Diamonds in the Rough| March 23, 2021
Though a top-tier psychiatrist, Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski was first and foremost a link in the chain of holy forebears whose legacy informed his own holy mission
Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Mishpacha archives
It was one of Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski’s remarkable innovations: a rehab center for Israeli prisoners, a hostel where convicted felons entangled in dangerous addictions could come clean. While outsiders looked at them with a mixture of scorn and fear, Rabbi Twerski, world-renowned psychiatrist and healer of souls, looked into their neshamos and instead of a piece of dirty glass, he saw a diamond.
Modeled after the famed Gateway Rehabilitation Center Rabbi Twerski founded in Pittsburgh in 1972 that has successfully treated tens of thousands of addicts, the Shaar Hatikvah center, run in conjunction with the Israeli Prisons Service, proved what Rabbi Twerski believed all along: that convicts jailed for drug-related crimes can reenter society as productive citizens. Yet without such intervention, most ex-convicts return to society as dealers and pushers and are back in jail within a year.
In an interview with Mishpacha not long before Rabbi Twerski passed away at the end of January at age 90, he spoke humbly of the turnarounds from the program he set up in the 1990s. Back then, he was dividing his time between his Israeli and American centers — both of which were designed to help addicts uncover the underlying reasons behind their substance abuse and move beyond the destructive behavior. He remembers one fellow who’d been in and out of jail as if it were a revolving door.
When they first met, the convict was blunt: “Rabbi, I have no chance of getting out of this,” he told Rabbi Twerski. “I’m human scum.” But Rabbi Twerski looked at him and declared, “You’re not scum. You’re a diamond. You just need a little polishing. You’re going to do the rehab in our program, and you’ll see.”
About six months later, a call came to the rehab center. A wealthy Jew from Tel Aviv had passed away, and the family had decided to donate all the contents of his home to Shaar Hatikvah. “Just send someone to come and take the stuff,” they said.
The secretary asked this fellow to take a truck to Tel Aviv, load up the furniture, and bring it to the hostel. He began loading the contents into the truck, but as he dragged the sofa around a corner, an envelope fell out. Inside were five thousand dollars. No one was looking. It would have been such an easy steal. But without thinking twice, he went back to the house and returned the money.
Only after he sat down at the wheel did he realize the transformation that had come over him over these last months. From a thief who couldn’t keep his hands out of others’ pockets, he’d just returned a huge wad of cash. And then he remembered the words of his rebbe-psychiatrist. When he came to the hostel, he took a piece of tape and a sheet of paper and created a makeshift new sign for the door. It read “Diamond Polishing Center.”
“We have a mission,” Rabbi Twerski told me when we met. He was already frail, mostly wheelchair-bound, but his “we” was still all-inclusive. He quoted the pasuk “lehodia livnei adam gevurosav” — and gave it a uniquely Twerski twist. People need to know their strengths, he said; they have to be confident in themselves.
People think that Rabbi Twerski learned psychology and psychiatry in university. Well, that’s where his degree is from, but he maintained that the foundation of his knowledge came from his father, Rav Yaakov Yisrael Twerski, the Hornosteipler Rebbe who landed in the US in 1927 and set up a kehillah in Milwaukee. (His mother, Devorah Leah Halberstam, was the oldest daughter of the Kedushas Tzion of Bobov Hy”d and sister of Rebbe Shlomo of Bobov.)
“Even when I was a boy and I would be mischievous, my father never screamed at me,” he remembered. “Instead, he’d call me over and say, ‘This is not like you.’ Those few words served as a guide all my life: ‘You are too good for such an act. You are a Jew. You have a G-dly soul. You are a soldier in Hashem’s army. Such behavior is not becoming for a person with good middos like you.’ That’s the right approach in chinuch. Separate the person from the deed that he did or the words that he said. When you show this kind of trust in a child, you can expect good results.
“You know,” he told me, “when I was ten years old, I was a great chess player and I loved to play, sometimes a bit too much. One Rosh Hashanah afternoon, a local teacher, who was our guest for Yom Tov, suggested we play chess. At first, I thought it wasn’t appropriate — but he was a teacher, so I thought, why not? We played two games.
“I didn’t think anyone saw, but the next day I was summoned to my father’s room. He sat there, as he always did, near his shtender with the stack of seforim. I entered and he studied me with a solemn gaze. ‘You played chess on Rosh Hashanah?’ he asked. I couldn’t lie under his gaze. I admitted that I had. His rebuke was brief but powerful: ‘Rosh Hashanah is too big a day.’ After that bit of mussar, he continued to look into his seforim and let me stand there, unsure of myself, squirming uncomfortably. After a few moments, he raised an eyebrow and said, ‘But you beat him, right?’ ‘Twice,’ I told him. He nodded and let me go.”
