What set Rabbi Twerski apart from many other Orthodox therapists was his willingness to look outside of his community. In one of his works, “The Shame Worn in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community” (1996), he highlighted a problem that many Hasidic leaders argued should be treated discreetly within the island community, without inform the police or outside authorities.
Abraham Joshua Heschel Twerski was born on October 6, 1930 in Milwaukee, where his parents immigrated in 1927 after leaving Russia. His father Jacob, the sixth generation descendant of the Grand Rabbi of Chernobyl, was the rabbi of the Beth Jehudah Synagogue in Milwaukee. His mother, Devorah Leah (Halberstam) Twerski, was the daughter of a chief rabbi of Bobov, one of the largest Hasidic sects.
Abraham was the third of five brothers, each of whom became rabbis but also received advanced secular training and college and university degrees, something very few Hasidim aspire to do. He attended Milwaukee public schools and played in a Christmas game in second grade. When his mother went to school, the headmaster thought she was there to complain. Instead, she told the headmaster that if her son’s Jewish upbringing wasn’t strong enough to survive a second grade game, it was his family who had abandoned him.
He received his rabbinical ordination in 1951 at the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago (now in Skokie, Illinois). While serving as an assistant rabbi with his father’s synagogue, he enjoyed counseling others, but recognized that ward members always turned to his father for advice on their most intimate personal problems. In a 1988 interview with the National Council of Jewish Women, he stated that studying psychiatry could help develop his own talent.
“So I went to medical school to become a psychiatrist and do what I wanted to do as a rabbi,” he said.
He received his medical degree from Marquette University in Milwaukee, a Jesuit institution. When actor Danny Thomas, a practicing Catholic who grew up in the Midwest, learned during lunch with Marquette officials that a student who was an Orthodox rabbi said it would take up to $ 4,000 to complete his medical degree he told the officials: “He has it” and made good on his promise.
Rabbi Twerski was trained as a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh. He was due to start teaching at the university, but after Sister Adele of St. Francis Hospital informed him of the hospital’s needs for a stronger mental health program, he became its director of psychiatry. He stayed there for 20 years.