Abraham J. Twerski, an esteemed Hassidic rabbi and acclaimed psychiatrist who championed treatment for substance abuse and authored over 80 books on subjects both spiritual and scientific, has died at the age of 90.
Twerski died Sunday in Jerusalem after suffering from COVID-19, his family said.
Twerski was a scholar with feet planted firmly in two worlds — the rabbinic world of Torah and Talmud study, and a medical doctor and licensed psychiatrist. It was a rare pairing that earned him respect in both the insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish world and wider American society.
Known to friends and colleagues as Abe and to close family as Shea, he was an expert on addiction and scion of a long line of prominent rabbis descended from the 18th-century founder of Hassidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov.
Twerski was a prolific writer. He authored dozens of books on a wide array of subjects: from addiction and mental health to religious law for medical professionals and commentaries on Jewish texts. Twerski also collaborated with late “Peanuts” comic strip creator Charles Schulz on a series of popular self-help books featuring Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
Born in Milwaukee in 1930, he was the first American-born child of Rabbi Jacob Twerski, who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1927 and served as a leading rabbi in the city's Jewish community for decades.
Twerski and his four brothers were all ordained rabbis and university educated. His brother Aaron is a professor at Brooklyn Law School, and his brother Michel is a Hassidic rabbi in Milwaukee.
As a young assistant rabbi in the 1950s, Abraham found that congregants did not turn to him for counseling as they did his older, revered father.
“I didn’t see my life as a performer of rituals, and I felt that if what psychiatry is doing is what my father used to be doing, well, then that’s where I’ll go," Twerski recalled in a 1988 interview with the National Council of Jewish Women. "So I went to medical school to become a psychiatrist to do what I wanted to do as a rabbi."
After graduating from Marquette University's medical school, Twerski worked as director of psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh, founded Pittsburgh’s Gateway Rehabilitation Center in 1972 and was associate professor of psychiatry emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.
But through his work in mental health, he also broke down barriers and taboos about psychiatry and abuse within the Orthodox Jewish world. His 1996 book, for instance, “The Shame Borne in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community,” was considered a groundbreaking work.
“This was something he pioneered and he put his neck on the line for it because he felt that he would be able to help a lot of people," his grandson, Chaim Twerski, told The Associated Press.
For the past several years, Twerski split his time between Israel and the United States. Last month, he contracted COVID-19 and, after a few weeks battling the disease, passed away Sunday at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, his family said.
He is survived by two brothers, Michel and Aaron, his wife Dr. Gail Bessler-Twerski, four children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. His first wife, Golda, predeceased him in 1995.
Twerski was buried at the Eretz Hachaim Cemetery near Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, late Sunday night. His limited funeral ceremony was attended by close family, but the live feed was viewed by nearly 14,000 people, the family said.
Twerski's will specified that mourners recite no eulogies. Instead, he asked that they sing a popular melody he composed decades ago for the words of Psalms 28:9 — “Deliver and bless Your very own people; tend them and sustain them forever."