June 11, 2024
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Up Close and Personal: Unique Snapshots of Rabbi Dr. Twerski, zt”l

Rabbi Yale Butler of Teaneck, previously of Pittsburgh, was privileged to have been a close, personal friend and neighbor of Rabbi Dr. Twerski, zt”l for many years. As the former owner of the only Jewish newspaper in Los Angeles for 18 years, he held Rabbi Twerski in high esteem as one of his beloved columnists. In fact, Rabbi Butler last met with Rabbi Dr. Twerski last erev Sukkot, on a pre-corona trip to Israel. They sat together for several hours, where he disclosed to Rabbi Butler that several more of his books (perhaps number 61 or 2?!) were to be imminently published.

Rabbi Butler gracefully shared with The Jewish Link some incredible, never-before-told vignettes about the rabbi’s life. He reflected on how the atmosphere of the rabbinical home in which Rabbi Twerski grew up (with its roots in the Hornsteipler chasidic dynasty), where he imbibed the wisdom of his father, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Twerski, an “inveterate counselor,” helped shape his life’s path for years to come.

After attending both Skokie and Bobov yeshivas, where he was recognized as a “major masmid (Torah scholar)” both in terms of learning and subject-matter retention, he returned home to Milwaukee to assist his father in the rabbinate. Feeling that he could fulfill his wider potential by helping to heal souls, he went off to study psychiatry at Milwaukee’s Marquette University. Rabbi Twerski was held in high regard and respect by the dean and administration of the university for staunchly holding fast to his religious beliefs. The rabbi would actually give the dean a Jewish calendar at the commencement of the academic year so he would be familiar with the dates of Jewish holidays! However, after his first year of medical studies was complete, Rabbi Twerski was summoned home by his father due to lack of funding for his academic pursuits.

Rabbi Twerski traveled back home by train, where he got into conversation with a stranger about his leaving medical school because of insufficient funds to cover tuition fees. As soon as he arrived home, Rabbi Twerski received a call from the dean of Marquette telling him to return immediately, as his tuition had been paid for!

The mysterious man on the train turned out to be Danny Thomas, a rich and famous TV comedian, who kindly “footed the bill” for Rabbi Twerski’s university fees. Years later, after Rabbi Dr. Twerski graduated his studies in 1960 and began his career, he sought to pay back Thomas several times over for his incredible generosity. Thomas refused to take a penny, so instead Rabbi Twerski donated the amount equivalent to the tuition fee to St. Jude Hospital, a pediatric research hospital established by Thomas himself.

Rabbi Twerski then became the chief of psychiatric medicine at Pittsburgh’s St. Francis General Hospital, run by nuns, where he spent the next two decades of his life treating the Catholic clergy, among others. He details this colorful period of his life in his book called “The Rabbi and the Nuns,” where many fascinating stories are recorded. One such story is told about a priest, treated by Dr. Twerski (by then a leading expert) for alcoholism and substance abuse, to whom he presented a puzzling dilemma. He wished to figure out how to remain an active clergyman but avoid imbibing wine, although this is required by the Catholic service of “transubstantiation,” (an essential ritual to do with wine and wafers).

Dr. Twerski thought this over and suggested to him that, perhaps, just as in Judaism “we recognize the juice of the grape as wine,” in that we treat it with the same value thereby allowing grape juice to be used instead of wine on our holidays, he could do the same. This priest went to check this out, to no avail, as he was told that “in the Church, it has to be wine!”

By a stroke of Divine Providence, through his work in the hospital, Rabbi Dr. Twerski had become acquainted with Bishop John J. Wright, the past bishop of Pittsburgh, who subsequently became the papal secretary in the Vatican. Since Rabbi Twerski knew him intimately, he wrote a letter to the Vatican explaining the halachot as far as grape juice goes in the Jewish religion. Based on that letter, it was possible to get the pope to rule that grape juice is an acceptable substitute because the Jews do it (since it could have been an existing precedent for Catholicism). Bishop Wright wrote Rabbi Twerski back with a copy of the Papal Order saying that henceforth, grape juice could be used in lieu of wine. So, Rabbi Twerski, a chassidishe rabbi, enabled a change for the entire Catholic religion.

Rabbi Twerski became so beloved in Pittsburgh over the years that when Pittsburgh’s public transit system chose 10 public figures to display in plastic as an advertising gimmick on the back of their buses, one of those chosen was Rabbi Dr. T!

Rabbi Butler further recalled how in Dr. Twerski’s later years, after he moved to Teaneck upon his marriage to his second wife, Gail Bessler-Twerski, Rabbi Butler was privileged to daven in the same shul and attend a daily shiur given by the rabbi. Rabbi Butler would also often give him rides to long-distance locations, when driving was not so comfortable for him anymore. On one occasion, Rabbi Twerski acquiesced to giving a big public lecture in Queens College for over 2,000+ attendees, but only if Rabbi Butler would give him a ride! Upon leaving the hall after giving the talk, Rabbi Twerski was trailed by thousands of attendees asking for brachot and chizuk from the rabbi. Rabbi Butler was blown away by the sensitivity and patience of Rabbi Dr. Twerski, and how he treated each member of the public like the only one. A giant of a man has been lost from among us. Yehi zichro baruch.

By Shifra Ebbing

 

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