This new obituary for Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski was posted on Feb. 2, 2021
Chasidic rabbi, acclaimed psychiatrist, prolific author, founder of Gateway Rehabilitation Center —underlying all his accomplishments was Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski’s intrinsic belief in the value of humanity.
“He would say, ‘We have to recognize that every individual is a gem,’ that was his favorite word,” remembered Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of The Aleph Institute in Pittsburgh. “He would never throw anyone away. He would say, ‘We just have to polish them off and wipe away the dust.’”
Twerski died Sunday, Jan. 31, in Israel from COVID-19 at the age of 90.
Born Oct. 6, 1930, in Milwaukee, Twerski had deep roots in the Chasidic community. He was a scion of the founder of the Chernobyl Chasidic dynasty, Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski, and the grandson of the Bobover Chasidic Rebbe.
Twerski married his first wife, Golda, and served as an assistant rabbi to his father before graduating from medical school at Marquette University in 1960.
An outlier among his Chasidic peers, Twerski decided to enter medical school in the 1950s.
“I was a trailblazer,” he told the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle in a 2010 interview. “Now it’s more common; there are many physicians and other professionals [in the Chasidic community]. There has been a tendency the past 40 or 50 years for observant people to go into secular professions. Before, it was rare, because of the old ideas that all secularism is anti-religious. That has gradually changed.”
Twerski relocated his family to Pittsburgh and completed his psychiatry residency at the University of Pittsburgh Western Psychiatric Institute. He spent two years serving on the staff of a Pennsylvania state hospital before being named as the head of the department of psychiatry at the now-defunct St. Francis Hospital in Lawrenceville.
The rabbi and psychiatrist founded the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in 1972. The drug and rehabilitation center launched in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, has expanded to include 22 locations in both Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Twerski estimated that he helped more than 40,000 people recover from substance abuse through rehabilitation at the center over more than 40 years.
“Dr. Twerski is our founder, inspiration leader and the person we think of everyday as we execute our mission and vision,” said Gateway Rehabilitation Center CEO James Troup.
While most of those who received treatment at Gateway Rehab weren’t Jewish, Twerski is recognized as having called out addiction problems in the Jewish community. It was a task for which he was lauded and one which left a lasting impression on his granddaughter, Chaya Ruchie Twerski.
“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.’ It was a beautiful experience and that’s what we grew up with.”
Both Chaya and her brother Chaim now live in Israel and visited Twerski often during the last several weeks.
“We were the ones that God chose to be here with him,” she said. “It doesn’t even come close to what he was able to do for us.”
Chaim is thankful that the Hadassah Medical Center allowed the two to visit their grandfather, despite the COVID-19 virus.
“They took care of him,” he said. “They let us in to the COVID ward, even with all the overwhelming pressure and stress.”
Chaim remembered Twerski as a father figure.
“My parents were divorced,” he said. “We lived with my mother and had a great life. He raised us. He never raised his voice. We were in awe of him. He was a great, great man.”
Twerski’s interests ran beyond helping adults combat addiction. He worked with Pittsburgh resident Mike Pasternak in the early 2000s, helping to create the program Transitions for boys from Orthodox homes dealing with addiction issues.
“He was an amazing person who cared about everyone,” Pasternak remembered. “Every day I spent with him was an experience seeing someone be the ultimate mensch, caring for everybody.”
In 1996, Twerski turned his gaze to the issue of spousal abuse in the Jewish community. He authored the book “The Shame Borne in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community.”
“I don’t think there is any question that my constantly beating the drum has brought it out,” Twerski told the Chronicle in 2010. “There is no question my efforts have paid off in the long run. More women are now getting help. There are more organizations and more hotlines, and there is more education among rabbis.”
The Orthodox rabbi was willing to step beyond Jewish dogma when necessary. He supported Alcoholics Anonymous, despite some of the Christian thought associated with the 12-step program.
Vogel, who hosts AA meetings at Aleph Institute, recalled that Twerski was a vocal supporter and encouraged the program in the community.
The author of over 60 books, Twerski often mixed the spiritual with the secular, writing about the Torah, psychology, addiction and self-help — including two books he co-authored with “Peanuts” creator Charles Shultz.
Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld of the Lubavitch Center of Pittsburgh said that Twerski’s ability to combine the spiritual and earthly was rare.
“He was an unusual kind of person,” Rosenfeld said. “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.”
Twerski’s deep roots in Chasidism and Chabad affected his worldview, said Rosenfeld.
“He was respected and honored by everyone because he did what he could in terms of tikkun olam and seeing how to affect the entire world, religious Jews and non-religious Jews, Jews and non-Jews. People would come to synagogue not knowing what to do but they would want to be here because of the deep respect they had for him.”
Rosenfeld said he will miss Twerski’s gift for song.
“He had a beautiful voice and was a great composer of songs,” said Rosenfeld. “He instructed his family he wanted no eulogies made at his funeral — instead they should sing one of the songs he composed. He would sing it very often here. He led the services here in the most beautiful way.”
In spite of the demands of his globally recognized career, Twerski found time to contribute to local Jewish life in Pittsburgh. He served as a founding vice president of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center and as president of the Lubavitch Center. His successor, Charles Saul, often studied with him.
“I used to learn with him every single day at 6:30 in the morning until 7:15 a.m. on all sort of Judaic studies,” said Saul. “We would always encourage him to tell us stories about his history, substance abuse. He was a fountain of knowledge. So unique.”
Saul’s debt to the rabbi runs deeper than Torah knowledge, however. He and his wife were members of Beth Israel Center before meeting Twerski when the rabbi spoke at their synagogue. The pair, who had two children and planned no more, were so inspired by Twerski that they decided to deepen their involvement in Judaism.
Saul now has seven children, and credits Twerski’s influence for his expanded family.
Chaim Twerski remembers his grandfather as a person who knew people would stumble.
“My grandfather told me, ‘You’re going to make mistakes in life. You’re allowed to make mistakes. Please don’t make the same mistakes I made. Learn from my mistakes. Make your own mistakes. That’s what we’re here for, to not make the same mistake twice.’”
Looking back on his life, Twerski told the Chronicle in 2010 that he had no regrets.
“I can’t think of anything I would have done differently,” he said.
Twerski is survived by his second wife, Gail Bessler Twerski, three sons — Isaac, Ben and Shlomo — his daughter Sarah and a large extended family. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.