It’s hard to fathom the cocoon of chinuch that he and his brothers — Shloime, Mottel, Michel, and Aaron — were raised in. “There was no cheder in Milwaukee back then, so we went to public school and learned limudei kodesh in the afternoon with a private melamed that my father hired.”
He graduated public high school in Milwaukee at age 16, spent the next five years in the Hebrew Theological College of Chicago (now located in Skokie, Illinois and known as the “Skokie yeshivah”) and received semichah in 1951. He became very close with the rosh yeshivah at the time, Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, and planned to follow him to Beis Medrash Elyon in Monsey, where he was offered a position. Instead, Rav Kreiswirth became chief rabbi of Antwerp, and Rabbi Twerski, who married Goldie Flusberg in 1952, returned to Milwaukee, where he became assistant rabbi in his father’s shul.
In the year before his wedding though, Avraham went to New York to learn in the yeshivah of his uncle Rebbe Shlomo of Bobov, where his chavrusa was his cousin Naftali Tzvi, the Rebbe’s son and eventual successor.
During that year, he discovered another rav who would be one of his beacons: the Steipler Gaon of Bnei Brak, whom he heard about from Rav Kreiswirth. “He began to send the Steipler letters, and that is where a deep and fascinating relationship developed,” relates his grandson Reb Chaim Shmuel Twerski. (About 20 years ago, a sefer called Ye’amer L’Yaakov V’leYisrael was published, which at first glance looks like a random collection of letters to the Steipler. There is no byline, just “Kollel Avreichim Bais Yitzchak Pittsburgh.” In fact, it’s a sefer filled with correspondence between the famous psychiatrist from America and the gadol hador from Bnei Brak.)
While he was serving in his father’s beis medrash, Rabbi Twerski thought about attending university and attaining a proper parnassah. “My grandfather didn’t know what to do,” says Reb Chaim Shmuel. “On the one hand, he really wanted to learn, and on the other hand, parnassah was very tight, and he didn’t know how he’d finance it. He sent a question to the Steipler and to Rav Elkanah Zoberman of the Agudas Harabbanim.”
The Steipler gave permission, with several caveats, the first of them that the environment should be clean and kosher. And then he moved on to personal guidance: “And in my humble opinion, you must make a lot of boundaries and shemiros so as not to get swept up chas v’shalom in the secular current:
1) Set aside time for learning Torah each day for at least two hours, no matter what… and if it is possible to find a friend who is a talmid chacham, yarei Shamayim, and one with a straight mind, that is even better.
2) Daven all tefillos with a tzibbur, and at the end of each Shemoneh Esreh, ask for mercy that your emunah should not be affected and you should not be afflicted with inappropriate thoughts.
3) Be consistent about immersing in a mikveh, which brings about purity of thoughts and of the soul.
4) Keep Shabbos according to all the halachos and stringencies, and the whole day of Shabbos should be holy for Hashem, to engage in oneg Shabbos or in Torah and avodah. Do not speak about mundane matters or jokes on Shabbos, and don’t read newspapers and the like on this day. The holiness of Shabbos protects all the weekdays.
5) Set aside time each day to learn sifrei mussar and chassidus, at least 15 minutes each day. It is a great shemirah… And may you emerge in peace from this, and may the merits of your forebears help you.”
“Every day for the rest of his life, my grandfather rose before dawn and sat down to learn,” says Reb Chaim Shmuel. “Before anything, he would study two sifrei chassidus, Meor Einayim and Kedushas Levi. Then he would peruse mussar seforim. A few years back, he told us that he had gone through these seforim more than 250 times.”
After such piercing guidance, Rav Avraham Twersky began his medical studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He would say that his dream was to become a medical doctor, to be able to help others in such a hands-on way, but it seemed totally out of reach because medical schools required attending classes on Shabbos. At that time, however, Marquette changed over to a five-day schedule.
At Marquette, he became somewhat of a phenomenon — the rebbishe einikel who was getting the best grades, but who did not forge casual friendships and never raised his eyes to speak with a female student.
Money was tight, and in the end, financing for his medical studies came from an unlikely source: entertainer Danny Thomas, who had somehow heard through the university administration about a young rabbi who wanted to become a psychiatrist but was unable to finance his medical school education.
He graduated Marquette in 1960 and began looking around for a psychiatry residency. By now, many readers know that that was also the year he composed the classic “Hoshia Es Amecha” in honor of the wedding of his brother Aaron (law professor Rabbi Dr. Aaron Twerski, the twin brother of Rav Michel, the Hornosteipler Rebbe of Milwaukee). That song — “Hashem, save your nation!” — would prophetically become his own professional mantra; over the next six decades, he would touch the lives of multitudes, helping thousands of Jews (and others) navigate their fears, inadequacies, and compulsions, giving them hope and confidence in their own greatness and holiness.
