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Being Jewish in Every Part of Our Lives

 Unfortunately, more and more great people recently are transitioning from this world to the next. Among the many notable people who have passed away in the last week or so is Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski. For me, Rabbi Twerski has always been an example of what I believe G-d wants from the Jewish people as a whole. G-d wants us to be serious and devout Jews, which is something that is not limited only to our ritual life but to every part of our life. In addition, G-d wants us to pursue a livelihood that can make a consequential contribution to society. Although R. Twerski has set a very high bar for most people to reach, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t see him as an inspiration for us to strive to be the best we can be. Therefore, in my first blogpost I share with you a brief overview of who R. Twerski was by noted author Sara Yoheved Rigler. 

At the end of the post, you’ll see a picture of a smiling R. Twerski. That is a lead in to my second blogpost written by my colleague from Boca Raton R. Efrem Goldberg who addresses the importance of smiling even when masked.  

Rabbi Avraham Twerski's Copious Blessings
By Sara Yoheved Riglar

Several months after becoming director of the department of psychiatry at Pittsburgh’s St. Francis hospital, founded and run by the Sisters of St. Francis, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski was summoned to meet the bishop. Bishop Wright wanted Rabbi Twerski (whom he would always call Rabbi despite his medical credentials) to counsel the nuns who were having trouble adjusting to the liberalization of the convent by Vatican II.

After a long conversation discussing the project, Rabbi Twerski could no longer contain himself. He said to the bishop, “You know, the historical relationship between the Church and the Jews has not always been pleasant. Isn’t it a bit ironic that when the Church is in trouble, you have recourse to a rabbi?”

To that the bishop rejoined with a smile, “My dear rabbi, even in the worst of times, the popes’ personal physicians were Jewish.”

“Well, then,” Rabbi Twerski said with his signature humor, “if you should make it to the papacy, you already have your personal Jewish doctor. The only problem is that you chose a psychiatrist, and that might cause some people to raise their eyebrows.”

The bishop laughed heartily and gave Rabbi Twerski a bear hug. When the young rabbi was ready to depart, the bishop bowed his head and asked, “Bless me, rabbi.”

The story is epigrammatic of his life. His professional accomplishments were monumental. After twenty years at St. Francis Hospital, Rabbi Twerski founded the Gateway Rehabilitation Center for alcoholics and drug addicts, which Forbes magazine designated as one of America’s “top twelve rehabilitation programs.” He oversaw Gateway’s expansion to a network of facilities throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio that treat over 1500 clients daily. He founded the Sha’ar Hatikvah rehabilitation center for prisoners in Israel. He authored ninety books on psychology and Jewish spirituality. He lectured internationally and was featured in hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. Yet he did it all as a blessing.

Becoming a Psychiatrist

The scion of an esteemed Chasidic dynasty, the young Rabbi Twerski longed to counsel people. For a few years he served as an assistant to his father, the Hornsteipler Rebbe of Milwaukee, but the duties of a congregational rabbi, performing weddings, funerals, unveilings, and Bar Mitzvahs, did not appeal to him. His decision to become a doctor was clinched one day when he visited a congregation member in the hospital. The patient told him, “Your father was here yesterday. It was so remarkable, because ever since my operation, I was not free of pain. Nothing the doctors prescribed seemed to help. But yesterday, when your father walked in, I felt the pain lift off, as if by magic.”

The young Rabbi Twerski realized that he could not help people by wielding the spiritual powers in which Chasidic rebbes like his father were adept. He would have to find another way, by becoming a psychiatrist.

Still, he was reluctant to break the chain of rabbis that went back many generations in his family. He consulted Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, known as the Steipler, the foremost Torah authority in the Jewish world. Much to his surprise, the Steipler approved Rabbi Twerski’s going to medical school. At the same time, he suggested safeguards that would prevent him from deviating from Torah principles: to study Torah every day, to honor the sanctity of Shabbos by not studying secular subjects or even reading a newspaper on Shabbos, and to pray fervently for Divine guidance. Rabbi Twerski held to these practices throughout his ninety years of life.

