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Dr. Abraham Twerski
The Miracle Worker
By Jennifer Bails TRIBUNE-REVIEW
It's the unlikeliest of hugs.
One set of arms extends from an elderly
Hasidic rabbi with a sugar-spun beard, clad in a frock coat
and velvet yarmulke. His appearance is more reminiscent of prewar
Completing the embrace is a young addict,
with pained, tired eyes that belie his age. We don't know
his name or his demon of choice.
It could be alcohol or heroin or
pain-killers or something else. The particular substance doesn't
matter. Not really, anyway.
What matters is that like the hundreds of
patients here at
"That was the first time I heard you
speak," the man tells the rabbi, tugging on his baggy jeans
and subconsciously checking to make sure his stubbed-out cigarette is still tucked behind his ear.
"Thank you so much," he says, softly but without shame.
Hugs for Dr. Abraham Twerski come by the
dozens here during his monthly visits to the nonprofit
drug and alcohol treatment center he founded in 1972.
They come in the security line at the
airport and in the aisles of the grocery store. They come
from strangers in the streets of countries as far away as
recovered addicts in all walks of life -- surgeons, politicians, journalists and construction
Even women have found a way to hug Twerski
without violating the religious principle that forbids
him from having co-ed physical contact with anyone other than his wife and daughters.
"Abe!" shouts a heavyset black
woman dressed in pink hospital scrubs in the Gateway lobby, where
portrait of Twerski hangs in the corner he refers to sarcastically as "the shrine." She clasps her
arms across her chest and sways side-to-side as Twerski does the same, standing a few feet away.
"You never have to worry about me
getting in trouble because I don't have any anonymity,"
He wouldn't have it any other way.
More than 30 years after entering the
wrenching field of chemical dependency, it's the human
contact that sustains Twerski, and in turn, has improved the lives of thousands of people on the
brink of self-destruction.
By now, it's a familiar, but no less
remarkable story. No matter how many times you hear it,
though, it still sounds more like a fable than reality.
It's the story of a rabbi -- descended from
the 18th-century Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good
Name, the mystic founder of the Hasidic movement -- who became a psychiatrist specializing in drug
and alcohol addiction.
Twerski, 74, is a world-renowned expert on
substance abuse, religious scholar and beloved spiritual
In addition to establishing Gateway, which
has been named as one of the 12 best treatment centers
in the country by Forbes magazine, he served for 20 years as the clinical head of psychiatry at
"Dr. Twerski is the person you would go
to talk to in tough situations," says Dr. Ben Taitelbaum,
66, of Squirrel Hill, Twerski's childhood friend who worked alongside him at the now-defunct
Lawrenceville hospital. "Not only was there medical and psychiatric expertise, but there was a
certain wisdom there that made him a great resource."
Twerski has recorded this wisdom in 50
books, some translated into several languages, with titles
like "Getting up when you're down," "Living each day," and "When do good things start?" a
collaborative effort with Peanuts comic strip creator and friend Charles Schulz. His latest book --
"From pulpit ... to couch ..." -- will be released this month.
His lectures on stress, self-esteem and
faith still draw standing-room-only crowds. He appears in
eight videotapes and publishes a weekly advice column called "Dear Rabbi" in a Jewish newspaper.
But Twerski's real accomplishment is the
nearly 45,000 people he estimates that he has helped to
usher from the dark, desperate depths of addiction to sobriety. To illustrate this point, he pulls
out a file folder stuffed with thank-you letters, some yellow and creased, others more recent, from
"It's been over seven months since my last drink and you know I feel great," one woman writes.
Card after card bears the same basic message of recovery and overwhelming gratitude.
Twerski closes the folder and removes his lunch from the refrigerator.
Because he follows strict kosher dietary
laws, he prepared the cholent -- a Jewish stew of meat,
beans and potatoes -- at home in
Thermos and reclines in his desk chair.
Focus on Twerski's deeply etched face and
the ancient aroma of his meal and you could be in a
rabbi's study in turn-of-the-century
Indeed, Twerski set out to model himself
after his father, a Hasidic rabbi who immigrated from
staunchly traditional, insular sects of Orthodox Judaism that stresses the mercy of God and
encourages joyous religious expression through music and dance.
The middle child of five boys, Twerski
watched people flow in and out of his father's study for
counseling at all hours of the day.
"Our house became Grand Central Station
for people with problems," he says, pulling at his wispy
sidelocks and pushing his yarmulke back on his balding head. "Even judges would sometimes tell
their litigants, 'Take the case to Twerski.' That's what I was modeling myself after."
