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Rabbi Jacob Twersky (1928-2001)

A seed grant toward the launch of IsraCast has been made in memory of Rabbi Jacob Twersky, for 41 years the respected Bronx spiritual and communal leader and proud standard-bearer of the 250 year-old Chernobyl rabbinic-hassidic dynasty from which he descended. He died May 30, 2001 following a long illness. He was 74.

Who was Rabbi Jacob Twersky?

Simply stated, a spiritual and congregational leader cut from the old-style European cloth. A passionate Zionist, a proud Jew. A powerful and penetrating cantor and orator, whose stirring words and prayer chants brought congregants to tears of joy, sadness and longing. A man whose warmth, affection and magnetism drew people to him from far and wide in search of his seasoned guidance and counsel. To thousands of people spanning several generations, Rabbi Twersky was a source of faith and strength.

Rabbi Twersky's illuminating and infectious smile, sense of humor and command of five languages made congregants old, young and new feel very much at home in his synagogue. His words made a lasting impression. Rabbi Twersky, as only he could, often invoked the memory of the Holocaust. He articulated the pivotal importance and eternal relevance of the State of Israel. He railed against anti-Semitism and injustice. He seared into the conscience of children and grandchildren the precious legacy of their departed antecedents.

Rabbi Twersky was a dedicated and loving father figure--not only to his children, but as a shepherd to his congregational flock. On call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He visited hospitals and nursing homes and knew just what to say. He gave patients the will to live.

Indeed, the will to live was Rabbi Twersky's credo. For he was a survivor. A fighter who refused to give up on life--or on God. Though he witnessed the brutal murder of his father and brother during the Holocaust, he remained a man of unshakable faith who inspired faith and belief among others. He was a self-sacrificing, selfless individual who always reached out to family, friends, and to the unaffiliated. He preached unity--of Americans and Jews. He implored all who would listen to maintain a united front and "stand shoulder-to-shoulder" with an often-beleaguered Israel.

"It is because of Israel that Jews can walk safely anywhere in the world with their heads up high," Rabbi Twersky declared time and again. News of terrorist attacks against Israelis and fallen Israeli soldiers would bring tears to his eyes. "May there be a salvation for the people of Israel, the nation of Israel and the State of Israel," Rabbi Twersky would proclaim aloud in Yiddish, as he concluded each of his sermons.

He also preached unity of the home, saving marriages and uniting warring families. He was often the reason fellow Holocaust survivors finally returned to their faith--and to the synagogue--following a decades-long absence.

Rabbi Twersky was a proud American. So proud, that he founded his Bronx congregation and Hebrew school on July 4, 1960 as a legacy to his family’s fallen Bessarabian town of Khotin.

He named the congregation for his martyred father, Rabbi Mordechai Israel Twersky. Both were direct descendants of Nahum of Chernobyl (1730-1787), the patriarch of the Twersky rabbinic-hassidic dynasty and disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the hassidic movement.

With the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Rabbi Twersky spearheaded a fund-raising campaign to donate an ambulance to the State of Israel "to take expectant Jewish mothers to maternity wards." Prayers for Israel, its Defense Forces and for the United States were incorporated into his synagogue's Sabbath service ever since. Under Rabbi Twersky's leadership, an annual Rosh Hashanah appeal raised funds for Israeli hospitals and members of Israel's Defense Forces and their families. Throughout the year, Rabbi Twersky's congregation donated charity to needy families, to orphans wishing to marry, to Russian immigrants, and to poor families before Passover.

Rabbi Twersky was a dedicated husband to his wife, Pearl, daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, known as the Kopitchnitzer rebbe of Vienna and New York City. Their marriage in 1960 marked one of the century’s most important mergers of hassidic-rabbinic dynasties. Mrs. Twersky would serve as the tireless support beam of the Twersky household and synagogue, while raising three children and maintaining a home known for quintessential Jewish hospitality and personal, spiritual and moral support.

Soon after his arrival in the United States, together with three of his sisters, Rabbi Twersky pursued rabbinic studies. He was ordained in New York City by Rabbi Moses Feinstein, one the most respected 20th century scholars of Jewish law. Later, he served as administrator of the Chaim Berlin Yeshiva of Brooklyn, where he studied with the renowned Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik of Skokie, Ill.

Rabbi Twersky founded the United Bessarabian and Ukrainian Memorial Institute of America, an organization dedicated to perpetuating the legacy of a region massacred during World War II.

He was an active communal leader who served several terms as chairman and treasurer of the Rabbinical Board of the Bronx. He spearheaded the renovation, preservation and development campaign for Pelham Parkway’s mikveh, or ritual bath. Rabbi Twersky was a chaplain of the New York Police Department who took particular pride in addressing police officers at their swearing-in ceremonies. Many officers of different faiths posted near the synagogue grew close to the rabbi, cultivating friendships that lasted for decades. Rabbi Twersky maintained an open and friendly dialogue with leaders of all faiths in the Bronx, as well as the African-American clergy.

Rabbi Twersky was a magnet for Russian refugees. He dedicated his final years to their settlement and absorption in the Bronx and their introduction to Judaism.

Rabbi Twersky is survived by his wife, Pearl; a daughter, Batsheva; two sons, Mordechai and Yitzchock Meyer; seven grandchildren; and three sisters.

May his memory be remembered as a blessing and serve as an inspiration to mankind.

By Mordechai I. Twersky

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