On Sunday, January 31, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski – a preeminent American chasidic psychiatrist who popularized addiction treatment in the Orthodox community – passed away in Jerusalem at age 90. He was buried in Beit Shemesh.
“Shea” Twerski – as he was called by family and friends – was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1930 to Rav Yaakov Yisroel and Rebbetzin Devorah Leah Twerski. A family member related that Rav Yaakov Yisrael was referred to as the Milwaukee Rebbe.
Shea’s father, Rav Twerski, was a scion of the most prominent chassidic dynasties in Ukraine. Shea’s mother’s father was, at the time, the Bobover Rebbe in Galicia. Both of Shea’s parents were descendants of the Alter Rebbe of Chabad.
Shea grew up attending Milwaukee public schools while being taught Torah by a private melamed every day after class. At 16, Shea went to learn at Beis Medrash L’Torah in Chicago (located today in Skokie) where he became a disciple of Rav Chaim Kreisworth, the rosh yeshiva.
The young Rabbi Twerski also learned for a short period of time at his uncle’s nascent Bobover Yeshiva in Manhattan’s Upper West.
He received semicha from Rav Elkana Zilberman, a noted Galicianer posek in Brooklyn. Rabbi Twerski received both his bachelor’s degree and medical degree from Milwaukee’s Marquette University and obtained his psychiatric training at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He subsequently served as an associate professor at the school.
In the mid 1960s, Rabbi Twerski became Clinical Director of Psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh. In 1972, together with the Sisters of St. Francis, Rabbi Twerski founded the Gateways Rehabilitation Center for Alcoholism and Drug recovery. He estimated that during his career he treated over 30,000 addiction patients.
Rabbi Twerski lived in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh for 35 years until 1995. He then moved to Monsey and Teaneck before making aliyah five years ago.
While living in Squirrel Hill, he served as president of the local Lubavitch Center. Nechama Turkel grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb. She told The Jewish Press that her “Uncle Shea” was a funny and positive person. Despite his many accomplishments, he was very humble and down to earth.
She recalls Uncle Shea coming to use the mikvah located in her parents garage, while always bringing homemade cake his wife. Most impressive was his ability to transcend community politics, she said.
Rabbi Dr. Twerski brought out into the open alcohol and drug addiction within the Orthodox Jewish community. He enthusiastically promoted Jewish community members who needed help with their addictions, and he believed in work using the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step program.
Rabbi Twerski publicized his views by publishing ArtScroll books, writing columns in charedi newspapers, and addressing rabbinical conventions. He also helped found and lead JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant others), a mutual support network for Jewish individuals and their families affected by drug addiction and alcoholism.
Chaim (not his real name), a frum addict in recovery, told The Jewish Press that he’d probably be dead were it not for Rabbi Twerski. “I was afraid to join a 12 step program because I thought it was Christian. However, then I spoke with Rabbi Twerski, in his chasidishe garb who explained to me how the 12 steps are totally in sync with Yiddishkeit.
“Rabbi Twerski added that he personally goes to AA meetings for the spirituality. I was convinced and got the help I needed.”
Rabbi Twerski published over two dozen books with Artscroll Mesorah Publications. His subject matter ranged from addiction to spousal abuse to chassidic stories to and commentaries on the Torah, Siddur, and Haggadah. He emphasized the importance of having a healthy sense of self-esteem.
Rabbi Nosson Scherman, co-founder of ArtScroll, told The Jewish Press that it was a privilege to publish Rabbi Twerski’s books, which have sold over 150,000 copies.
“Rabbi Twerski possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of chassidic literature, was warm, genuinely liked people, and understood people very well. He showed there was no contradiction between being a chassidishe Yid with the levush and being a leading authority in his professional field.”
Judi Dick was Rabbi Twerski’s editor for all of his Artscroll books. She told the Jewish Press, “Rabbi Twerski was the nicest and easiest person in the world to work with since he had no ego invested in his writing. Rabbi Twerski’s only goal was that the message of his books should reach the reader. Nothing else mattered. He was guided by a desire to do Hashem’s will through his writing,” he said.
Rabbi Twerski invested time into building close relationships, especially with family members. Rebbitzen Faigie Twerski, a sister-in-law, told The Jewish Press:
“My brother-in-law was a massive talmid chacham who was overflowing with Torah insights. He maximized his multifaceted talents and abilities to do what needed to be done within the Jewish community even if he got flak for it – i.e., bringing up the issue of battered women. That was because my brother-in-law based his actions on what he felt Hashem wanted him to do.”
Rabbi Benzion Twerski, a nephew, told The Jewish Press, “My uncle was successful in everything that he did. Besides professional achievements, he was a classical music composer, Jewish music composer, mohel, shochet, badchan, etc…. My uncle possessed midos tovos and was able to balance helping others without burning out himself. Most meaningful to me was that despite all his accomplishments, he was an eved Hashem.”
Rabbi Dr Abraham J.Twerski is survived by his wife of 25 years, Dr. Gail Bessler Twerski; his brothers, Rabbi Michel Twerski (Milwaukee) and Professor Aaron Twerski (Brooklyn); his children, Yitzchok Meir Twerski, Dr. Benzion Twerski, Shlomo Twerski (all of Brooklyn), and Surel Twerski (Pittsburgh); and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his first wife of 42 years, Golda Twerski.