Rabbi Twerski was accepted for a psychiatric residency at the University of Pittsburgh. Chabad had a school there, and he became close with the local shaliach, Rabbi Shalom Posner, as well as the Tzidkas Yosef, the first Pittsburgher Rebbe.
Meanwhile, the university department head, who had assured Rabbi Twerski of a staff position, asked the rabbi-psychiatrist for a short-term favor: St. Francis General Hospital in Pittsburgh needed a director of psychiatry. Rabbi Twerski agreed to take the position for one year — and wound up there for the next 20.
St. Francis had a successful alcohol treatment unit, and that’s where Rabbi Twerski got his first intimate introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps, which he realized was very similar to the spiritual teachings of Judaism and especially chassidus.
In treating addicts, Rabbi Twerski saw the limitations of therapy and the emphasis on analyzing the origins of one’s behavior before making a move to change. He saw how patients would continue to drink while they worked with their therapists trying to analyze the possible reasons for their drinking. The Twelve Step program took a different approach: Stop the bad behavior as the first step in the transformation, and admit powerlessness over the addiction — your logical brain won’t get you out of it.
“One does not enter into a discussion or argument with the yetzer hara,” he wrote in Self Discovery and Recovery, one of his 90 (!) books on Judaism and self-help topics. “Whatever reasons you can propose for one position, the yetzer hara will give several logical reasons to the contrary,”
Although Rabbi Twerski didn’t preach religion in treating addicts, he did promote the chassidic idea of increased spirituality and positive self-esteem in everyday life. Those are the foundational concepts of many of his books. (His first book, Like Yourself and Others Will Too, which came out in 1978, was rejected by 18 publishers before being accepted by Prentice Hall. After that, Rabbi Twerski was virtually unstoppable.)
His work at St. Francis led to his founding and directing the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, a national leader in the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction.
“I remember when we were children,” Reb Chaim Shmuel relates, “and we used to walk with him to shul on Shabbos. A car stopped next to us, and someone inside honked at my grandfather and called ‘five!’ — meaning he was clean of his addiction for five years because of my grandfather.”
But what was especially meaningful to him was the admiration from an entirely different direction: the Steipler Gaon. The Steipler kept a notebook with lists of medications for every illness. He used it to reply to many petitioners who came to him with medical questions, or who would come to complain about their aches and pains. Whenever Rabbi Twerski came to visit on his many trips to Eretz Yisrael, the Steipler would show him the notebooks and ask him to update the list.
The deep bond extended into the next generation, with the son of the Steipler, Rav Chaim Kanievsky. “A few years ago, a particular Yid got in trouble and was taken to court,” says Reb Chaim Shmuel. “A group of askanim involved in the matter came to Rav Chaim’s home, and he instructed them to take my grandfather to one of the legal hearings. My grandfather was sure that there was some mistake. ‘Rav Chaim must have meant you should ask my brother, who is a lawyer,’ he told them. Again, they asked Rav Chaim, and he insisted that Rabbi Abraham Twerski should go.
“My grandfather didn’t ask questions. He put on his good clothes, declared, ‘v’asisa kechol asher yorucha,’ and went off to the hearing. The minute he entered the courtroom, the judge leaped out of his seat. ‘Rabbi Twerski!’ he shouted excitedly, ‘because of you I was cured of my addiction, and I’ve been clean for ten years. I’ll do whatever you ask.’”
Rabbi Twerski’s middos shone brightest in his own home. “There’s an incident I witnessed myself, and each time I remember it, I get emotional again,” his grandson relates. “It happened on an Erev Pesach. My grandfather, a scion of the Chernobyler dynasty, tried very hard to keep the minhag of baking matzos on Erev Pesach, according to the family’s minhag, reciting Hallel with a brachah when doing so.
“One year, after putting on his Shabbos clothes and getting into the car, he suddenly stopped. Then he got out of the car and went back home. When I tried to figure out what happened, he had a simple explanation: ‘The grandchildren will come soon. They’ll knock hard at the door. They have no idea that your grandmother is asleep in her room and they will wake her up. I have to be here to greet them.’ Then he looked at me and said words that will forever resonate: ‘You hear, my dear grandson, it’s better to forgo a treasured minhag than to sacrifice even one iota of shalom bayis.’ ”
After living for decades in Pittsburgh, Rebbetzin Goldie passed away. Rabbi Twerski then married psychiatrist Gail Friedman. He retired from full-time work in 1995, and moved to Monsey, New York, where his second wife was from. Afterward they moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, and then to Israel.