Twerski was chosen by his father to take
over the pulpit. But the meteoric rise of clinical
psychiatry and psychology after World War II meant fewer people were turning to their clergymen for
"I spent my first three years as a
rabbi presiding over weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals,"
Twerski says. "That's not what I wanted to do. I did not want to go through life being a performer
of rituals. It seemed nobody wanted what I had to offer."
So the natural-born counselor opted to
attend medical school at Marquette University School of
Medicine and became a psychiatrist to do what he had wanted to do as a rabbi.
A 1959 Time article described how Twerski
juggled his religious obligations in the secular world of
medicine. For example, he had to wear a "snood-like surgical mask" to cover his beard, which posed
"a sanitary problem" and wore a cotton prayer shawl instead of the customary wool to avoid setting
off a static spark that could ignite the anesthetic in the operating room, the magazine recounts.
While completing his residency at University
of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Western Psychiatric
Institute, he met a woman named Isabelle who piqued his interest in alcoholism. The daughter of an
Episcopal priest, Isabelle was an alcoholic who had been rejected by her family and turned to
prostitution. She had been through detoxification more than 90 times before committing herself to a
state hospital for a year.
"I wondered what would motivate this
woman to make this drastic change," Twerski says. "I
heard anything about alcoholism. They didn't teach it in medical school or psychiatry."
Isabelle came out of the hospital sober and
stayed that way with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous
and its 12-step process of recovery, which emphasizes taking a moral inventory, admitting wrongs,
accepting the will of God.
Her story intrigued Twerski so much he
decided to attend an AA meeting. He was amazed by the sense
of parity and interdependence among recovering alcoholics he couldn't find anywhere else, even in
"Once you walk through the doors, who
you are and what you have doesn't make a difference,"
says. "For the first time, I saw a place with real equality, and I was impressed."
Twerski's only experience with chemical
dependence was the narcotic Demerol he took for a few days
20 years ago while recovering from an intestinal infection, yet he continues to go to Alcoholics
and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The 12 steps can do more than help people beat addiction -- they
provide the tools for character and spiritual development that we all could benefit from, he says.
"Everybody has character defects, but
only people in AA and NA have to face those defects and make
amends," Twerski says.
Twerski finishes his lunch with a cup of
coffee with kosher milk powder and a few pieces of
rugelach. He slips on his black hat, recites the grace after meals in Hebrew and then sets out
across the Gateway campus to talk to a group of men -- most of them in their 20s and 30s -- from
the Tom Rutter House, one of the center's residential halfway houses.
With his almost otherworldly presence,
Twerski commands the attention of the room, finding a way to
relate to these recovering addicts.
"Whatever I do, I do it one day at
time," he begins his lecture, reciting the basic tenet of
The topic today, like most days, is self-esteem.
Twerski talks for about 45 minutes without
the help of notes and almost without pause. He segues
effortlessly from anecdote to affirmation to inside joke. He peppers his talk with surprising
colloquialisms like "ain't" and "damn." He shares advice with the men about how to beat their
addictions and tells them, above all, to believe in themselves.
"Do you know what a raw, uncut diamond looks like when it comes out of a mine?" Twerski asks.
Several men lean forward. Others nod their heads.
"It looks like a piece of dirty glass," he says, answering his own question.
Inside everybody is a diamond, Twerski says.
"You may be telling yourself: 'I don't
look like a diamond. I don't feel like a diamond," he tells
his audience. "But you know what this place is? It's a diamond-polishing center. If you stay with
us, we'll show you how to work the 12 steps to find the beauty inside the rock."
After his talk, he is surrounded by men
eager to introduce themselves. Every handshake becomes a
Twerski considers Gateway to be a monument
to Isabelle -- a lasting testimony to the basic good he
sees inside of everyone.
He opened the center in the quiet woods of
Beaver County almost 35 years ago to fill the void he
saw in the region for substance abuse treatment. St. Francis had a program for detoxification and
in-hospital AA meetings, but no facility existed to provide alcoholics with the guidance they
needed to stay sober.
"It was pretty revolutionary in this
area to start a rehabilitation center when he did," said
Sharon Eakes, former vice president of treatment at Gateway, who worked at the center for 25 years.
Eakes describes Twerski as tough, but not judgmental; brilliant, but unfailingly human.
"Abe has touched a lot of lives,"
Eakes said. "He is both deeply spiritual and deeply in this
world, and that's a rare mix."
Gateway weathered the financial storm
created by the onset of managed care and now has a network of
20 program locations spread across Allegheny, Beaver, Erie and Westmoreland counties, as well as
eastern Ohio. The center's reach even has extended overseas to Jerusalem, where Twerski helped to
establish a rehab center for drug-related convicts.
