Rabbi, doctor, author, shrink

Rabbi, doctor, author, shrink

Teaneck's Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D.


It’s a fair bet that the most prolific author living in Teaneck – if not all Bergen County – boasts rabbinic ordination, a medical degree, and an impressive chasidic pedigree.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski has written 70 books, most shelved in the self-help/psychology sections. Some are Jewish in focus but others are not, including a series featuring his psychological advice illustrated with Peanuts cartoons. His latest, “The Rabbi and the Nuns,” is a memoir – with a strong helping of psychology, because it chronicles his career as a psychiatrist, with particular emphasis on his twenty years at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh.

How does a rabbi end up heading psychiatric services at a Catholic hospital managed by nuns, let alone counseling nuns and priests?

In this case, by wanting to fill the very large shoes of his father, Rabbi Jacob Twerski.

The senior Rabbi Twerski immigrated to America in 1927. Scion of a chasidic dynasty going back to the 18th century (his ancestor Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski was a student of the Baal Shem Tov, and he held court in the Ukranian town of Chernobyl), he first planned to settle in Chicago. But a cousin had preceded him by a year, so instead he moved to Milwaukee. No reason to confuse the community with two rabbis Twerski.

Milwaukee had a Jewish community whose population was estimated at 25,000 – compared to more than 300,000 Jews in Chicago.

Unlike the chasidic rabbis who settled in Brooklyn after the Holocaust and recreated chasidic courts in the old country image, Rabbi Jacob Twerski became a prototypical American clergyman to an Americanizing community. (In the chasidic fashion, however, he married a cousin, Devorah Leah Halberstam, daughter of the second Bobov rebbe, Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam, who was murdered by the Nazis.)

Abraham Twerski tells how during the Second World War, his father frequently would visit a family whose son, who was serving in the Air Force, had been reported missing in Europe.

“He wanted to cheer them up, to give them the strength to believe that their Max was alive,” his son said. It turned out that the flier had been shot down and was a prisoner of war.

“When the flyer came home, he found a stack of letters my father had written him. Before he went to visit Max’s family, my father wrote him a letter, to convince himself that the boy was alive. Only once he believed it could he visit. He told the family, ‘What do you think I am, a fool? I’m writing a letter to somebody who’s alive.’

“I learned from that to convince someone of something you have to believe it yourself.

“That’s the kind of intuitive seichel” – wisdom – “my father had,” he said. “He was a very empathetic person, very charismatic. He had a way of getting people to feel good about themselves. I tried to pick it up from him.”

The younger Twerski was born in 1930. He was educated in Milwaukee’s public schools – Milwaukee’s Hillel Academy day school didn’t open until 1960 – and then he spent his high school years at the Chicago yeshiva that is now known as the Hebrew Theological College, and was ordained there. Then he returned to Milwaukee, and in 1951 he started working as his father’s assistant. The next year he married Goldie Flusberg. His uncle, acting as shadchen, set them up, and the couple got engaged after their second date.

“He had a way of getting people to feel good about themselves,” Rabbi Twerski said of his father. “I tried to pick it up from him. One time I came to a patient’s room in Mount Sinai Hospital. The patient said, ‘Your father came to me yesterday. After surgery, I was in such pain. When your father came in, the pain left.’ I came home and told my wife, ‘I’m not going to be able to follow that act. I don’t have that kind of ability.'”

There was another problem with the rabbinate: The postwar era had seen the rise of psychology and psychiatry.

“I realized people were not going to see me for counseling like they had my father,” Rabbi Twerski said. “What was I going to be doing as a rabbi? Bar mitzvahs and weddings and unveilings and funerals. That’s not what I wanted to do with myself. If I wanted to be like my father, I had to become a psychologist or psychiatrist. My father agreed – and I went to medical school.”

