Rabbi works with Israels prisons to aid drug addicts

With his dark kippah, black suit and long white beard, it's easy to envision Rabbi Abraham Twerski, the son of a Chassidic rebbe, following in his father's footsteps.

But as the internationally known psychiatrist, author and Torah scholar recently told members of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, looks can be deceiving.

Twerski also runs a Pittsburgh-based facility that treats substance abusers.

"When you see a scintillating diamond, you are enchanted with its beauty. But it did not always look that way," he said during Beth Jacob's recent scholar-in-residence weekend.

"When it was brought out of the mine it looked like a piece of dirty glass, and might have been discarded as worthless — until it was cleaned and polished to reveal the great beauty within."

He then asked members of the East Bay modern Orthodox synagogue to help support his most recent undertaking: a three-year-old demonstration drug rehabilitation project for ex-convicts in Israel.

The project, called Shaar Hatikvah (Gateway to Hope), is modeled after Twerski's Gateway Rehabilitation Center.

With the final go-ahead from its board of directors, Beth Jacob has decided to make Shaar Hatikvah — located in Beersheva and connected with Israel's Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority — an ongoing fund-raising project.

"The work Rabbi Twerski is doing here and in Israel is inspiring both for its human compassion and spiritual fulfillment," said Beth Jacob's Rabbi Howard Zack.

Zack noted that the project marks the first time the century-old synagogue has ever bonded with one particular organization.

Kicking off what Zack called the first in a series of fund-raising projects is Beth Jacob's designation of Saturday, Jan. 25 as a special Shabbat dedicated to Shaar Hatikvah.

Following that day's regular Shabbat morning service, Zack will make an appeal on the center's behalf in an address to the entire Jewish community.

According to Twerski, the need for the center has never been greater, with an estimated 30,000 frequent hard drug users in Israel, and 200,000 "occasional" users.

Compounding the problem is the rising rate of drug use among young Israelis and the increasing availability of high-grade heroin smuggled from Lebanon.

Shaar Hatikvah was created to show Israel's government that convicts jailed for drug-related crimes can be returned to society as productive citizens at no greater cost than keeping them in prison.

Twerski, whose American organization has successfully treated more than 25,000 addicts since its inception in 1972, said that without such intervention most ex-convicts return to society as dealers and pushers and "are back in jail within the first year."

Already, Shaar Hatikvah's success has surpassed expectations. In the few years the center has been in operation addicts have shown unprecedented rates of recovery, with over 80 percent of its "graduates" now clean and employed. Many of these individuals have decided to join Twerski in his work.

In fact, recovered addicts themselves supervise program participants, who must agree to observe a strict three-month regimen before undergoing intensive group and individual counseling.

"In treating people with addictions I feel it is crucial to build self-esteem," said Twerski, who divides his time between his Israeli and American centers, both of which are designed to teach addicts to uncover the reasons behind their drug use and to prepare them for eventual entry into the working world.

Although Twerski does not preach religious observance in treating addicts, he does promote the philosophy of the Chassidic movement, which stresses spirituality and positive self-esteem in everyday life.

To that end, he uses what he describes as an adaptation of the 12-step program used by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Currently, Twerski is attempting to broaden his Israeli program, which until now has served only the adult ex-convict population. The Golden Opportunity Program (named in memory of the rabbi's wife, Goldie) is an offshoot of Shaar Hatikvah now being established for young people with serious drug problems.

"I can think of no greater mitzvah than reclaiming a person and restoring him to a happy, constructive life," he said.