Devorah Talia Gordon
Walking into a room such as Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz’s, one would expect to find the shades drawn, people whispering and tiptoeing around so as not to disturb the patient. But this room is quite the opposite: filled with bright sunlight, spirited conversations, laughter, and Torah learning.
Life, clearly and purposefully, is being lived by “Rabbi Yitzi,” who suffers from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), a progressive neurodegenerative disease. Rabbi Yitzi’s eyes are bright and communicative, and his smile intact; he communicates through the use of a computer program with a sensor that tracks his eye movements. The words are typed on the monitor mounted over his bed, and broadcast through a speaker.
The swift progression of the disease has not stopped Rabbi Yitzi from pursuing his goals of learning and spreading Torah. Yitzi maintains a packed schedule, typically learning every day from 10 am to 2:30 pm with various chavrusos.
In addition to his learning and davening, Rabbi Yitzi maintains an active blog. “Yitzi has always been a teacher. He was never one to write anything down because he likes to communicate with people face-to-face. When that became impossible, he started writing. It was a way he could still teach.” Rabbi Yitzi’s inspiration divrei Torah reach people all over the world, and his message from the parshah often connects to his struggle with ALS. He writes it on Thursdays, with the goal of “finishing before Shabbos in Australia.”
On the recent blog post from Parshat Shemini, something very special is included – a link to the music video, “Shine a Little Light” that has gone viral since its posting on March 31, reaching over 500,000 people.
Over seven years ago, before the onset of the disease, Yitzi composed and recorded, “Shine a Little Light” on his cell phone. Last year, his daughter Fruma found the SIM card and the song was discovered. “Initially, hearing it was shocking,” Dina said. “We all sat there and just cried.”
Thereafter, Dina asked Yitzi’s friends if they could learn this song and sing it to him on his birthday. “It was amazing,” Dina said. Then Yitzi’s classmate, producer Chaim Marcus, was visiting and heard it. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he said, “The whole world has to hear this song.”
Dina figured perhaps Marcus could convince some of his brothers (8th Day’s Shmuel and Bentzion Marcus) to sing it, but didn’t know it was possible to do what he did. It took a year to put together, and was filmed in New York, California, and Israel.
“It’s so professionally done, and perfect for a Hakhel year; gathering people from all over the world in a joint project, even if they are not physically next to each other,” said Dina.
The video features many of the Jewish world’s top artists, including Yossi Green, Gad Elbaz, Benny Friedman, 8th Day, the Maccabeats, Mordechai Ben David, and Yehoram Gaon. Also featured singing are school children, Israeli soldiers, yeshiva bochurim, Yitzi’s sons, and of course, Yitzi (whose voice from the original cell phone recording is used).
“I never saw anybody like Yitzi,” Dina said, recalling when they first met. “He was always happy, and wherever he went he made other people happy.” The two wed in 1996, with the ever-musical Yitzi singing a song he composed for her at their wedding. Yitzi’s eyes grow even brighter and his smile widens at the mention of their meeting.
After a couple of years, the Hurwitzes moved to California. “It was always Yitzi’s dream to be on shlichus,” said Dina, who grew up in Orange County, in a family of Chabad shluchim (emissaries). Temecula, a small town in the “Bible Belt” of California, with only a couple thousand Jews, turned out to be a good fit for the Hurwitzes. The Hurwitzes spent close to fifteen years doing the spiritual work of which Yitzi and Dina had always dreamed.
After Yitzi’s diagnosis in 2013 of bulbar onset, a dreaded form of ALS, it soon became apparent that staying in Temecula was not an option. However, the couple was so dedicated to the community that, in the beginning, they returned to Temecula every Shabbos.
Although it was hard to leave their community and home, their apartment next door to the Chabad yeshiva in the La Brea area has been “an unbelievable blessing for us.” The apartment is spacious and the building has an elevator, rarities among the old LA structures with staircases and narrow hallways. But the biggest part of the blessing is a spiritual one. “There’s a porch right out there,” Dina says, pointing to the south-facing window. “And every so often my boys sit there with chavrusos, and my husband can see them.” Dina and Yitzi currently have two boys in the yeshiva, in ninth and tenth grades.
The yeshiva has been a blessing for another reason as well: the bochurim hold minyanim in Yitzi’s room whenever there is Torah reading. In fact, thanks to the bochurim, the Hurwitzes now own their own sefer Torah.
Last summer, when Dina was on a trip to the Ukraine for women and girls, she told a woman on the trip, Mrs. Leah G., how much the LA yeshiva boys had done for her and her husband, including bringing a borrowed sefer Torah to the apartment several times a week for leining. Mrs. Gurary said she had an inheritance from her father and couldn’t think of anything better to do with the money.
“It turned out, the bochurim were trying to buy us a Torah. I said to the boys, ‘You did get us the Torah. Because I told her [Mrs. G.] everything that you have done for us, she wanted to buy it for us.’” One of Rabbi Yitzi’s friends has purchased a crown for the Torah, and as soon as they receive it the Hurwitzes plan to build a beautiful aron kodesh.
Despite his illness, Yitzi is as positive, upbeat and filled with emunah as always. “One day I walked in here and Yitzi was laughing,” Dina recalled. “I asked what he was laughing about. And he said, ‘Our whole life, we grow up learning about emunah and bitachon, and we never know when things get really tough what we will do with that knowledge.’ Then he said, ‘I know.’”
For her part, Dina said, “Hashem is part of every conversation I have, and I don’t understand the tests that he puts people through, and sometimes I can’t get past that. And sometimes I’m happy to say that at least He knows what he is doing.” Dina writes her own “raw” diary about this journey on Yitzi’s blog, called “The Caffeinated Thinker.”
As we are finishing up our visit, Yitzi types: “How I feel is summed up by last year’s blog on this week’s parshah, Metzora.” Yitzi wrote then:
I remember when I was finished my first round of tests. The neurologist gave me his preliminary findings, “you have bulbar ALS.” I had no idea what it meant. He explained the severity of it to me and said he was going to refer me to an ALS specialist.
I was there alone. Walking out of his office into the empty hallway I broke down in a fit of bitter tears. When I composed myself I headed out of the building. The first thing I witnessed stepping out was a young man falling to the ground having a seizure. I ran to help him.
It dawned upon me that there is still much purpose for me. I decided that regardless of the outcome of any future “tests” I would remain positive and find ways to fill life with meaning and purpose.
This has turned my life and the lives of those around me happier and by far more fulfilling.
We all suffer hardships and pain, it’s what we do with them that makes the difference…
What are the Hurwitzes doing with them? Yitzi and Dina are shining not a little light, but the greatest light imaginable, into the world.