.
“We have a building campaign and, God willing, intend to finish the building and the Twerski Center will have a home in the Beit Midrash,” Barr said.
Despite not having offices or classrooms, the center has already hosted two events. The Oct. 13 opening event featured psychiatrist, business consultant and author of the column “Off the Couch,” Yaakov Freedman, and Twerski’s grandson Rabbi Chaim Twerski.
During his talk, Freedman said that Abraham Twerski inspired him to enter the psychiatric profession. He recounted an incident when a non-Jewish Alcoholics Anonymous attendee advised a Jewish participant, “You need Rabbi Twerski.”
Chaim Twerksi told those in attendance that his grandfather considered the synagogue his second home once he moved to Israel, and spoke of his grandfather’s belief that there is purpose in everything, even things that are painful.
At a Nov. 7 event, Rabbi Hanoch Teller spoke to more than 160 in-person attendees and 150 people who attended virtually. The reach of the event spoke to the international interest in the center, whose subscription base has grown to 680 registrants from four continents, Barr said.
Teller’s speech, titled “Honorable Mentschen—Character Development Based on Pearls from Rabbi Twerski, z”l,” centered on practicing and spreading respect for others and being a mensch.
Barr said Chaim Twerski will continue to be involved with the center and that it has the support of the family.
“We are interacting with the Twerski family who knew him best,” Barr said. “We contacted the family and asked if it was OK, if they were interested. We got a positive response.”
Barr said the center is still in the early stages of collecting as many of Abraham Twerski’s writings, speeches, notes, videos and audio tapes as possible. In fact, while on a trip back to the States, Barr picked up several Twerski tomes he didn’t have access to in Israel and will add them to the center’s library.
“Our goal,” Barr said, “is to make this the global center of all his works.”
One long-term goal the center has yet to accomplish is the integration of Twerski’s time in Pittsburgh. Barr said that while he wants very much to speak with those who knew him here, he has not been able to do so yet.
“I don’t have a staff,” he said. “I don’t have a secretary. This is going to happen over time. I also have to reach out to other communities — Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Monsey, New York; Teaneck, New Jersey.”
Barr’s work at the center, he said, has helped him learn more about the late rabbi.
“I only knew Rabbi Twerski casually,” he said. “I attended lectures, I was present at Ne’ila services. I spoke with him on occasion, but I didn’t really know much about him until he passed away. Rabbi Myers gave a wonderful introduction to the opening event saying that we knew him as a grandfather, as a speaker. We didn’t know he was world famous. I learned a lot that night.”
To learn more about the center and upcoming programs, visit twerskicenter.org. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.