In “The Rabbi and the Nun,” Rabbi Twerski details some of the obstacles he overcame in getting through medical school. He was able to go to Marquette University’s medical school because it had just moved to a five-day-a-week schedule. Even without Saturday classes, the medical school had a Jewish quota -accepting only four Jews in his class of 102. He pored over his textbooks during summer vacation to prepare to miss classes for the fall holiday season – and passed the course. Another course actually was held on Shabbat at the instructor’s insistence. Rabbi Twerski had asked a friend to make him a carbon copy of his class notes – but he discovered that the notes covered only a third of each lecture. It turned out the lecturer was putting the class to sleep. Rabbi Twerski, who had to rely on the textbook and not the lectures, ended up scoring at the top in the class.

In 1959, the graduation of a rabbi from a medical school was newsworthy enough that Time magazine ran a story, titled “Rabbi in White,” which reported that “to keep the Torah as an Orthodox Jew for six years of studies in Milwaukee’s Roman Catholic Marquette University was something like running a sack race, an egg race and an army obstacle course at the same time.”

After graduating medical school, Rabbi Twerski went to the University of Pittsburgh for his psychiatric training. The program taught orthodox Freudian psychology; Rabbi Twerski wasn’t convinced by the doctrine and its ideal treatment – years of daily therapy sessions. He tells how his father ridiculed the notion with the old Jewish joke of the Polish landowner who loved his pet dog, and threatened to expel the Jews from his estate after being told that the Jews had the secret of teaching a dog to talk – and kept it from him. One Jew promised to teach the noble’s dog to talk if only the Jews could remain – but warned that it would take six years for the dog to learn.

The landowner agreed.

The other Jews turned to the Jew who had agreed to teach the dog. “You’re crazy. How are you going to teach the dog to talk?”

“Look,” he said. “Six years is a long time. Maybe the dog will die. Maybe I will die. Maybe the landowner will die. Maybe something else will happen. In the meantime, we don’t have to move.”

It was the same with long-term psychological treatment, his father told him.

“Any treatment that lasts for five years, you can’t take credit for. So many things may happen that will change the person,” Rabbi Twerski said his father told him.

“I never did treatment for five years,” he said.

After his three years of training, he spent two years on staff at a state hospital. Then he expected to join the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh. Instead, he was asked to take over the psychiatric department at Pittsburgh’s St. Francis Hospital, which hadn’t been able to hold onto a director.

He was willing to give it a try – but there was that matter of his being an Orthodox Jew.

“I told them they needed someone who is available seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” he said. “I can’t be reached from sundown on Friday.”

The hospital’s chief executive was a nun, Sister Adele Meiser. Sister Adele was unfazed by the rabbi’s religious needs. “Dr. Twerski, we would never think of calling you on your sabbath,” she told him.

In fact, being religious put him in good graces with the Catholics. The Pittsburgh diocese turned to him to lead a team of psychologists to help the nuns who ran the hospital, as well the diocese’s other clergy and members of religious orders.

“I can’t sent them to an average psychiatrist,” the bishop told him. “He might attack their religion.”

The reforms that resulted from Vatican II presented a particular challenge to members of religious orders. The rules that governed their lives had changed. Nuns no longer had to wear habits. They were allowed more choice in their assignments. While some welcomed the reforms, others, particularly those who had been in the order for many years, feared them.

“There were few sisters who left,” Rabbi Twerski said. “There were a few we helped to make the adjustments needed to stay in the convent. There were some who were aged 40 or over who said, ‘This isn’t what I asked for, but to leave now doesn’t make much sense. I’m not marriageable.’ We had to deal with this feeling of anger at the church and the changes.”

He encouraged the church to make a change in the way it treated the nuns.

“I found out that if a sister left the convent she was called a fugitive. I told the cardinal that’s not fair. This woman gave 20 years of her life to the convent and now she’s going to be called a fugitive? So the convent issued an order that the term fugitive is not to be used again,” he said.

Rabbi Twerski became friends with the diocese’s bishop, John Wright, who was appointed a cardinal and moved to Rome in 1969. This friendship proved useful when Rabbi Twerski had to treat an alcoholic priest whose addiction sent him to the intensive care unit, where he spent five days and received last rites. The day he came out of intensive care, he started drinking mouthwash.

