‘The Holy Ghost Sent You To Us’
Wed, 02/05/2014
Culture Editor
Working with nuns “was too good an experience to let go,” says Rabbi Abraham Twerski. Courtesy of Gateway Rehab Center
Working with nuns “was too good an experience to let go,” says Rabbi Abraham Twerski. Courtesy of Gateway Rehab Center

For a psychiatrist to question a patient about her parents and her past to gain insight into her anger or alcoholism is commonplace. But when the psychiatrist is a chasidic rabbi, the scion of a rabbinic dynasty, and the patient is a nun, the scene is more striking.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski spent 20 years as the director of the Department of Psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh, run by the Sisters of St. Francis. He treated nuns from the order of St. Francis as well as nuns and priests from nearby convents and seminaries. St. Francis was unusual in that a large proportion of its beds that were reserved for psychiatric cases; its policy was not to turn anyone away.

On a recent frosty morning, Rabbi Twerski welcomed this reporter to his Teaneck home, quickly answering the door; he was wearing a black kapote, the long wrapped jacket worn by chasidim, and a large black velvet kipa, and offering hot coffee. His smile is pretty much hidden by his white beard and moustache, but often seen in his eyes.

While Rabbi Twerski has written more than 60 books — including many works of Torah study as well as psychology and self-help, chronicles of his pioneering work with substance abuse, and one novel — this is one chapter of his life he hadn’t written about before. “The Rabbi and the Nuns: The Inside Story of a Rabbi’s Therapeutic Work with the Sisters of St. Francis” (Mekor Press) is a memoir woven with stories and teachings.

“This has been on my mind for a while,” he says. “It was too good an experience to let go.” When he walked through Pittsburgh with the nuns, “heads would turn,” he says.

Some nuns who had taken vows of chastity, obedience and poverty came to see him with questions about whether to stay or leave. 

He tells the story of a nun who had severe dermatitis and could find no treatment to ease her discomfort. After checking in with her dermatologist, he met with her and talked, and she mentioned that the condition got worse when she had a strict superior, that the last one “really got under her skin.” The only time she felt better was at the beach. He and a colleague tried hypnosis and had her imagine being close to the ocean. After several sessions and then instruction in self-hypnosis, she was much better and off medication.

In another case, he describes a nun addicted to painkillers who faced either arrest (for stealing prescriptions) or rehab, where she sat with junkies and alcoholics. Slowly she came to see that she was one of them. She didn’t object to them calling her “the sister junkie.”

This wasn’t a job that Rabbi Twerski sought. In fact, he tried to turn it down when it was offered.

He told Sister Adele, who ran the hospital, that he couldn’t be on call 24/7 because of Shabbat, and she said she’d never think of calling him then. She told him, “The Holy Ghost sent you to us.” When he expressed concern about not knowing details of their religious beliefs, they assigned a priest as his special consultant.

He agreed to stay for one year and then stayed for 20. The rabbi and the sisters formed strong connections, based in their shared purpose and mutual respect. Often, he’d kibitz with the nuns, and would joke that he got along so well with them because he reminded them of their savior, at least unconsciously. On a visit to Israel, he sent them a photo taken at the Sea of Galilee, where he is at the edge but appears to be walking on water. The sisters loved it.

He shared a friendship with the bishop (who was later promoted to cardinal and moved to Rome; another friend is now archbishop of Washington). When the cardinal would visit, he always ended their meetings with, “Bless me, rabbi.”  In fact, many nuns and priests would ask for his blessing.

“They would put their heads down; I would put my hand on their head and say whatever blessing I thought of.”

Rabbi Twerski had not planned a career as an addictionologist either.

He was first exposed to alcoholism at St. Francis, and he attended AA meetings to get more information. Although he had no addiction problem, he began attending regularly.

“I realized that the 12-step program is not about alcohol and drugs, but about making a personality change, becoming a different person. The vehicle is getting rid of character deficits and becoming more spiritual. I took to it like a duck to water.”

