Alan Cabin is convinced that Rabbi Abraham Twerski saved his life.
Cabin suffered from drug addiction for more than 20 years, his life on a continuous downward spiral, until he was shown a path toward recovery at Gateway Rehab, a long-term treatment network that Twerski established in 1972.
Now helping others as a recovery specialist for Gateway, Cabin, 65, is just one of more than 100,000 individuals that the organization has successfully treated in its four decades of operation.
Twerski and Gateway Rehab will be honored by Rodef Shalom Congregation with its Pursuer of Peace award on Sunday, June 24, at the synagogue.
The award, which is bestowed biannually, recognizes those who demonstrate a body of work that contributes to the pursuit of peace through interfaith understanding and humanitarianism.
“Gateway saved my life,” said Cabin, a member of Rodef Shalom. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Rabbi Twerski and the staff there.”
Cabin began using drugs as a child of the 1960s, and “did not say ‘no’ to any drug” until he sought recovery at Gateway in 1995. His addiction caused him problems with school, work, and his relationships, he said. Eventually, after coming to the realization that he was being controlled by crack cocaine — obsessively and persistently thinking about the drug — and running out of lies to tell his wife, he reached a tipping point and finally told her the truth.
“That was one of the best feelings I had, when I unloaded all the truth,” he said. “That day, I decided to get help, and we called Gateway.”
Cabin describes Twerski, a psychiatrist as well as a Lubavitch rabbi, as having “an aura about him. He is able to model what I’d like to strive for: kind, loving in how he deals with people. He never raises his voice, he has a good sense of humor. And he has the ability to take complex ideas about recovery and put them into simple terms that make sense. It’s a true gift.”
Twerski was a pioneer in the treatment of drug addiction, said Paul Bacharach, president and CEO of Gateway.
“Abe early on understood that addiction is a disease that has biological, psychological, social and spiritual components,” Bacharach said, noting that in its early years, Gateway focused on “steering people to 12-step programs,” and today places a greater emphasis on medications that can help treat addictions.
Twerski, along with the Sisters of St. Francis, opened Gateway Rehab in 1972 as a 28-day alcohol and drug dependence treatment center.
He created Pennsylvania’s first program for nurses with alcohol or drug problems, served on the Governor’s Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse and chaired the Committee on the Impaired Physician for the Pennsylvania Medical Society. For 20 years, he served as clinical director of the department of psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh and was an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine.
Drug overdoses killed 63,632 Americans in 2016, with almost two-thirds of those deaths involving a prescription or illicit opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The opioid epidemic in the United States is rampant, and there is no community or demographic that is immune, Bacharach said. His own son, Nathan, died in 2009 at the age of 26 as a result of “complications from his addiction problems.”
Nathan’s story is not an unusual one, Bacharach explained. His son broke his leg playing soccer, was prescribed painkillers, ultimately became addicted, and continued “using them for eight years, unbeknownst to anyone.”
Nathan sought help from another provider, but like scores of others, could not overcome his addiction.
On an average day, Gateway provides help to about 1,700 people, according to Bacharach, who added that “23 million people in the United States have some sort of substance abuse disorder.”
The problem is not going away anytime soon, said Twerski, speaking by phone from his home in Israel.
“I wish we could have done something more to prevent the crisis which is getting worse every day with no end in sight,” he said. “The number of young people dying from drugs is greater every year. It’s terribly frustrating.”
Contemporary society’s obsession with the pursuit of pleasure is to blame, Twerski said, and it’s a tough issue to address. He pointed to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign as a “very naïve” and inadequate response.
“Some social workers interviewed a 14-year-old girl asking her, ‘What is your reaction to ‘Just Say No?’” Twerski recalled. “She answered, ‘Why say no? What else is there?’
“We are a pleasure-focused society,” he continued. “We are unfortunately not a responsible people. We are a hedonistic culture. We don’t give a damn and the society pays the price. What can we do to stop young people from ruining themselves, killing themselves in their pursuit of pleasure? I don’t have the answer.”
Twerski is unable to travel to Pittsburgh to accept the Pursuer of Peace award, but said he is “honored” to receive it.
“I’m pleased my work was acknowledged and grateful it has been appreciated,” he said. “I put Gateway on the map as one of the leading resources for rehabilitation.”
A video featuring Twerski will be shown at the event, according to Valerie Bacharach, one of the program’s chairs.
“We chose to honor Rabbi Twerski because of the crisis in the community,” said Marian Allen, another chair of the event. She emphasized Twerski’s “focus on spirituality” as an integral element of his success.
“From a world that can be insular, he’s brought the meaning of cherishing life to people from every walk of life,” she said.
As recipient of the Pursuer of Peace Award, Twerski follows previous honorees including the Most Reverend Bishop David A. Zubik, William E. Strickland Jr., Fred Rogers (posthumously) and Rabbi Walter Jacob. Rodef Shalom translates from Hebrew to “Pursuer of Peace.”
“We honor Rabbi Twerski and Gateway Rehab because of the pioneering work they have done in the area of addiction treatment of individuals, families, and our community as a whole,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, Rodef Shalom’s senior rabbi. “When he began, Rabbi Twerski’s work was pioneering. Now, when we are all aware of the scurrilous scourge of addictions, their causes and effects, we celebrate what Rabbi Twerski and Gateway Rehab have accomplished, and we commit to partnering and addressing this challenge going forward, for this is how we bring peace into our homes and the world.”
Twerski is the author of more than 75 books, has been a guest on television and radio programs and featured in hundreds of magazines, newspapers and publications worldwide. He has lectured extensively on chemical dependency as well as stress, self-esteem and spirituality.
The award presentation is open to the public. All are invited to the dessert reception immediately following in Freehof Hall hosted by Rodef Shalom Congregation. For more information, go to rodefshalom.org/peace. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.