Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, a Chassidic rabbi, psychiatrist, prolific author of more than 60 popular books on Jewish spirituality and recovery from substance abuse, and founder and longtime head of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, Pa., one of America’s leading facilities for addiction treatment, passed away on Jan. 31 in Jerusalem from complications from coronavirus. He was 90 years old.

Avraham Yehoshua Heschel Twerski was born in 1930 in Milwaukee to Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael and Devorah Twerski. His father was a scion of the Hornesteipel Chassidic dynasty, which traces its way back to the Rebbes of Chernobyl. In his autobiographical work, Generation to Generation, he wrote how his father moved to Wisconsin in 1927 and began with a nucleus of Ukrainian Jewish landsleit (countrymen), but gradually achieved a following among all segments of the community, serving as a counselor to countless individuals and families.

“When I was a child,” Rabbi Twerski wrote, “I could not help but overhear many of the proceedings in his study. In addition, our Shabbos table was always graced by many guests, some of whom were itinerant rabbis, and I would hear father in his Torah discussions with them, or perhaps relating a parable or Chassidic story.”

“My father had a large library, and I read everything I could get my hands on,” Rabbi Twerski recalled in an interview with the Pittsburgh Quarterly. “I went to high school in Milwaukee but was specially promoted twice, and graduated at 16, then went off to yeshivah and trained to be a rabbi, like my dad. He was a natural therapist and people flocked to him, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

In 1951, he married his first wife, Golda, who predeceased him. He was ordained at 21 and joined his father as assistant rabbi of his congregation. In the years following World War II, psychiatry and psychology had a meteoric rise. “After being a rabbi for several years, I noticed that people weren’t flocking to me for counseling the way they had to my father. They were not going to rabbis for that; they were seeing professionals. I decided that if I wanted to be the kind of rabbi my father was, I had to become a professional. So I went for broke, going to medical school to become a psychiatrist.”

In 1953, Rabbi Twerski enrolled at Milwaukee’s Marquette University and subsequently graduated from its medical school in 1960. He then moved with his family to Pittsburgh, Pa., where he founded the Gateway Rehabilitation Center and served as medical director emeritus until his passing. He was clinical director of the Department of Psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine and founder of the Shaar Hatikvah (“Gateway to Hope”) rehabilitation center for prisoners in Israel.

Upon moving to Pittsburgh, the Twerski family established themselves in the Chabad-Lubavitch community, with Rabbi Twerski teaching classes in Tanya, the seminal work of Chabad Chassidic thought, and Talmud to both beginners and advanced students. He served for decades as president of the Lubavitch Center of Pittsburgh and the community synagogue, and would frequently travel to New York to seek the blessings and advice of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—on his many professional and communal responsibilities.

Rabbi Twerski, upper right, listens as Rabbi Sholom Posner, founder of Yeshiva Schools and synagogue in Pittsburgh, speaks at a family celebration.
Rabbi Twerski, upper right, listens as Rabbi Sholom Posner, founder of Yeshiva Schools and synagogue in Pittsburgh, speaks at a family celebration.

“I recall one time passing before the Rebbe and requested a dollar for ‘Dr. Twerski,’ ” recalls Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, who, together with his wife, Blumi, directs Chabad of Western Pennsylvania, serves as rabbi of the Lubavitch Center of Pittsburgh and is a longtime friend to the Twerski family. “The Rebbe looked at me and corrected me, ‘Rabbi Dr. Twerski,’ and handed me another dollar—apparently one for the ‘rabbi’ and another for the ‘Dr.’ ”

Rosenfeld recalls how Twerski considered the Lubavitch Center as “his” synagogue and would do everything in his power to help support it. In addition to serving as its president, he would refer the diverse people with whom he dealt to lend their financial support to the center, spreading its name far and wide to the many places he would travel.

“Whenever Rabbi Dr. Twerski would travel somewhere on a speaking engagement, he would let me know so that I could contact the local Chabad representative there to see if there’s any way he could be of help,” said Rosenfeld. “He was happy to speak anywhere, and there are countless beautiful stories of his interactions with so many people he met and helped at Chabad Houses around the world.”

A Gift for Music

While his clinical, communal and literary works speak for themselves, another element of Rabbi Twerski’s prolific output is less known. Following the tradition of his family, the Rebbes of Hornesteipel, he had a keen ear for music, a way with words, and a broad grasp of Chassidic and rabbinic literature.

Thus, he composed a number of impressive grammen—traditional Yiddish musical rhymes, packed with traditional references and hidden meaning—that he sung at weddings and other festive affairs.

Listening to the recorded grammen he developed for the various members of the Posner/Deren family, who have led Chabad in Pittsburgh since the early 1940s, one detects a deep reverence and love he had for the Rebbe and his Chassidim.

A particularly striking example was the work he performed at the wedding of Rabbi Levi Garelik, who grew up as a Chabad emissary in Milan, Italy. Speaking of the Rebbe as his own Rebbe, he lauds the life of the emissaries. The refrain is: In merit of the mitzvah of spreading [Judaism] dispatched by our Rebbe / From distant to bring near / With mitzvot and good deeds / It’s worth living / As an emissary of the Rebbe.