“So many people knew him as a professional, a doctor, an innovator in the field of addictions and psychiatry. And he was all that — but there was more. It’s hard to define what a lofty Yid he was,” says his grandson. “He was a real baal madreigah from earlier generations; you can’t begin to fathom his tefillos, his fiery avodah, his sterling middos. At Kiddush, he literally underwent a transformation. We called it the Hornosteipler tzurah — because he seemed completely transported to Hornosteipel. For all the professional credentials and achievements, that was his true identity — he was a genuine chassidishe Yid.
“I once asked him, ‘Zeidy, how did you get through all your challenges in life?’ And he pointed to a picture of his grandfather, Rav Mottele of Hornosteipel and said, ‘He took away my power of bechirah. Every time I remember that I am his grandson, I feel this compulsion to do the right thing.’ ”
Rav Mottele was famed as a rebbe who never sought chassidim, but was pursued by adherents anyway. And Rabbi Twerski seemed to follow the same model: A massive number of people saw him as their spiritual mentor, but he characteristically ran away from public shows of respect. One Friday night after the seudah, when Rabbi Twerski was sitting next to his stack of seforim and learning diligently, one of the grandchildren mentioned something about being a rebbe. He laughed. “If I were a Rebbe, I would just be going into the tish now to make Kiddush…. This way I can learn a little.”
Rabbi Twerski emphasized the importance of self-esteem in many written works and conversations. On a superficial level, we asked him, isn’t that constant focus on the self the gateway to an inflated ego?
“Not at all,” Rabbi Twerski explained when we sat together. He insisted on going into the other room, where he took out a sefer and showed me the words of Rabbeinu Yonah in the sefer Drashos al HaTorah. He had emphasized one paragraph with a pen: “The truth is that arrogance stems only from the soul sensing its incompleteness, even though the person cannot articulate precisely what is missing. The baal gaavah thinks that he can compensate for his deficiencies by boasting about himself, thereby elevating himself over people he deems inferior.”
“You see,” he smiled triumphantly, “if we learn Rabbeinu Yonah we don’t need to learn psychology. That is the Torah on one foot. A person who is confident is a person who behaves humbly, and is filled with simchah. Parents ask me how to raise their children properly, and my answer in a nutshell is ‘Give them self-confidence.’ A child who feels unconditional love will be confident in himself because he knows he’s beloved regardless of his actions. And if he’s loved, it means he deserves to be loved. This feeling will accompany him throughout life.”
“In recent years,” says Reb Chaim Shmuel, “my grandfather had trouble walking and had to use a wheelchair. He was very concerned about one thing. He’d say, ‘What is my mission in life?’ When I tried to remind him of all that he’d accomplished, he wasn’t satisfied. ‘But that was yesterday,’ he’d say. ‘What about today?’
“And still, he insisted on being happy. ‘I sometimes think that the fact that I’ve been forced to give the people around me the opportunity to help me is my mission right now. My whole life, I helped others. Now it’s my turn to be helped,’ he said.”
“Your test results for COVID-19 are positive.” When Rabbi Twerski got the news, he knew right away what it portended. At age 90, the odds for surviving COVID were decidedly not in his favor. “I’m so thankful for the past 90 years. I have no complaints for the Ribbono shel Olam,” he kept repeating.
“One thing worried him,” says his grandson. “One of the last things he said was, ‘Tell the Rebbetzin to remember to do hataras nedarim, so that she can go back to eating gebrochts, which she used to do before we married.’ ”
True to his roots, his passing involved a rebbishe moifess. “In one of the clauses of his will, he asked that the Chevra Kaddisha of Rachmistrivke handle his body. But in Eretz Yisrael, Rachmistrikve doesn’t have its own chevra kaddisha,” his grandson says. “But on the night he was niftar, we were told that because he had passed away from COVID, his taharah would be performed by Yerushalmim who were specially trained in COVID protocols. And to our surprise, they were two Rachmistrivke chassidim who tended to him in the custom of his forebears.”
Reb Chaim Shmuel will never forget the last time he saw his grandfather’s face. “I entered the taharah room. His face was glowing with that same light we saw when he made Kiddush on Shabbos.”
And then he left on his final journey, with dozens of people carrying his holy body, singing the famous tune he had composed when he was just starting out on his journey, as per his tzava’ah. Ninety years of life were encapsulated in that niggun. Hoshia es amecha — save your people. For Rabbi Twerski, that’s what it was always all about.