Encouraged by Sister Adele, Rabbi Twerski went on to found The Gateway Rehabilitation Center, now a leading facility in treating substance abuse addition, along with a network of clinics. Gateway admitted its first patients in 1972; he now serves as director emeritus.

Usually, AA meetings entail a lot of hugging. His religious beliefs don’t allow him to hug women, so instead he devised a symbolic, touchless, virtual hug: He wraps his arms around his middle and hugs himself, as though transferring that hug to those he is talking to.

Rabbi Twerski, now 83, grew up in Milwaukee, and was groomed to take over the synagogue his father established. While his father had no formal training in psychology, he was very intuitive and empathic. The younger rabbi Twerski was once visiting a patient his father had seen the day before and the patient told him, “When your father walked in, the pain left.” The son then thought he couldn’t follow that.

Rabbi Twerski had a pulpit until 1959, when he graduated from Marquette University Medical School. He almost had to drop out of medical school for lack of funds, but he received a personal scholarship from an unlikely source: the Lebanese-American television personality Danny Thomas. University officials contacted Thomas about the plight of the young rabbi and he agreed to give him $4,000. Later on they met, and Rabbi Twerski helped raise money for a charity the actor favored.

Another unlikely person he made a connection with was cartoonist Charles Schulz. At St. Francis, the rabbi often clipped Peanuts cartoons for the residents. Impressed by Schulz’s ability to translate profound psychological insights into four frames, he called him. They subsequently met and did several books together.

As a writer, Rabbi Twerski’s style is straightforward and engaging, expressing profound ideas simply. He has a genuine confidence in individuals’ resiliency and ability to turn their lives around, recognizing that some need more help.

He says that the rabbinic and chasidic tales he heard growing up helped him to be an innovative practitioner. His approach is closest to cognitive therapy, which, he explains, posits “that a person’s problems are often due to his misperception of reality.”

“My thrust in therapy has always been [that] at the bottom of every psychological problem is the problem of low self-esteem,” he says. “It’s epidemic. The therapist has to look for ways to elevate the individual.”

As we are talking, Rabbi Twerski’s wife, Gail Bessler-Twerski joins the conversation, saying her husband “is so solid in who he is. He can go anywhere because of that solidity. He has no question about who he is.” She says that explains how he can work with the nuns and do so many uncommon things.

He then adds, “I feel comfortable in many surroundings, but I don’t feel I belong there. I’m different. I feel comfortable in chassidic surroundings, but they’re anti-secular. I feel comfortable in secular surroundings, but I don’t belong there. I feel comfortable in yeshiva surroundings, but I don’t belong there. I feel comfortable with alcoholics and addicts, but I don’t belong there.”

He half-jokes that he’s a recluse.

“For me Teaneck is ideal,” he says. He has two shuls he attends regularly. “I’m left alone, I’m retired, I can sit and study, do some writing.”

Rabbi Twerski moved to Teaneck five years ago from Monsey. He left Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, after he married Bessler-Twerski (they met at a conference of Orthodox therapists after his first wife died). Bessler-Twerski specializes in sexual disorders in the Orthodox community.

In his study, Rabbi Twerski points out photos of his brothers, parents and, above his bookcases, Old World photos of his maternal grandfather the Bobover rebbe, his paternal grandfather and his paternal great-grandfather whom he calls the Zeide Reb Motele.

“Sometimes when I’m confused, when I have questions about HaShem and Torah, I look up at the Zeide Reb Motele. What was good for him is good enough for me. I have no more questions.”

Before I leave, he goes upstairs to get a stamp pad and demonstrates how he signs off on many letters: an image of a man hugging himself.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski will speak about “Pursuit of Happiness or Retreat from Happiness” on Feb. 11, at 7 p.m., at Park Avenue Synagogue, 50 E. 87th St., Manhattan. $18 PAS members, $36 general, (212) 369-2600, office@pasyn.org.