At Amudim, we know all too well just how hard it has been to get the Jewish community to accept the realities of mental health challenges and we have been humbled to see how the tide has turned in a positive direction in recent years. But we also know equally well that none of what we do today would be possible without the groundbreaking work of a giant of a man who blazed the trail that we follow today – Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, zecher tzadik l’vracha.
There is no doubt that Rabbi Dr. Twerski deserves to be remembered as a tzadik, a title that he rightfully earned in his lifetime. While it would be relatively easy to be blinded by his impressive years of work as a psychiatrist, or even as the author of dozens of books, not to mention a brilliant talmid chochom, but Rabbi Dr. Twerski was so much more than that. He was a man who positively impacted countless families and individuals in so many ways, a point that was abundantly clear to anyone from his tzavaa, which specifically stated that no eulogies be made upon his passing. Instead, Rabbi Dr. Twerski asked that his well known composition, Hoshia Es Amecha be sung, in the hopes that the melody that brought joy to so many for decades would weigh heavily in his favor as he stood before the heavenly court.
My father and Rabbi Dr. Twerski shared a close relationship that spanned 60 years and 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 anyone to a meeting that more often than not was being held in a church. Explaining to me that cases that had reached that level were clearly dinei nefashos, he told me straight out, “When a patient has cancer, do you look for the best doctor or a Jewish doctor?” His thoughts on that particular matter were published 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 Dr. 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 rabbonim weighing in with different views, I reached out to Rabbi Dr. Twerski for an outside opinion and he introduced me to someone that he felt could get to the heart of the matter – Dr. David Pelcovitz. Not only had Rabbi Dr. Twerski put me in touch with an individual who was perfectly suited to help me navigate the complexities of this particular case, he opened up a golden opportunity for me, and Dr. Pelcovitz has been a tremendous inspiration to me personally and an invaluable asset to Amudim since the day we first opened our doors in 2014.
Over the years, Rabbi Dr. Twerski became a guiding light for Amudim. While he wasn’t able to join us for our 2015 mental health conference, he worked with us every step of the way to create the program’s different elements. He spent hours on the phone with Mendy Klein a’h and me in order to maximize the event’s potential and, with his help, it was 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.
Rabbi Dr. Twerski also taught me the importance of recovery, explaining that while there are those who go through recovery with a goal of how to live their lives and typically fare well in the long run, there are others who live just so that they can be in recovery and they keep repeating the same destructive patterns over and over again. Rabbi Dr. Twerski brought home the lesson that you need to proactively end the vicious cycle haunting those in the latter group by giving 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 Dr. 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 voiced their opinion that a person can only be helped once they have hit rock bottom and when I disagreed wholeheartedly with that statement, another person jumped in, saying that Rabbi Dr. Twerski had said exactly that in one of his books. Wasting no time, Rabbi Dr. Twerski explained that while he had made that statement 30 years ago, it no longer applied in today’s world, where hitting rock bottom typically means death.
And that was vintage Rabbi Dr. Twerski. He was someone who could balance Torah, medical knowledge and practical life skills, while still being able to adapt his expertise and advice to contemporary times to be consistent with changing realities. I have tried to model my own approach at Amudim after the example that Rabbi Dr. Twerski set and when it has sometimes seemed awkward and embarrassing to do an about face, I remind myself that if Rabbi Dr. Twerski was comfortable enough to publicly state that change is appropriate and healthy when needed, then surely I can do the same.
Throughout my life, whenever I hit a speed bump, I knew I could always count on Rabbi Dr. Twerski. In addition to Amudim having been blessed by the ability benefit from his insight, he was there for us when we opened our Israel office, offering to do whatever he could as we, like him, put down new roots on holy soil. 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 last 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 Dr. Twerski. Always uplifting. Always inspiring. And always there, not just for me, and not just for Amudim, but for the entire Jewish community. 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 Dr. Twerski made a tremendous impression as a talmid chochom, a psychiatrist, a rov, 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. Still, despite his many professional accomplishments, I can’t help but remember Rabbi Dr. Twerski as someone who spent his days and nights sowing seeds of happiness and 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.