They Were His Struggles Too
By Rabbi Chaim Ozer Geldzahler
Iwas a typically stressed-out 16-year-old bochur, hoping Uncle Shea could work his magic on me too. I’d visit him every Sunday afternoon, and although I’d just come to schmooze with my great-uncle, hear some stories, share some thoughts — you know, just because — I found myself unloading my stress and despair as he listened carefully.
“You know I don’t treat family,” he made sure to tell me. And then, with a glint in his eyes, he leaned over slightly and said, “A doctor who treats himself has a fool for a doctor and a fool as a patient.” Okay, so how about I don’t come for help, but just let me hang out and listen?
And I couldn’t hear enough. His chassidishe stories, related in his own unique way, every detail carefully transmitted as he heard it, painted sceneries of yesteryear as if he were there to witness it all. When he finished, you knew how eternally relevant they were.
But sometimes I couldn’t help myself and I came and complained. I remember one particular Sunday, basking in the serenity of his Teaneck home, sitting on a chair (and tempted to lie on the sofa, but we were schmoozing and not doing therapy) and I said something about feeling like giving up. He started laughing. “Let me tell you a story,” he said. “When we lived in Pittsburgh, we once hosted a neighbor for a Shabbos meal and their little four-year-old was playing with a pushke and making a racket. His mother tried to teach him a lesson in hilchos Shabbos — ‘Moishy, you know a pushke is muktzeh on Shabbos, and we’re not allowed to play with mukzteh on Shabbos.’ Moishy protested, ‘Mommy, in my whole life I never heard that a pushke is muktzeh on Shabbos!’ ”
After Uncle Shea finished teasing me, he looked at me very seriously and said, “You wanna give up? Okay, give up! So do you feel better now? Well, why not? Didn’t you give up? You see, I once tried running away, but I realized that I’d always take ‘me’ with me. Giving up doesn’t really help anything, just like running away doesn’t. You’re still stuck with yourself.”
One Sunday, I decided to bring up my recent smoking habit, which was beginning to bother me as I’d tried quitting a few times without success.
“Uncle Shea,” I admitted. “I smoke, I don’t know if I’m addicted, but I tried quitting and it doesn’t work.” He thought for a minute and then said “Don’t quit.” I was baffled. I knew what his thoughts were on smoking and addiction in general, and I couldn’t hide my shock. He calmed me down, explaining, “If you quit smoking, that pits you in a struggle against the addiction, and the addiction will eventually win — it’s stronger than you are. If you want to stop, then just don’t smoke your next cigarette.” It took me a minute to digest that, when he continued, “I learned that from the Tiferes Shlomo, the way he explains ‘hayom im bekolo tishma’u’ — just think about one day at a time.”
I haven’t had my next cigarette yet.
Every Sunday visit was its own surprise. One week as I sat down, he randomly asked me what I was learning in yeshivah. I told him we were learning Bava Kama.
What page are you up to?” he asked.
“Ahhh, so let me see, the first Tosafos, there’s a Rabi Akiva Eiger and a Ketzos I’m sure your rebbi told you about,” and he proceeded to go through the amud Tosafos by Tosafos as if he learned it yesterday. I tried my best to hide my astonishment.
“So, when did you learn Bava Kama?” I asked nonchalantly.
“Let me think, it must’ve been in Bobov, on the West Side, so that’s probably around ’49.” We were now in 2009!
In recent conversation with my grandmother Rebbetzin Feige Twerski, she related an anecdote that illustrates so much of what made her famous brother-in-law unique. It was at the bar mitzvah Shabbos of one of his sons, and many friends and family made the long trip to Pittsburgh to partake in the simchah. His wife, Goldie, put together the Shabbos from beginning to end, from sleeping accommodations to home-catering the meals and everything in between. Finally, after many hectic days, it was Friday night: Everyone was sitting around the long, set tables in the shul, the bar mitzvah boy was gleefully taking everything in, and there was true simchah in the air. Somewhere in middle of the pre-Kiddush zemiros, Goldie motioned to Uncle Shea that she needed to talk to him urgently. Apparently, the fish that she labored to make on Thursday and was waiting on the kitchen table for Uncle Shea to deliver to the hall, never made it — and there was no eiruv. As a hostess, she was terribly embarrassed and quite upset. After all that work, half of the meal was missing. He promised her he’d see what he could do — which, given the circumstances, wasn’t much.
They made Kiddush and washed, and when the fish was supposed to be served, Uncle Shea got up to deliver a speech. “My dear wife Goldie,” he began, “in 20 years from now, we’ll be sitting at the bar mitzvah Shabbos of this young fellow’s son, G-d willing, and perhaps we’ll be approached by one of the guests sitting here now, and we’ll reminisce about this Shabbos, and surely someone will comment about how it’s so like us to forget the fish, and how it doesn’t happen to anyone else but us, and we’ll sit and laugh together over that mishap from two decades ago.