“‘You have absolutely no self control,'” Rabbi Twerski told him. “‘If you take a drop of alcohol you’re going to die from alcoholism. I have to put you on Antabuse, a medicine that makes it impossible to drink alcohol.”

“Can I say mass?” asked the priest.

“Use grape juice,” the rabbi said.

“No, it must be wine,” the priest insisted.

So Rabbi Twerski called the Vatican and asked Cardinal Wright for a dispensation for the priest to use grape juice for the mass.

“Rabbi,” the cardinal said, “I will personally hand carry the request to the Holy Father.”

The next day the cardinal called with a new dispensation: Alcoholic priests may use grape juice.

“Tell the Pope he did a mitzvah,” the rabbi told him.

Rabbi Twerski used to tease the nuns about the changes that were taking place. “They took it quite well,” he said. “In a toy store I picked up a little statue of a nun, the old-fashioned kind, and I put it in my office with a sign saying ‘museum of ancient history.'”

One of his most fascinating psychological cases concerned a nun who couldn’t get over her depression.

“She came with her superior. The superior said to the sister, ‘Have you told our doctor about Elaine?’ and she burst out crying.

“She tells me the story that when she was 12 years old, she had a little sister who was 3 or 4. Their mother left the house and told her to take care of Elaine.

“‘I wanted to have girlfriends over. My mother said I couldn’t have girlfriends over unless I cleaned the house. I was working down in the cellar. Elaine was standing at the head of the steps. She said, come play with me. I said I can’t. She wanted me to play with her. I went out and we played tag. She ran around the house and I ran after her.

“‘She was holding a collapsed rubber balloon in her teeth and she aspirated it and asphyxiated and died. She died in my arms and I feel so guilty and I’ve never been able to get over it. I’ve confessed it a hundred time. The priests have told me: Stop confessing it, you’ve done nothing wrong, it’s a freak accident,” the nun said.

She had seen other psychiatrists but never told them the story.

The only thing Rabbi Twerski could think of doing was hypnotizing her, regressing her to the day when the incident happened, and extirpating the memory so that as far she knew, it never happened. “It’s a crazy thing to do,” he realized. He called the leading expert on hypnosis and told him his plan.

“He said, ‘Dr. Twerski, that’s an insane thing to do.’ I said, ‘I got the idea from your book.'”

The nun proved a good candidate for hypnosis.

“I regressed her back to the day. What she initially told me was that she was playing tag with Elaine.

“When she repeated it while under hypnosis, she said Elaine had thrown a rug at her, so she ran after her to hit her.

“I saw where the trouble was.

“But then something fortunate happened. She is relating this story under hypnosis, and says, ‘Then Elaine is running into the alley and I say stop, stop!’

“I said, ‘Why did you say stop?

“She said, ‘She might be hit by a car.’

“I said, ‘Sister, you wanted to punish her, but you didn’t want her to die.’ I went over that phrase about twenty times. Then she went on and described the scene of how the child asphyxiated.

“When I brought her out, her first words were ‘I wanted to punish her but I didn’t want her to die.'”

“The fact she was running after Elaine to hit her and the fact that Elaine died were brought together in her mind. I separated the two. She recovered beautifully.”

Rather than removing her memory of that day as he had planned, he had restored it. Either way, it was a victory for hypnosis.

If Rabbi Twerski had to preach only one psychological principle, however, it wouldn’t be the power of hypnosis, nor even the power of the Twelve Step approach developed by Alcoholics Anonymous.

His key principle would be the importance of self esteem.

“I’m hung up on the concept that every person, unless he has made an effort to overcome it, walks around with feelings of inferiority he has no business having,” he said. “It’s a contributing factor in every emotional issues.

“You might think, ‘What about a guy who’s an egotist, who thinks he’s God’s gift to the world?’ There’s an interesting statement by Rabbeinu Yonah” – that’s Rabbi Yonah of Girona, the 13th century author of “Gates of Repentance,” an ethical guide still studied in Orthodox circles – “who says a vain person is really suffering from low self-esteem but trying to compensate by acting superior to others.”

