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Still Shining the Light

Eytan Kobre, Los Angeles

Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz spent 15 years as Chabad’s shaliach in Temecula, California — until 2013, when he was diagnosed with ALS. But while the disease has ravaged his body, his neshamah remains radiant as ever

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

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BODY AND SOUL Reb Yitzi’s body has ALS, but ALS doesn’t have him — the pure, powerful glowing neshamah refracted through his shining eyes and endearing smile (Photos: Yoni Oscherowitz)

H ere and there around the world you find rooms that are more than just rooms. They’re not just places for people to live in, to eat and talk and learn and play and sleep in. They are Klal Yisrael’s rooms, where Jews come to be lifted up, to make momentous decisions, to see greatness, to find out who they are.

There’s the room of Rav Chaim in Bnei Brak, and a few blocks away, that of Rav Aharon Leib, and those of great rebbes, all of whom carry on their hearts the hopes and fears, the joys and tears of Yidden k’kochvei hashamayim larov.

And then there are other Klal Yisrael rooms. They are that way both for what Jews bring to them and for what they come away with from them.

Come. Come with me to such a room, on a side street in a place called Los Angeles. There is a Jew there, a 44-year-old Chabad chassid and father of seven named Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz, whom you must meet.

That’s not a throw-away phrase, as in “Oh, you simply must meet so-and-so.” No, really. You must meet Reb Yitzi — because to meet him is to find the answer to a question we all should be asking ourselves, which is “Who, what am I? A body, or a soul, or maybe some sort of equal partnership between the two?” Meet Reb Yitzi and the question vanishes so quickly that you’ll be embarrassed you even asked it.

Talented and dynamic, a quintessential “people person,” Yitzi Hurwitz spent 15 years as Chabad’s shaliach in Temecula, a city of some 150,000 near San Diego, where his storefront Chabad House was the sole frum outpost in a spiritual desert. Then, in the winter of 2013, he was diagnosed with bulbar ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that slowly overtakes the body, shutting it down almost entirely. In the fall of 2014, the Hurwitzes moved a hundred miles north to Los Angeles, where they took an apartment in a building next to the Chabad yeshivah Ohr Elchonon, the school two of their children attend.

Reb Yitzi has ALS, but it sure as anything doesn’t have him. Because “him,” as Reb Yitzi teaches us, is the pure, powerful, gleaming neshamah, enrobed, as it happens, in something called a body. Reb Yitzi has a soul that shines forth from his eyes and the smile on his face is like the midday sun. It is that soul, channeled by those eyes, that authors a thousand-word essay on the parshas hashavuah that’s read by hundreds each week.

So come with me, as I knock on the door of the second floor apartment Reb Yitzi and his family call home. Like every one of those Klal Yisrael rooms, this one, too, has another, very personal side to it. It is home to a family that lives there, even in the rare quiet moments when no one else is around, even in the middle of the darkest nights. Rebbetzin Dina opens the door and invites me in. It’s noontime and the room is, for another few minutes, a beis medrash. Every day, the boys of Ohr Elchonon’s 11th grade pack Reb Yitzi’s room to hear shiur from their rebbi, Rav Amram Farkash, who is also the high school’s menahel. Today, Rav Farkash is holding forth animatedly about a machlokes rishonim on daf hei in Succah. The give-and-take among the boys is lively, although, as Rav Farkash reminds them, Reb Yitzi is still a step ahead of them in the sugya.

As the boys file out for lunch, Dina Hurwitz tells me her husband is busy learning all day until four o’clock with various chavrusas, mostly students and teachers from the yeshivah next door. “He’s actually very busy, and sometimes,” she says with a laugh, “I have to make an appointment to see him. I could walk in any time, but I don’t like to disturb his learning, so if there’s something important to tell him, I go in, but if not, I’ll wait.”

We enter Reb Yitzi’s room, introductions are made, and as I take a look around, Dina explains that everything I see is yet another expression of so many others’ love for her husband. There’s the aron kodesh — personally crafted by one of the yeshivah’s rebbeim.Whenever there’s krias haTorah, there’s a minyan in the room. The sefer Torah inside was purchased for this minyan by a woman who was on a summertime trip Dina led to the Ukraine — she was so impressed by how devoted a group of Chabad bochurim running a summer camp for orphans were to Reb Yitzi that she purchased the Torah scroll for his minyan. There’s the Torah’s silver crown, bought by Reb Yitzi’s good friend Rocky Forer, who’s spent the last few Yom Kippurs in this room. And there’s a niece’s painting of Yitzi with a guitar.

Reb Yitzi communicates to the world, and to his loved ones, with eye-tracking software that gives expression to his thoughts — and to the Torah he’s amassed

Music has always been a big part of his life, and just before he got sick, Reb Yitzi had started taking his guitar on the road to communities around southern California, playing songs, telling stories, doing Melaveh Malkahs. Not long after he was diagnosed, his daughter Fruma found a SIM card from her father’s cell phone on which, back in 2008, he had recorded an original composition that his family didn’t even know existed. The tune is a lot like its creator — irrepressibly upbeat — with an infectiously sunny chorus: “Shine a little light, show us the way, lead us to…a brighter day.”

Last spring, Reb Yitzi’s friend Chaim Marcus, of 8th Day renown, produced a video featuring cameos by Jewish musical all-stars from around the world — like Alex Clare, Benny Friedman, Yossi Green, Mordechai Ben David, Yehoram Gaon, Avraham Fried, Yehuda Green, the Maccabeats, 8th Day’s Marcus brothers, and Baruch Chait — interspersed with shots of a standing-room-only kumzitz in Yitzi’s room, all singing “Shine a Little Light.” The clip went viral, snagging over a quarter-million views in its first week, with proceeds going to the Hurwitz Family Fund, established by five California-based Chabad shluchim to help defray some of the high costs of Reb Yitzi’s ongoing care.

When I first came into the room, Reb Yitzi greeted me with “How are you?” although he communicates with the world differently than most others do. He uses those windows to the soul — known as the eyes — to form words, letter-by-letter, on the screen of a computer loaded with eye-tracking software, which in turn generates a voice speaking those words.

Dina explains that communication varies for ALS sufferers. “ALS manifests differently for each person afflicted by it; it’s called a syndrome because it covers a spectrum, although the concept of what’s happening to the body is the same,” she says. “There’s a guy in Orange County who’s the inventor of the stationary bike and very connected to the fitness world. He’s had the disease for 12 years and he’s able to move his feet somewhat, so he communicates not through his eyes but using two roller balls under his feet. We are very fortunate that Yitzi has his twinkling eyes and his beautiful smile.”

But I’ve been with Reb Yitzi for twenty minutes, and he hasn’t said anything further, so I joke about feeling like I’ve done something wrong for which Reb Yitzi is giving me the silent treatment. That gets him to speak up: I’m a quiet guy.

Dina laughs. “Yitzi is not a quiet guy. I was much more quiet, he was the talker.” And a doer, too, in perpetual motion — teaching, helping, dancing, playing with the kids, making others smile. “The kids are getting older,” Dina muses, “and the youngest is now ten. He was six when Yitzi started to get sick, so he doesn’t remember him healthy. Since he’s the kind of kid who will lose himself in a game and not realize there’s a world around him, he was a little oblivious when it was happening, and so he doesn’t remember the sound of Yitzi’s voice. Every once in a while we play it and he says, ‘That’s him, really?’ I don’t know if it’s easier for him because of that…”

“It’s probably harder for you.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Tears.

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