“So, Goldie and my dear guests, why do we have to wait 20 long years? Perhaps now is just as good a time to appreciate and laugh about how ridiculous it is that there won’t be any fish, because I forgot to deliver it to the hall. I know, it’s quintessential me. Isn’t it crazy? Who forgets the fish by a bar mitzvah?” Indeed, there was no fish, but there was lots of laughter, and a timeless message.
ONE SUNDAY, IN THE MIDDLE of a conversation, Uncle Shea let out a deep sigh, just out of the blue. “What’s matter, Uncle Shea?” I asked with concern. He motioned to the portrait of the Zeide Reb Mottele. “What, he did something to you?” I asked. He sighed again. “You see, he was my great-grandfather, and when I think about my great-grandchildren, it’s just disheartening, you know, when I think who is their elter zeide, and who was mine…”
This incongruity was startling — here is this great man, who has helped heal thousands of people, and yet, he beat himself up like that all the time. There was some humility involved, obviously — perhaps too much, as he’d admit. But there was something else as well. I remember he was having a rough day, and I was there kvetching about some issues I was having with a friend. As we were talking, he teared up, held my hand, and said, “How about I’ll be your friend and you’ll be mine?” It was then when I knew that all his preaching about self-esteem and simchah wasn’t some textbook psychology, but came from an intimate familiarity with them. It was his own inner conflict, his ups and downs and personal struggles, that motivated him to write and teach about these subjects and effect change and healing in so many others. It wasn’t that he was the expert because he mastered it. He was the expert because he struggled with it consciously for 90 years.
I once asked him why he wasn’t a millionaire, given his thousands of patients and consultations, his dozens of books, his speaking engagements — how did he manage to do it all and not become rich? His answer was simple and clear. “Before I went to medical school, my mother told me, ‘Remember, you’re going to help Yidden.’ ” He never lost sight of his mother’s guidance. He wasn’t in it for fame or money, both of which he worked hard to run away from. He was there to help Yidden.
Helping Yidden isn’t a profession. It’s a calling. Listening to Yidden, crying with them, consoling lost souls, comforting broken hearts. Whether it’s drug addicts, their families, or his 16-year-old nephew with silly teenage issues, his wisdom and guidance wasn’t something you could learn from a textbook. It’s what some people call a rebbe. Uncle Shea gave me a vision, hope, and confidence to grow and be strong. He wasn’t the first psychiatrist with a shtreimel, but he might have been the first chassidishe rebbe to have a degree.
Rabbi Chaim Ozer Geldzahler studies in the Institute for Dayanim in Yerushalayim and teaches at The Chaburah.
I’ve been living in Eretz Yisrael for many years. When I heard that Rabbi Twerski was very ill, I took his name, taped it to my wall, and davened. I was so sad. When I heard that the Rav was niftar, I burst out sobbing.
Rabbi Twerski was my hero. Only he never knew it.
Rabbi Twerski wrote the book The Shame Borne in Silence approximately eight years after I was married. Excerpts from his book began running in the Jewish Press. Rabbi Twerski had the will, courage, and resolve to inform the religious world of the “secret crime” committed by enough “religious” men who abuse their eishes chayil. He explained how verbal and emotional attacks were equally as painful as physical abuse. He confronted the truth head-on with direction and empathy for all those abused women who had been carrying their tragic burden silently. He encouraged rabbis and professionals to become more aware of the crime that has seeped into the Jewish community. He called out to community leaders to believe and help the victims. He warned parents of shidduch-age children what to look for, and what to stay away from. He guided parents in how to equip their daughters with this vital information if, chas v’shalom, they find themselves in an abusive situation.
Rabbi Twerski spoke often in Neve Yerushalayim. In a lecture on domestic violence, I heard a great man of great stature speaking with confidence and authority. He was the voice of those silent women locked into abusive and controlling marriages with no immediate help in sight. He told his audiences to be aware, come forward, step up to the plate and help.
After the lecture, I rushed up to the dais to have this extraordinary rabbi and doctor sign my book. I looked at him and quietly whispered, “Rabbi Twerski, I am one of the women in your book….” He looked at me, wrote and signed a kind note and wished me well. Each time he lectured, I made sure to get a brachah from him.
Rabbi Twerski was the man who validated me and my life. He stood up for me. He demanded dignity and respect for women in marriages like mine. He declared to the religious olam: This cannot go on. This must stop.
Although, out of self-preservation, I began working together with a counselor, it was Rabbi Twerski’s book — and his validation — that gave me that additional push to do what was desperately needed. Rabbi Twerski granted me the permission I needed to take my children and leave my marriage. Each time I went to court, I brought a copy of the book along. I felt that I was representing all my fellow women who were suffering in abusive relationships, and that Rabbi Twerski was giving me the backbone I needed not to fall apart.