Rabbi Twerski said he had a beautiful childhood and loving parents, but became an overachiever “to compensate for my feelings of inferiority.”

Looking back, he can remembers being 7 or 8 years old and trying to show off, an act he now attributes to lack of self esteem.

He discovered this lack in himself after his third year at St. Francis Hospital. Every night, he would be awakened several times to make urgent emergency room decisions. So he decided it was time for a real two-week vacation, so he could just sit in a room and close the blinds. He and his wife ended up at in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in December. The town was closed down.

He checked into the spa and prepared to take the mineral baths for his aching back.

“I got into the whirlpool and the attendant gave me two glasses of hot water to drink. I felt it was a mechaye” – a revitalization. “I wasn’t reachable by anybody. This was Gan Eden.” Paradise.

After five minutes, he got out of the whirlpool to go for a massage.

He was told: “You can’t get the rubdown until you stay in the whirlpool for 20 minutes.”

Eager for his rubdown, he returned to the whirlpool. But he couldn’t relax.

“I went back in for 15 more minutes of absolute hell. I had taken 3 years of constant stress at St. Francis but I couldn’t tolerate more than five minutes of Gan Eden. That for me was an awakening,” he said.

He discussed this with a psychologist friend, who told him: ” If you ask people what they do for relaxation, they’ll tell you what they do to relax. That’s not relaxation. That’s diversion. Relaxation means doing nothing. In that whirlpool, they take away all of your diversions from you. There was nothing to look at, nobody to talk with. You were left in the immediate company of yourself.

“‘Obviously you couldn’t tolerate it. There must be something you hate about yourself,'” Rabbi Twerski was told.

“So I began this search to get to know myself, of self-awareness.

“At that time I had become involved with treating alcoholics. I went to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. The fourth step of the 12-step program is to do a moral inventory. I did it six times over a year and a half. It helped me get in touch with parts of my self that I didn’t know and didn’t like,” he said.

Having discovered that he really didn’t like himself, he then worked to accept himself and came to realize “there are some negative things about me, but that’s OK.”

He also came to realize that “people having unwarranted feelings of inadequacy is the major problem in psychology.”

This was certainly his experience when he worked with alcohol and drug abusers. St. Francis was Pittsburgh’s de facto public hospital. Sister Adele, despite her master’s degree in administration, ran the hospital like a nun, not like an MBA. She wouldn’t turn away anyone who needed hospitalization. The result was a very full detox unit, which was the fancy term for a drunk tank.

“Drunks came in, dried out, got three meals – it was a revolving door,” Rabbi Twerski said.

The hospital wasn’t changing people, he realized. “We need to give them a foothold of sobriety before they go back out.”

The solution: A residential rehabilitation center, Gateway, that opened in 1972.

In 1980 Rabbi Twerski left the hospital to focus on Gateway.

He retired from full-time work there in 1995, but he has continued to teach the staff through monthly visits. In honor of his 80th birthday in 2011, Gateway renamed the inpatient detoxification wing at its main campus “Abe’s Place.”

After his retirement, he moved to Monsey, N.Y.; his wife had died and he remarried a woman he had met at a meeting of Nefesh International, an organization of Orthodox mental health professionals.

“It didn’t make sense for Gail to move to Pittsburgh, so I moved to Monsey, and then after about 10 years to Teaneck,” where she has children and grandchildren. (He also has four children of his own.)

He rarely sees patients now. “Sometimes for consultation as a favor for somebody.” He finds Teaneck beautiful. “It’s a town where I’m left alone. I can do my studying, I can do my writing. Nobody bugs me. If I have to drive, I drive around these few blocks of town,” he said.

But he’s not planning on being here much longer. He and his wife have begun planning to move to Israel, where he has two grandchildren and ten great grandchildren, next year when he turns 85. And he has also started working on another book, with the tentative title: “The Road to 90.”

“If I have my mother’s genes, I can make it to 95,” he said.

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