From our car window, my father pointed as we passed Saint Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh and said, “Look over there, Esther. There’s a special doctor who works in that hospital. That doctor is from a very religious chasidic family, he wears his kippah to work, and he has a full beard. He is also respected by the nuns and the other Christian staff who work with him.”
Practically every time we passed St. Francis Hospital, my father repeated this refrain.
My father, Rabbi Max Posnansky, was at that time the principal of Hillel Academy in Pittsburgh, and he was referring to Rabbi Doctor Abraham Twerski, of blessed memory, who later made aliyah to Israeli and died there on January 31. His obituary in the Jerusalem Post said, “Rabbi Doctor Twerski was a leading authority on drug treatment and addiction. He was among the last of a breed of rabbinic authorities who also achieved recognized expertise in secular subjects. In 1996, Rabbi Twerski wrote ‘The Shame Born in Silence,’ becoming one of the first major Orthodox leaders to speak publicly about domestic violence and other forms of abuse in the Orthodox community.”
What I grasped as a child, through my father’s embedded message, was that Dr. Twerski indeed was very special, unusual, even unique. Children absorb parental messages in bits and pieces, and it isn’t until later in life, as adults, that we fully understand their true meaning. Although I didn’t understand the entire context at that time, my father was trying to convey the importance of retaining your personal identity while also getting along with and relating to people who are different.
My epiphany about Rabbi Twerski came many years later. Whenever his name was mentioned, it resonated deeply with me. After our Pittsburgh years, Rabbi Twerski became a leading Jewish authority through his books, lectures, and professional leadership on many mental health issues.
The only time I actually met Dr. Twerski was at one of his lectures. It was at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side, and I was curious about finally seeing and hearing him speak. But in a powerful way, it was as if I already knew him, because I had assimilated the words that my father had said about him.
As he stood on the stage of the Y, Dr. Twerski looked just as my father had described him to me so many years ago, with his “kippah and dark suit, and the long beard.” Looking around, I saw that the audience was comprised of a very eclectic mix of people, as would be expected in that particular venue, ranging from religious Jews to completely secular people.
My epiphany came loud and clear when Dr. Twerski began speaking, and then I grasped fully the source of my father’s deep admiration. He spoke about addiction and substance abuse with sharp verbal and psychological clarity, and with such a down-to-earth style, and the audience was mesmerized.
Most striking was how he connected with everyone in that auditorium and demonstrated a fundamental understanding and love for people. After his lecture, a long line of admirers stood waiting to speak with him. I was also waiting for my turn. One by one, Dr. Twerski held eye contact, and addressed each person calmly and graciously.
When it was my turn, I said that I had also lived in Pittsburgh years ago, and his kind eyes lit up. “Do you remember Rabbi Max Posnansky, who was the principal of Hillel Academy many years ago,?” I asked. He paused, and I thought, no. This doesn’t ring a bell at all. He must have registered the disappointment on my face, and he said, “Oh, yes, of course I remember Max Posnansky.” At that point, I wasn’t sure whether Dr. Twerski actually remembered my father, but I felt his compassion. I knew that he didn’t want to embarrass me. But now, looking back, it seems to me that he remembered my father, because of the warm way he said the name “Max Posnansky.”
Rachel Sarna is a psychotherapist in Teaneck who specializes in couples therapy and relationships. She had attended many of Dr. Twerski’s lectures for Nefesh, an organization for Orthodox mental health professionals. “He was the authority on addiction and a variety of mental health issues,” Dr. Sarna said. “Dr. Twerski debunked the myth that the Orthodox community isn’t also affected by addiction and domestic abuse, because like any other culture or community it is affected as well.
“He strove to remove the shame and stigma from these issues, and brought them to the forefront,” she continued. “Dr. Twerski believed that people can’t resolve problems if they aren’t acknowledged. He firmly believed that in domestic abuse situations, the spouse should contact authorities, because if it is not dealt with, the situation could escalate and endanger the entire family. That was helpful for me to hear for my own work with couples in therapy.”
Dr. Sarna said that Dr. Twerski was a pioneer and widely respected in the mental health community, because he spoke so honestly and openly about these sensitive topics. “At the outset, his views were occasionally attacked; often they met with resistance. However, as time went on his views became mainstream and accepted. Now, because of Dr. Twerski, treatment is more readily available in the Jewish community.
“He was an out of the box thinker and a renaissance man,” Dr. Sarna continued. “I bought several of his books on addiction and domestic abuse, and recently his cookbook, called ‘A Taste of Nostalgia.’”
I told Dr. Sarna that I had bought the same cookbook, a compilation of Dr. Twerksi’s favorite family recipes for Shabbat and holidays along with commentaries about his family. Then, when my family moved to Teaneck, where Dr. Twerski also lived, sometimes I would see him shopping at local grocery stores. Watching this great man do something as basic as grocery shopping, wearing his customary garb, didn’t really surprise me.
Dr. Twerski is survived by his second wife, Gail; three sons and one daughter; 28 grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren.
He was someone who embraced life in all its manifestations, from the mundane to the scientific to the spiritual. When he died, it seemed to me as if I had lost someone I had known my entire life. Many people felt similarly, because Rabbi Doctor Twerski was a unique person, and his far- reaching influence undoubtedly will be long lasting.
Esther Kook of Teaneck is a learning specialist and a freelance writer.