I took the Rav’s advice seriously and made sure each of my daughters would be equipped with a good profession. I made sure my children learned the value of respect and dignity in a Jewish marriage.
My role models were kind men, and at the time, I was sure I was the only frum woman this was happening to. When I heard that the Rav was niftar, I called my very close friend. (We’d both suffered through difficult marriages and divorces at the same time, and although we’d both kept it secret, we wound up discovering each other’s struggles.) I said to her, “Rabbi Twerski was my hero.” She added, “He was my hero, too.” We agreed that he was the hero of thousands of people. I hope this most humble of men knew the truth.
I daven that Hashem watch over the Rav’s holy neshamah, and that He give strength and comfort to his wife and family. Yehi zichro baruch.
Name Withheld, Jerusalem
A Ninety-Year Gift
By Rabbi Nosson Scherman
Rabbi Dr. Shea Twerski was speaking to a husband who was still disconsolate months after the loss of his wife. Rabbi Twerski said, “If Hashem had told you ‘I’ll give you a wonderful wife and mother for 43 years, but then I will take her back. Will you accept the offer?’ ” Obviously, words — even wise words — cannot immediately heal a grieving heart, but Reb Shea had an amazing understanding of what people were feeling, even if they could not articulate it, and even if they did not understand what they themselves were feeling. He knew what to say and when to say it, and how the person would assimilate the message and how it would percolate to achieve its purpose.
To realize the extent of his wisdom and of his lifelong kiddush Hashem, one must consider the following: When he was growing up in Milwaukee, there was not even a day school and he attended public school until he was old enough to be sent to an out-of-town yeshivah. He trained in a Catholic university and medical school, and his long, successful, and eminent career was in non-Jewish settings. Throughout it all, he never hid or compromised his chassidic garb or customs — beard, peyos, long jacket, yarmulke, low velvet hat — by an iota. And although he was a “misfit,” he was respected everywhere as one of the pioneering experts in his specialty, and revered as a mensch.
His field was addiction and substance abuse, and although our community likes to think that we are immune to such maladies, Reb Shea was sadly aware that not only is it a problem even among us, but that exposure to general society introduces us to it and growing prosperity enables many of us to afford the pleasures of dangerous indulgences that end up hooking them. For many years, he hosted retreats where suffering adults could be introduced to treatment and gain partners to strengthen their resolve to recover. In the early years, he once told me, there were only a handful of frum Jews at the retreats. As time went by, the numbers grew to many minyanim, of all stripes of our community. He encouraged and convinced many, many to seek successful treatment, and he counseled families on how to deal with recovering addicts and how to force recalcitrants to accept the need for treatment.
Reb Shea showed that successful psychological insights are rooted in Chazal. He was a distinguished talmid chacham in addition to being a leading psychiatrist. He had a years-long correspondence with the Steipler Gaon that touched on sugyos throughout Shas, and often sought the Steipler’s daas Torah on mental health issues. The Steipler, for his part, often consulted him on such matters. Because of his Torah credentials, Reb Shea was able to convince sufferers, their families, and their rabbanim to stop sweeping the problem under the rug. Reb Shea was an avid proponent of the “12-Step Method,” a step-by-step recovery regimen pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. It employs Christian concepts and references and was therefore shunned by Orthodox Jews. Reb Shea showed, however, that the 12-Step concepts are all rooted in Chazal, and he adapted its terminology to make it acceptable to frum Jews. As a result, countless individuals are in recovery and their families saved from disintegration.
He had a great sense of humor and never took himself too seriously. He learned a valuable lesson from his father, the Hornosteipler Rebbe. “If someone insults you, don’t take it to heart. The person is obvious sick. Don’t be hurt or angry. Feel sympathy for the person.” Reb Shea wrote 90 books in his 90 years, and finished his last manuscript shortly before his passing. About 40 of his books were intended for the Torah public and were published by ArtScroll (an enormous privilege for us). The rest were for mental health professionals, suffering addicts, or the general public.
He was fond of poking fun at himself, often saying, “I wrote the same book 40 times.” In a true sense he was right. His hashkafah was firmly, uncompromisingly rooted in Torah and chassidus. Everything he said, did, and wrote was an honest expression of that mesorah.
If Hashem had asked the Torah world, “I will give you Rabbi Avrohom Yehoshua Heshel Twerski for 90 years and then I will take him back — will you accept the offer?” How priceless a gift and how rich were those nine decades.
