Abraham Twerski, Who Merged 12 Steps and the Torah, Dies at 90

Abraham J. Twerski was an Orthodox rabbi, the descendant of several Hasidic dynasties. Yet he was also a psychiatrist and a respected authority on addiction who was drawn to the 12-step approach central to Alcoholics Anonymous, a program whose origins are Christian.

“He discovered in A.A. meetings the kind of sincere and even selfless fellow-feeling that was often absent in synagogues,” Andrew Heinz wrote in a 1999 profile of Rabbi Twerski for Judaism, the quarterly magazine of the American Jewish Congress. “He was moved by the example of men and women who would willingly be awakened in the middle of the night to go out and help a fellow alcoholic.”

He saw no contradiction between the 12 steps and his belief in the laws of Torah, according to his granddaughter Chaya Ruchie Waldman. “The 12 steps may have been created by Christian believers,” she said, “but it was about spirituality, surrendering to a higher power, and that is synonymous with Judaism.”

Rabbi Twerski melded an eclectic menu of treatments in his work as director of psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh. The Gateway Rehabilitation Center, which he founded, was named one of the top 12 rehabilitation clinics in the United States by Forbes magazine in 1987. He also wrote 80 books, many on Jewish topics but many others on addictive thinking and the addictive personality, all of which enhanced his international reputation as an authority on addiction.

He died on Jan. 31 at a hospital in Jerusalem, the city where he had lived full time for the past five years. He was 90.

A grandson, Chaim Twerski, said the cause was complications of Covid-19.

A devotee of the comic strip “Peanuts,” Rabbi Twerski sought out its creator, Charles M. Schulz, in an attempt to broaden people’s thinking about issues like alcoholism and psychology. Their collaboration resulted in a series of self-help books illustrated with pictures of Snoopy, Charlie Brown and other Peanuts characters, with titles such as “Waking Up Just in Time: A Therapist Shows How to Use the Twelve-Steps Approach to Life’s Ups and Downs” (1990).

What distinguished Rabbi Twerski from many other Orthodox therapists was his willingness to look outside his community. In one of his works, “The Shame Borne in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community” (1996), he called attention to a problem that many Hasidic leaders argued should be handled discreetly within the insular community, without informing the police or outside authorities.

Abraham Joshua Heschel Twerski was born on Oct. 6, 1930, in Milwaukee, where his parents had immigrated in 1927 after leaving Russia. His father, Jacob, the sixth-generation descendant of the grand rabbi of Chernobyl, was the rabbi of Beth Jehudah Synagogue in Milwaukee. His mother, Devorah Leah (Halberstam) Twerski, was the daughter of a grand rabbi of Bobov, one of the largest Hasidic sects.

Abraham was the third of five brothers, each of whom became a rabbi but was given an advanced secular education as well, earning college and graduate degrees, something very few Hasidim strive for. He attended public schools in Milwaukee, and in second grade acted in a Christmas play. When his mother visited the school, the principal thought she was there to complain; instead, she told the principal that if her son’s Jewish upbringing was not strong enough to weather a second-grade play, it was his family that had failed him.

He received his rabbinical ordination in 1951 through the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago (now in Skokie, Ill.). While working with his father’s synagogue as an assistant rabbi, he relished counseling others but realized that the members of the congregation would always turn to his father for advice about their most intimate personal problems. He decided, he explained in a 1988 interview with the National Council of Jewish Women, that by studying psychiatry he might enhance his own talent.

“So I went to medical school to become a psychiatrist to do what I wanted to do as a rabbi,” he said.

He received his medical degree at Marquette University in Milwaukee, a Jesuit institution. When the actor Danny Thomas, a practicing Catholic who had been raised in the Midwest, learned during a lunch with Marquette officials that a student who was an Orthodox rabbi needed up to $4,000 to complete his medical studies, he told the officials, “He’s got it,” and made good on his pledge.

Rabbi Twerski trained as a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh. He was supposed to take up a teaching position at the university, but after Sister Adele at St. Francis Hospital let him know of the hospital’s needs for a stronger mental health program, he became its director of psychiatry. He stayed there for 20 years.

At the time, St. Francis might house about 30 patients for alcoholism treatment, all of them drying out for a few days before being sent home. Rabbi Twerski felt the hospital needed a longer-term clinic and, according to an interview he gave to Pittsburgh Quarterly in 2008, told the nuns, “We must build a place they can go for a few weeks after they’ve dried out to give them a head start on sobriety.”

He was drawn to the idea of helping addicts promptly stop drinking or abusing drugs, in contrast to the more classic psychoanalytic approach of having them explore the roots of their need for those substances. He found that this tougher approach accorded with the Orthodox approach to combating the “evil inclination,” as well as A.A. tenets. But he applied other approaches as well, relying on what he felt each individual could tolerate.

He is survived by his wife, Gail (Bessler) Twerski, a psychologist; four children, Yitzchak Meyer Twerski, Benzion Yehuda Leib Twerski, Shlomo Chaim Twerski and Sara Reizel Miriam Twerski; two brothers, Aaron, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, and Michel, the grand rabbi of the Hornosteipler Hasidim of Milwaukee; 28 grandchildren; and dozens of great-grandchildren. His first wife, Goldie (Flusberg) Twerski, died of cancer in 1995.

Rabbi Twerski’s work with Charles M. Schulz was a particular highlight of his writing career, though he noted in 1999 that Mr. Schulz denied there was anything particularly psychological about “Peanuts.” “I’ve often talked with Schulz,” he said, “and I’ve pointed out to him the insights in his strip. And he said to me, ‘If I saw in my strips everything that you see, I would be paralyzed and unable to draw.’”

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