Of all the people I’ve ever met, no story has ever touched me like that of Rabbi Yitzi and Dina Hurwitz.
Rabbi Yitzi, who together with his wife founded Chabad of Temecula, California, is struggling with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It’s an illness with which I am unfortunately all too familiar. My grandfather, Reb Meir Zissel (Sidney Max) Zionce, z”l, also suffered from it, and it ultimately took his life in the summer of 2014. Rabbi Yitzi can no longer move even a finger and he is fed intravenously. Neither can he speak, as the muscles in his mouth don’t work anymore. But thankfully he can still smile, and he does.
Yitzi and I communicated by means of a special sophisticated computer that reads Yitzi’s eye movements. Thanks to this amazing piece of technology he is able to type words and sentences that are then spoken by the computer, giving him a way to communicate with others. “Welcome!” he exclaims as soon I’m shown into the room. Using this machine is no easy task. Typing a short sentence can take several minutes, but Rabbi Yitzi painstakingly spends countless hours each week writing a dvar Torah that he shares with his thousands of followers around the world on his blog, yitzihurwitzblogspot.com. I have come to the Hurwitzes’ house today in Los Angeles to learn about these two special people who have experienced so much darkness over the past few years yet have managed to make the world a brighter place.
In the course of our conversation Rabbi Hurwitz and his wife open their hearts and bare their souls, speaking candidly about their lives. Throughout my visit I find myself riding a roller coaster of emotions. There are moments when I almost burst into tears and others when I feel like dancing. I hope their story will move you as much as it moved me. I ask them to begin at the beginning, when they first met. Mrs. Hurwitz responds, as she is often her husband’s voice, but Rabbi Yitzi also occasionally speaks through the computer.
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“Yitzi is from Crown Heights and I’m from California,” Dina Hurwitz tells me. “My father is a shliach in Huntington Beach and I grew up in LA. But every Chabad shliach is also based in New York, so we took many, many trips to Crown Heights.
“Yitzi and my cousin are best friends. Yitzi and I had been mentioned for each other dozens of times but I was waiting because I had an older sister, although I eventually asked her permission. When Yitzi and I were dating we talked about going on shlichus. It was something we both wanted to do. I had grown up that way and had seen the value and purpose of it. Yitzi’s father is a diamond cutter, but Yitzi grew up wanting to be the Rebbe’s soldier, going out and teaching Yiddishkeit to people who didn’t have the privilege to learn about it,” she says proudly.
“My conditions were that we were either going to stay in the United States or go to Eretz Yisrael. I wasn’t going to go to a country like Thailand. I also wanted to be in a place where we wouldn’t have to send our kids away when they were still very young. We ended up in a city called Temecula, which is about 100 miles from Los Angeles. We lived there from 1999 until Yitzi wasn’t able to speak anymore, which was in 2013. That’s when we moved to LA, so we’ve been here for six years.
“Yitzi and I had always worked together for Friday night seudos, Yomim Tovim programs and things like that. It was a small Chabad House, and for many years it was in our house. Eventually we moved into a storefront. When we lived in Temecula the city had 40,000 residents. By the time we left 15 years later there were 150,000 people. Chabad of Temecula just bought a property where they will hopefully build something nice.”
“Our community consisted of people not only from Temecula but from the neighboring cities. These were really good people, hardworking, middle-class Americans. There were a lot of kids in our Hebrew school, but because a lot of the families were intermarried we didn’t have a minyan of fathers. So we had different crowds, one for the minyan and one for the children’s program.
“In order to make ends meet—we have seven kids, ka”h—Yitzi took on a few other jobs. One of them was working as a Jewish chaplain in a mental facility for the criminally insane. Another was doing hashgachah on a dairy farm, which meant that he slept in his car three or four times a week, waking up every hour to check on the cows and the machinery. We hardly ever got to see him except on Shabbos. He would come home during the week to take a shower and give a class here and there, but he was always in a rush to get back to the farm. We were working hard but it wasn’t a bad life, it was a good life. Baruch Hashem, our children are healthy. They’re sweet and they’re smart and they have a lot of character.”
“What are your kids up to now?” I ask, wondering about the quiet in the house.
“They range in age from 13 to 22. Our oldest child, a daughter, got married a year ago. Our second oldest is in Crown Heights working, and our next son is in yeshivah in Crown Heights. The next son is in Melbourne for yeshivah. Then I have two daughters in high school and the youngest who is still in cheder, so there are only three kids at home.”