Rabbi Nosson Scherman is general editor of ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications
The Year of the Song
By Yisroel Besser
“Don’t write about ‘Hoshia Es Amecha,’ ” Mrs. Friedman said, “everyone saw the video of the levayah and discussed it already.”
She is, technically, my boss, so she has the final say, but if you’re reading this, it’s because she understood my need to write about it just the same, because the song has become deeply personal. Oh, so personal.
I have long been enamored by the Twerski family, their music along with their Torah, chassidus, and outreach, but in this case, it isn’t the melody of “Hoshia Es Amecha” alone that makes me consider it a legacy song.
In the shul in which I daven, on the first Yom Kippur we were a kehillah, just after N’eilah, we sang ‘L’shanah Haba’ah b’Yerushalayim.’ But then the rav started to sing another niggun — “Hoshia Es Amecha,” and that became part of the most exalted moments of the year. Later, I learned that Rav Shlomo Freifeld sang the same niggun after N’eilah, and his rebbi, Rav Hutner, would sing it after Mussaf on Hoshanah Rabbah — the culmination of three months of intense tefillah.
Great tzaddikim incorporated a song composed here, in America, making it part of a repertoire featuring songs that were centuries old, brought over from Hungary, Russia, or Poland. (Note: The song wasn’t composed in the Brooklyn part of America, but in the Milwaukee of 1960. A year later, Rabbi Twerski would take it across state lines to Pittsburgh, city of steel and bridges. The song would come to celebrate a nation made of steel, and the bridges that keep them connected.)
Not long ago, a choshuve rav I know told me he was on a flight next to a sweet, sincere gentleman, who introduced himself as a rabbi of a small town in the American Midwest. It wasn’t an Orthodox synagogue and he knew almost nothing about Judaism — he wanted a crash course. As part of it, he asked this rav to teach him a single niggun, one fundamental Jewish song.
The rav taught him just one song: “Hoshia Es Amecha.”
Okay, it’s a great song, but that’s not what makes it personal and that’s not why I’m so eager to write.
Reb Shea, your niggun gave us life this winter, and I’ll tell you why.
The minhag in Klal Yisrael was always to count ten men for a minyan using a pasuk with ten words, since counting with fingers can bring on an ayin hara. The pasuk traditionally used was “Ve’ani b’rov chasdecha avo veisacha, eshtachaveh el heichal kodshecha b’yirasecha — But I, with Your great loving-kindness, shall enter Your House; I shall prostrate myself toward Your Holy Temple in the fear of You” (Tehilim 5:8). Ten words, the perfect pasuk to signal the beginning of davening.
Somehow, in recent years, the minhag shifted, and people started using a different pasuk. “Hoshia es amecha u’varech es nachlasecha, u’re’im vena’aseim ad haolam — Deliver Your people and bless your heritage; tend them and exalt them forever” (Tehillim 28:9).
Ten words, it’s true, but seemingly less connected to the act of forming a minyan than the traditional pasuk. So why the switch?
I don’t know. But this winter, I got insight into it.
Where I live, over this winter shuls were closed, then allowed to function, but only with ten people, exactly a minyan.
We tried lists and pre-registering, but we’re Jews, so some days, eleven came instead of ten. What then? To kick someone out of shul isn’t in our DNA, but what about the ten-person limit?
One awkward day before Minchah, as we stood in the large room, eleven masked figures spread out across a room that can hold two hundred, trying to figure it out, someone started counting. Hoshia. Es. Amecha, One, two, three. And as he continued, he started to use the tune, “U’vareich es nachalasecha…. u’re’im, u’re’im, u’re’im,” counting on his fingers as he did so, more than enough words in the song to cover everyone there.
It was a cute, witty joke, the extra “u’re’ims” in the tune creating new allowances. Yet after davening, the Rav shared the depth of the joke.
“U’re’im” means “to tend to them,” like a “ro’eh,” a shepherd.
Yaakov tells Yosef about the “Elokim, haro’eh osi — G-d Who sustained me as long as I am alive” (Bereishis 48:15).
The Ramban, however understands the word “ro’eh” not as shepherd, but as “friend,” (like “rei’acha,”) referring to the relationship between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and Klal Yisrael as an enduring friendship.
Friendship, the quotations on stickers and magnets say, isn’t about how much you talk or what you do for each other, but about how much you’re there for each other.
This year, this niggun was an anthem because we showed it. He’s always there for us, but this year, we were there for Him too.
No examples, because you know it from your own lives. Over the last 12 months, you had days when you reached deep into yourself and pulled out loyalty you didn’t know you had, dedication that you considered beyond you, faith you always believed was only for tzaddikim.
It was a year of friendship. U’re’im, u’re’im, u’re’im, on a million levels, the year of Reb Shea Twerski’s niggun.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)
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