I’ve been helping Orthodox Jews fight addiction and mental illness for decades. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski made our work possible.
(JTA) — On Sunday, the Jewish community lost one of the biggest forces fighting for those who are suffering the most.
At Amudim, a crisis intervention organization serving the Orthodox Jewish community, we have been humbled by the increasing number of community members who have come to accept the realities of mental health challenges in recent years. None of what we do today would be possible without the groundbreaking work of Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, of blessed memory, who died at 90 years old.
Rabbi Twerski deserves to be remembered as a tzaddik (a righteous person), a title that he rightfully earned in his lifetime. But Rabbi Twerski was so much more than a psychiatrist, author of dozens of books and brilliant Torah scholar. He was also a man who positively impacted countless families and individuals in so many ways, ranging from pulling out the rug from within the community of addiction to being outspoken about abuse issues, and so much more.
My father, Rabbi Edgar Gluck, and Rabbi Twerski shared a close relationship that spanned 60 years. When I became involved with those in danger of slipping through our societal cracks, it was a privilege to be able to reach out to the man who was known simply in our family as “Reb Shia.”
I will never forget the time I reached out to him to discuss the suitability of 12-step meetings, trying to ascertain how I could send religious Jewish clients to a meeting that more often than not was being held in a church (many Orthodox Jews believe Jewish law forbids one to enter any Christian houses of worship).
Explaining to me that cases that had reached that level were clearly life threatening, he told me straight out, “When a patient has cancer, do you look for the best doctor or a Jewish doctor?” He discussed this issue in one of his many books, and he made it clear to me that he was more than happy to have a discussion on the matter with anyone who saw the issue differently.
In addition to being available to offer guidance on specific cases or emergencies as they arose, Rabbi Twerski was helpful to me in many other ways. Nearly 15 years ago, I found myself dealing with a crisis involving a family that had multiple children living in an abusive environment. With numerous rabbis weighing in with different views, I reached out to Rabbi Twerski for an outside opinion. He introduced me to someone that he felt could get to the heart of the matter — Dr. David Pelcovitz. Not only was Dr. Pelcovitz perfectly suited to help me navigate the complexities of this particular case, but he became a tremendous inspiration to me and an invaluable asset to Amudim since the day we opened in 2014.
Over the years, Rabbi Twerski became a guiding light for Amudim. He wasn’t able to join us for our 2015 mental health conference, a groundbreaking two days that gave mental health professionals the opportunity to share their feedback from the trenches, helping us focus our efforts to help as many people as possible in their personal struggles. But he worked with us every step of the way to create the program, spending hours on the phone with Amudim’s founder, Mendy Klein, and me in order to maximize the event’s potential.
Rabbi Twerski also taught me the perplexing nature of recovery. He explained that while some go through recovery and fare well in the long run, others keep repeating the same destructive patterns again and again. In order to end the vicious cycle haunting those in the latter group, Rabbi Twerski said, one must give them the tools to approach life and its sometimes daunting circumstances in a healthier way.
But perhaps one of the most incredible lessons I learned from Rabbi Twerski came during a Zoom conference for high level mental health professionals, community leaders and philanthropists that took place approximately two years ago. One participant averred that a person can only be helped once they have hit rock bottom. When I disagreed wholeheartedly, another person jumped in, saying that Rabbi Twerski had said exactly that in one of his books. Wasting no time, Rabbi Twerski explained that while he had made that statement 30 years ago, it no longer applied in today’s world, where hitting rock bottom too often means death.
That was vintage Rabbi Twerski. He could balance Torah, medical knowledge and practical life skills while still being able to adapt his expertise and advice to changing realities. I have tried to model my own approach at Amudim after the example set by Rabbi Twerski. When it has sometimes seemed awkward and embarrassing to do an about-face, I remind myself that if Rabbi Twerski could publicly change his mind, I could, too.
Throughout my life, whenever I hit a speed bump, I knew I could always count on Rabbi Twerski. I treasure the moments I spent with him, particularly the time he sat me down at a family wedding and told me that he truly believed that Amudim’s work over the past several years to promote awareness and destigmatize mental health challenges had surpassed anything he had done in his lifetime. Surely it was an exaggeration and was meant as a form of encouragement, but it was meaningful and touched my heart all the same.
That was Rabbi Twerski. Always uplifting. Always inspiring. I remember the times when people would try to convince him to give his stamp of approval for one organization over another and he would have none of it, saying only, “I do what is best for Klal Yisroel. Don’t get me involved in politics and games.”
During his 90 years on this earth, Rabbi Twerski made a tremendous impression as a Torah scholar, a psychiatrist, a rabbi, a clinician and a mentor, a man whose sage advice was a godsend to so many, empowering individuals and families and giving them strength even during their darkest moments. His ability to integrate his seemingly boundless knowledge of mental health with an equally vast ocean of Torah values was unparalleled, and even with his incredible erudition, he had the ability to inspire every person — his kindness, humility and sensitivity shining with every word and on every page.
Despite his many professional accomplishments, I can’t help but remember Rabbi Twerski as someone who spent his days and nights sowing seeds of happiness. As I close my eyes, the words and notes of his iconic “Hoshia Es Amecha” echo in my mind, a fitting tribute to a man who dedicated his life to making the world a better place.