While always loyal to Jewish tradition, Rabbi Twerski had the courage to explode taboos. His book The Shame Borne in Silence on spousal abuse in the Jewish community met with bitter opposition, but eventually a chastened community owned up to the problem and set up organizations to deal with it. His book on gambling addiction, Compulsive Gambling: More than Dreidel likewise brought gambling addiction in the Jewish community out of the closet.

Guard Your Eyes

At the age of 79, Rabbi Twerski was retired when two young men approached him. They had an innovative idea of an internet site to deal with Jewish men trapped by pornography. They were providing a free, anonymous site for those ranging from occasional viewers to addicts, with three levels of cutting-edge programs, and a world-wide support group.

By this time in his life Rabbi Twerski had received numerous awards as well as three honorary degrees. He could have looked down on these young whipper-snappers as quixotic idealists compared to his lengthy record of solid achievement. He could have chosen to rest on his laurels instead of plunging into a pioneering effort. He could have written a few lines of endorsement and sent them away. Instead, Rabbi Twerski joined forces with them to promote, which has helped more than 40,000 Jews struggling against pornography addiction. In addition to his public support of GYE in videos and live lectures, Rabbi Twerski accompanied GYE founders Yaakov Nadel and Yechezkel Stelzer on fundraising trips. He traipsed through the snow with them in Toronto, knocking on doors to ask for donations.

In November, 2018, at the age of 88, Rabbi Twerski ignited a firestorm by writing in Hamodia newspaper an article he called, “My Well Has Run Dry.” In it he lamented that he no longer had the creativity to write and to offer new pearls of inspiration. His pain at no longer being able to help—and to bless—was palpable. The letters of protest from his legions of admirers came flooding in. They refused to accept his resignation. And, as always, he bowed to the will of those eager to receive from him.

Just last week, his 90th book, Tallis & Tefillin, Bagels & Lox: Two Components to Living a Spiritual Life was published by Menucha Publishers. The day before he took ill with Covid-19, just a week before he died, he was still in email correspondence with his publisher. And he had already submitted a couple of chapters for his 91st book.

My Personal Encounter

Although I have read several of Rabbi Twerski’s books and heard him lecture in person a few times, I had no personal relationship with him. Nevertheless, a month ago I decided that I needed an Introduction from Rabbi Twerski for a book I am writing. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” I got his phone number and called him. He answered the phone graciously. (How I wish I were as gracious when strangers call me!)

When I explained that I wanted a two-page Introduction from him, he replied that he couldn’t write an Introduction, which would be taken as an endorsement, without reading the book. He gave me his email address, and at 11 AM I sent him the seventy pages I had written so far. Exactly three hours later, a beautiful Introduction appeared in my inbox. He began, “I was thrilled to learn that Sara Yoheved Rigler, who has spent years teaching women about healthy marriage, is now writing a book …”

I read his words with consternation. He had never met me. I doubt he had ever read any of my books or articles. Yet, in his generosity of spirit he was thrilled that I was writing this book. I felt like I was hearing the rustle of angel’s wings.

Self-Esteem: Polish the Diamond

Rabbi Dr. Twerski used to say, “I wrote more than sixty books, but really I wrote one book sixty different ways.” His basic theme was the importance of self-esteem. He considered lack of self-esteem to be the root of all psychological problems, as well as addiction, marital strife, etc.

Years ago, Rabbi Twerski started a rehabilitation program in Israel for ex-convicts who had been imprisoned for drug-related crimes. At the first meeting, he said that recovery depends on developing self-esteem. Avi, one of the ex-cons, objected that he could never develop self-esteem. He was 34 years old and had spent half his life in prison. What could he feel self-respect about?

Rabbi Twerski replied: “Have you ever seen a display of diamonds in a jewelry store window? Those diamonds are scintillatingly beautiful and worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Do you know what they looked like when they were brought out of the diamond mine? They looked like ugly, dirty pieces of glass… I may not be a maven [expert] on diamonds, Avi, but I am a mavin on people. You have a beautiful soul within you, but it has been covered with layers of ugly behavior. We will help you get rid of those layers and reveal the beauty of your soul.”

