Lots of rabbis write weekly columns, blogs and inspirational newsletters, which are typed or even dictated with easy-to-use voice-to-text technology. Only one labors letter by letter, typing his words painstakingly with his eyes.
Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz, despite being in advance stages of a particularly nasty form of ALS that curtails his movements in totality (he needs a respirator to help him breath), publishes a popular column on Chabad.org that is followed by thousands of readers. Utilizing eye-tracking technology, he writes his column on the weekly Torah portion using the movement of his pupils.
When it came time to planning the bar mitzvah of his youngest son, Shalom, Hurwitz told his wife, Dina, that he wanted to travel with the family to New York to have Shalom called to the Torah in the study of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—in Brooklyn and to visit the Ohel, the Rebbe’s resting place in Queens, just as they would do if Yitzi had never been stricken with ALS.
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Initially, she was reluctant, she said, since aside from the challenges of flying someone in a bed 3,000 miles across the country, the trip would be fraught with health risks, related difficulties and would be very uncomfortable for her husband.
But after doing some research, and after volunteers from HatzolAir stepped up, reassuring her that they would help make the trip easier and safer, Dina warmed to the idea.
“We tend to play it safe a lot,” said Dina. “There are all these dreams that we have that tend not to get fulfilled. We came to the realization that it’s important to live while you’re alive and live as many dreams as we can, enjoy as much of it as we can, make as many memories as we can.”
The seemingly impossible dream came true. Transportation was provided by HatzolAir, a volunteer organization, and was organized by Eli Rowe and his team. “Hatzolah Air has been blessed with the privilege of flying Rabbi Yitzi to his son’s bar mitzvah, and while it seemed like we were doing him and his family a favor, in fact, he incredibly inspired us and gave us so much,” said Rowe. “Flying Rabbi Yitzi was, on a personal level, the highlight of my aviation and Hatzolah career.”
It took a village of volunteers, but the Hurwitz family gathered with Shalom, joined by thousands of well-wishers who joined them on every stop of their trip to celebrate the young man’s milestone.
“Yitzi grew up in Crown Heights, and this is the shul he grew up in,” Dina told Chabad.org outside the synagogue complex at 770 Eastern Parkway. “Both of us had an opportunity as children to meet with the Rebbe with our families in the Rebbe’s study. So bringing the kids here to say ‘thank you’ and to form their own connection to the Rebbe was really special, really important to us.”
So, for the first time in more than six years, the Brooklyn-born Hurwitz made the 3,000-mile flight to New York City from Los Angeles.
“This is very important to Rabbi Yitzi,” said Shlomo Bistritzky, rabbi of Chabad of North Ranch. “He wanted to celebrate his son’s bar mitzvah the way he would have if he was 100 percent healthy: coming to the Rebbe—visiting the Rebbe’s resting place at the Ohel—being present at his son’s aliyah in the synagogue housed in the Rebbe’s study, reminding his son who we are and where we get our energy, and to be able to celebrate with his extended family and the Crown Heights community who have always been there for him.”
Bistritzky is one of five rabbis who established the Hurwitz Family Fund shortly after Hurwitz was diagnosed with ALS in 2013. “The fund was established as a means to help care for this family, who have been put through this unbelievably difficult challenge,” said Bistritzky, “and for Rabbi Yitzi to have the opportunity to maximize his potential despite his current limitations.”
Indeed, Hurwitz, whose sole method of communication is by moving his eyes, spends hours painstakingly “typing” Torah essays, marriage advice for men, unchecked optimism and inspiration for the thousands who learn from him. To date, he has written more than 250 posts on Chabad.org, including his weekly Parshah column, Beyond Speech.
Dina travels the world, motivating communities with her story of endurance and fortitude. “The Rebbe has given us a mission; a dream in life that makes life worth living,” she said. “A dream of helping people, of connecting people through Torah, through shared circumstances, through love and understanding. I’m really very grateful for that because it’s given both Yitzi and me a purpose in the struggles that we have.”
“When you meet the Hurwitzes, you get a sense of joy,” said Bistritzky. “They truly personify the Rebbe’s message of taking anything that happens and transforming it for the good.”
The trip was also an opportunity for the family to express their gratitude to many of the thousands of supporters who have been beside them throughout this difficult time in their lives. The Hurwitzs celebrated on Motzei Shabbat with a gala event attended by hundreds of family members and well-wishers. Throughout their stay in New York, they were visited by individuals and groups—from schoolchildren to longtime community members—expressing their care and solidarity and celebrating with the family.
“We couldn’t have done it without the help of thousands of people—many from the Crown Heights community, who we had the opportunity to thank,” said Dina Hurwitz. “And we couldn’t have done it without HatzolAir and the rabbis who help us back home, who take care of the family, and whose families we were able to pray for as well.”
On Monday morning, when Hurwitz was wheeled on his chair—equipped with a respirator and a letter board for communication—into the Rebbe’s study for the Torah reading, his weren’t the only eyes welling with tears as he watched his son make the blessings on the Torah for his bar mitzvah.
It was a dream come true for the Hurwitzes.
“This was really a special trip for us,” said Dina. “This is a memory that my children will have with their father for the rest of their lives.”