Gateway offers detoxification, inpatient and
outpatient services for teenagers and adults. On any
given day, the center is in contact with about 1,800 in need of help.
Clearly, not every patient can be a success
story. Some relapse and return before they become
sober. Others fail altogether.
The center's latest study found that 42
percent of 249 randomly selected patients reported being
continuously abstinent for three years after treatment.
"The hardest part of my job is when you
lose someone," Twerski says, rubbing his heavy-lidded eyes.
"To me, it's like somehow or other I wasn't good enough, that I let him down."
Twerski now lives in Monsey, N.Y., with his
second wife, Dr. Gail Bessler-Twerski, whom he met at a
convention of Orthodox Jewish psychotherapists. They also have a home in Efrat, Israel. His first
wife of 43 years, Goldie, died of breast cancer in 1995, making sure to leave behind notes in their
house that encouraged her husband to remarry.
Their daughter, Sarah, is a transplant nurse
at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Oakland. All three
sons live in Brooklyn, N.Y. Isaac is a metallurgic engineer; Ben is a psychologist; and Shlomo is a
Although he no longer makes his home in
Pittsburgh, Twerski still returns to Gateway a couple days
every month to lecture and encourage patients, staying at a hotel near the airport when he visits.
"This is a place you can't run away from," Twerski says.
Retirement is just a figure of speech for
the rabbi-cum-psychiatrist who spends his days answering
e-mail requests for help -- typing methodically with two fingers at a time -- and drafting his
newspaper column and books. His "Sober Thought For The Day" appears daily on the Gateway Web site.
He still lectures about five times a year and travels extensively.
Every morning, Twerski attends religious
services and studies the Talmud, the collection of ancient
rabbinic writings on Jewish law and tradition.
When he isn't learning or writing, he enjoys
cooking, watching an inning or two of baseball and
spending time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. If you ask him how many children
there are, he will answer "not enough" to put the kibosh on the evil eye.
But aside from family, religion and the
occasional leisure distraction, Twerski remains wholly
dedicated to his role as a healer -- although some may call him a miracle worker.
Indeed, Twerski says miracles happen every day at Gateway.
"There's just a limit to how many
things can be coincidence," he says, although to him, it is
hand, not his own, that is creating the miracles.
Twerski may not see himself as blessed with
extraordinary powers, but he understands the magnitude
and nature of his legacy.
"I want to be remembered like the guy
who discovered the diamonds in the uncut stones," he says.
"That's what makes it all worthwhile."
Jennifer Bails can be reached at [email protected] or (412) 320-7991.
Surfers search for wave that went missing
By Isambard Wilkinson
A famous European surfing beach has mysteriously lost its waves, to the consternation of locals and dismay of surfers, who fear that a "wonder of the world" has vanished forever.
Surfers flock in their thousands to Mundaka, on Spain's north Atlantic coast, to master its enormous tube-like roller - a giant often reaching more than 20 feet. Now anyone arriving to catch the "Basque wave" will find themselves riding no more than a ripple.
It is, for aficionados of the sport, as if a Formula One racing track had disappeared into thin air. The wave suddenly went missing in the spring, provoking bewilderment in the town, and fears that it will soon wave goodbye to its tourist industry.
The Basque government has dispatched scientists and academics to find a solution. The wave's disappearance is a huge blow to surfing's World Championship Tour, which must now find a way of bringing the wave back before Mundaka hosts a competition that attracts 10,000 surfers.
The town is divided over the cause of the conundrum. Some blame the local authorities sanctioning dredging along the coast to make easier access for shipping, and shifting sand banks near the mouth of the local estuary. Others believe the forces of nature are responsible, such as the Boxing Day tsunami in Asia.
Two decades ago an Australian, Craig Sage, now 47, "discovered" the Mundaka wave, which rushed in from far out at sea, giving a magnificent run. He pioneered the trade that put Europe on the international surfing map, and runs a local surf shop. "Mundaka is the symbol of surfing in Europe," he said.
"If we lose it, it will be like losing part of our soul. Mundaka should be marked as a wonder of the world. There are only 12 or so surfing spots like it. That is why we cannot sit back and do nothing."
The town's bars have already noticed a slump, as surfers abandon the beauty of the Spanish Basque coast in favour of areas closer to Biarritz in France.
The region's Surfing Foundation, a school for the sport, is also braced for disaster. Last week it called for action against dredging. A government commission has promised to publish a report in September "recommending action to be taken to restore the natural system, and so, the wave".
"So far there has been a positive evolution in conditions that looks set to regenerate the wave," it added.
But, seen from the shore, the little waves breaking in the estuary do not look promising.
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