On the lighter side, he also performed a comical 15-stanza composition lamenting his “exile within Chabad,” where he is “forced” to forgo many of the liturgical texts and other customs he grew up with. Beginning as an imaginary conversation with his ancestor, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, he lists the prayers he misses and questions whether perhaps the contemporary Chassidim have lost their way. He concluded by envisioning the arrival of Moshiach, when, as Moses himself watches on, he will summon the temerity to lead the prayers, adding in the parts he missed as a congregant at Chabad.

Rabbi Twerski, far right, began his custom of composing and singing Chabad-themed songs for the various Posner family weddings at the nuptials of Rabbi Yisrael and Vivi Deren in Nashville, Tenn. Here he is seen reading the “tenaim” (marriage agreement).
Rabbi Twerski, far right, began his custom of composing and singing Chabad-themed songs for the various Posner family weddings at the nuptials of Rabbi Yisrael and Vivi Deren in Nashville, Tenn. Here he is seen reading the “tenaim” (marriage agreement).

‘Just Call Me Abe’

But more than anything else, he was a counselor and friend to the thousands of alcoholics and addicts with whom he worked and befriended professionally and personally throughout his life, many of whom by his own insistence called him “Abe.” Not rabbi, not doctor—“Just call me Abe,” he would say.

“I was lucky enough to join him once for a weekend of Jewish men and women in various stages of recovery,” said Rabbi Shimon Posner, co-director of Chabad of Rancho Mirage, Calif. “He was the star of the show and did he ever shine. His talks were engaging, breathtaking really. He smiled exuberantly and hugged tightly the teenager whom others would see as a “case”. And when a newbie was tongue-tied, he grabbed his hand in his, “Tell it like it was, and tell it like it is, baby!”

Rabbi Shais Taub, scholar-in-residence at Chabad of the Five Towns in Cedarhurst, N.Y., and author G‑d of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction, had a deep relationship with Rabbi Twerski due to his work with recovery. “He was very supportive of me, and I owe a great deal to him,” he said.

“Of course, people are aware of Rabbi Twerski’s powerful intellect and his masterful ability to communicate both in the spoken and written word,” said Taub. “But I hope what people also realize about him is how much courage he had. He was way ahead of his time championing causes and people that society once ignored or overlooked. Precisely because of the progress that he made, I think it may be hard for us today to understand how much of a trailblazer he was.”

As a sure sign of that trailblazing, Rabbi Twerski was a beloved and inspirational fixture at weekends in the Catskills hosted by JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and their Significant Others), a program of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in New York City.

“Abe lit candles in each of us, and we in turn have lit candles in others, each in our own way,” said Arnie Goldfein, a past president of JACS. “If we continue do as he taught us, he will ‘live on’ as we light up others who in turn will light up others.”

Yudy Weiner, a psychologist and counselor from Long Island and now Jerusalem, knew Rabbi Twerski for almost 35 years. “He was so instrumental in bringing thousands of neshamas (‘souls’) back from hopelessness and despair, I was fortunate enough to be ‘one of his many diamonds.’ May we all be worthy to continue his most precious work in saving one life, one day at a time.”

‘I Get Questions From All Over, and I Try to Respond’

After many years of treating alcoholics and addicts, Rabbi Twerski decided to take some of the principles he had learned from his work with them and transmit those insights to the public at large.

His first title was on self-esteem, Like Yourself and Others Will, Too. “The idea of writing appealed to me, so I wrote another book called Caution: Kindness Can Be Dangerous to the Alcoholic. After that, I started writing on Jewish themes. Then something wonderful happened. I had always been impressed by the insights of Charles Schulz, the man who created the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip. I used to clip out meaningful strips and put them on the bulletin board for our residents to see. Then I stumbled upon what I thought was a good book idea. I called Mr. Schulz’s publishers and told them about it. Schulz thought it was a good idea, so I wrote the first book with his ‘Peanuts’ insights titled, When Do the Good Things Start? That was followed by Waking Up Just In Time. Next came It’s Not a Fault, It’s a Character Trait, which was followed by I Didn’t Ask to Be in This Family. These books were popular in the United States, but they sold like wildfire in Japan, where they’re crazy about Charlie Brown and Snoopy.”

“I’ve kept writing. You could call it an addiction. I have an advice column in one of the Jewish papers, which resulted in two books called Dear Rabbi and Dear Doctor. I’m now working on three other books that will one day be published—numbers 56, 57 and 58,” he said a few years ago. “And because my email address is pretty well-known, I get questions from all over, and I try to respond. I receive three or four email messages and three or four phone calls every day about all kinds of problems. I’m a free consultant. And my days are still pretty long. But I’m really just doing what my father did.”

Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski is survived by his wife, Gail Bessler-Twerski; as well as children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He is also survived by his brothers, Rabbi Michel Twerski of Milwaukee and Rabbi Aaron Twerski of Brooklyn, N.Y.

He was laid to rest in Jerusalem a few hours after his passing.

As is the custom of many, he asked that no eulogies be given at his funeral. Instead, he requested that those who would gather should to sing a now-famous melody he had composed 60 years before in honor of his brother’s wedding.

Hoshia et amecha, uvarech et nachalatecha, urem venasem ad haolam.

“Deliver Your people and bless Your heritage; tend them and exalt them forever.” (Psalms 28:9)