Avi stayed in the program, eventually found a job, and remained free of drugs. One day Annette, the administrator of the program, called Avi. An elderly woman had died and her family wanted to donate her furniture to the rehabilitation program. Annette asked Avi to help by picking up the furniture and bringing it to their second-floor location. As Avi was schlepping the old sofa up the stairs, an envelope fell out of the cushions. In it was 5,000 shekels. Avi could have pocketed the money, but instead he handed it over to Annette. Annette informed the family, who donated the sum to the rehab program.

When Rabbi Twerski next saw Avi, he said to him, “What you did was truly exceptional, and shows the beauty of the ‘diamond’ within you.”

Avi had a bronze plaque made and affixed it to the door of the rehab center. It reads: Diamond Processing Center.

Rabbi’s Twerski’s unending blessings will continue.



The Smile Behind the Mask
By Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

While necessary, wearing a mask is miserable. It's difficult to breath comfortably with a mask on and it is even harder to deliver a speech. And yet, those aren’t the hardest parts for me. Countless times over the last few months I find myself spotting someone across the shul or in a store, smiling at them and wondering why they aren’t smiling back or acknowledging my bid for connection. Each time it takes a moment to remember that they aren’t ignoring me and it isn’t their fault. They never saw my smile because of the mask that covers half my face.

Being deprived of the ability to exchange smiles is a relatively small price to pay for protecting one another and preserving our collective health, but make no mistake, the lost smiles are also unfortunate casualties of this pandemic.

We need to smile and be smiled at. In complimenting and blessing Yehuda, Yaakov says, “His teeth are whiter than milk.” Of all virtues, why is Yaakov highlighting Yehuda’s teeth? The Talmud (Kesubos 111b) explains that Yaakov saw a quality in Yehuda he greatly admired and benefited from. Yehuda had a habit of smiling, of flashing the white of his teeth when seeing others. Indeed, the Talmud concludes when a person shows the white of his teeth to another by smiling widely, it is more beneficial than giving a cup of milk to drink. 

Why the comparison to milk?

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explains that milk nourishes and nurtures growth. What milk does for the body a smile does for the heart and soul. He writes that just as plants require sunshine to live, converting the rays of the sun into nutrients, people convert smiles into energy and strength, and without it they wilt and perish. 

Dogs and cats can’t smile. Smiling at one another is part of what differentiates us as humans.

While our panim, our face, reflects our pnim, our internal thoughts and feelings, it also has an impact on those around us. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter famously said a person’s face is not his or her personal property; it is part of the public space. If you project a sour and negative disposition and countenance, you have placed a dangerous pit in the public thoroughfare. If instead you flash a smile, you can bring happiness to those around you, literally.

Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician at Harvard Medical School, authored a study concluding that happiness is contagious. The same one person yawning sparks a chain reaction of yawning from others, when one person smiles or is happy it leads to others’ happiness and draws smiles from others as well. Perhaps the greatest and most direct example of this phenomenon is a baby. When you smile at a baby they light up, but if you frown or make a sad or angry face, he or she will start crying.

Shammai teaches: receive all people with a pleasant countenance (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:15).

Rabbi Ovadia Bartenura provides a powerful interpretation: “When you bring in guests to your home, do not give to them while 'your face is buried in the ground;' as anyone who gives and 'his face is buried in the ground' - even if he gave all of the gifts in the world - it is counted for him as if he did not give anything.” If you give someone, even generously, but you don’t smile, it is as if you gave nothing. The smile is more valuable than the resource you shared.

But don’t just smile because it will positively impact others. Smile because of the benefit it will bring you. A study from the University of California, Irvine recently showed that a genuine smile, the kind that brings up the corners of your mouth and produces creases around the eyes, can lower your heart rate and reduce the pain of a needle injection by up to 40 percent.

One of the researchers, professor of psychological science Sarah Pressman, said that they don’t yet fully understand why displaying a smile can help reduce pain and stress, but they have a theory they call the “facial feedback hypothesis”. “The thought is that the nerves in your face, that when those muscles are activating they actually send a message to your brain that’s telling you that you’re happy. … The basic premise is that somehow that expression is sending signals back to your mind, and it’s altering your emotion in some sense.”

Though there is much to be grateful and happy for, there is also much sadness and concern in these unprecedented times. Now more than ever, don’t wait to be happy to smile; start smiling and you will be happy and you will bring smiles and happiness to those around you.