The best advice young Aaron Twerski, a Chasidic Jew and scion of 30 generations of rabbis, received, came while he was in pharmacy school. A native of Milwaukee, he had finished his days of full-time yeshiva learning, and thought he would have a career in the sciences. "Aaron, take a picture of yourself 10 years from today and go there," a cousin from Israel said one day.
Rabbi Dr. -- and now, Dean -- Twerski, with students
In other words, figure out what you want to do with your life, and do it.
Twerski was not happy with what he saw. "I pictured myself as doing something very pedestrian." He was miserable in pharmacy school, "a disaster in the laboratory."
He decided to return to his first professional interest law. "It was a career where I would be able to serve people."
Four decades after he went to law school and embarked on a career that established him as a leading expert in tort law, Rabbi and Doctor Twerski he prefers the title professor received another sign of recognition this week. He was installed on Tuesday as dean of the Hofstra University School of Law in Hempstead, L.I., where he had served as a faculty member for 14 years.
He became, according to the school, the first Chasidic Jew to head a major law school in the United States.
"He is a nationally and internationally renowned scholar and a revered teacher who possesses tremendous energy, leadership ability, enthusiasm and integrity," said Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz.
"I was chosen not because I am a Chasidic Jew but because I had a career that was suitable for the task," Rabbi Twerski told The Jewish Week. His appointment, at 66, symbolizes "that the time for discrimination against Chasidic Jews because of what they look like will start coming to an end."
Rabbi Twerski, with a Chasidic man's standard beard and long black coat, had encountered discrimination, he said. "It was very much an issue.
"I had great difficulty being hired at the beginning of my career," Rabbi Twerski said. In 1966 he served as a teaching fellow at Harvard Law School. "I was told that I was the star teaching fellow of that year." Then time for job offers arrived. "I got no offers."
A law school administrator called his student in for a talk. "You're not going to get a teaching job," the administrator said no one would hire an obviously Chasidic Jew as a law teacher.
Another time, he said, "I was told directly, 'Do you have to be so religious?' "
"I remember coming home and crying," Rabbi Twerski said.
At the "last minute," he received an offer from Duquesne University, a Catholic institution in Pittsburgh where he spent four years. "It's not surprising," he said. "They took religion seriously."
From there he went to Hofstra, then Brooklyn Law School, then back to Hofstra this year, recruited by the university.
"My first answer was 'no,' " he said. "I was teaching and writing and being published in some of the very best journals." That, in addition to serving as a communal leader in Borough Park's Chasidic community and a de facto community spokesman.
Why did he change his mind?
"My wife still wants to know the answer to that," he said. His answer: "The challenge and an opportunity to put my vision on the law school."
Being law school dean means longer working days, often commuting to work in a car service and doing his day's Torah learning en route. "It's a strain," he conceded.
At the Hofstra convocation this week where he was inaugurated, Rabbi Twerski wore his long black coat, his standard garb, under his academic robe. People saw, he said, "the way Chasidim dress."
Rabbi Twerski asks prospective faculty members the question that changed his life some 40 years ago how do they picture themselves in a decade?
Someone asked the rabbi, on the eve of his inauguration, to answer the question himself again.
His answer this time was more optimistic.
"I hope I can build a law school," he said. "I hope G-d will give me good health. I hope I have time to learn Torah in depth and have time to serve my community and enjoy my family."