Rabbi Isaac Hurwitz is as much a rock star as a Hasidic Jew can be. He writes regular Torah commentary for L’Chaim, a weekly newsletter distributed to schools and shuls run by the Orthodox Jewish movement Chabad. One of his songs was made into a widely shared YouTube music video. Rabbi Yitzi, as he’s known, also runs a marriage blog that advises men how to be better listeners and partners. He welcomes countless scholars, students and friends to his home in West Hollywood, Calif., to chat, study, pray or play guitar.
This might not seem remarkable, but for the past six years Rabbi Yitzi, 47, has been weakened by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neurodegenerative disease that infamously befell Lou Gehrig. Rabbi Yitzi has bulbar ALS, a particularly nasty form of the disease that attacks nerves and muscles associated with basic functions such as speech, swallowing and respiration. He has lost the ability to move and spends his days in bed. A ventilator expands and contracts his lungs so he can breathe. He receives nourishment through a tube and is at high risk of a stroke or heart attack.
Yet with a robust support system and technological assistance—and with his hearing and vision still intact—this remarkable rabbi has stayed productive and present for his wife, Dina, and their seven children. He writes her a weekly love letter using laser-based software that tracks eye movements to nudge a laptop cursor through its paces. “I get a text each morning along the lines of ‘Good morning, my love,’ ” Dina says. Another note may follow later: “You kvetch so nicely.”
Using the same eye-gazing program, Yitzi painstakingly writes his weekly Torah commentaries. It sometimes requires a day to complete a column that once would have taken two hours. One recent piece addressed whether someone can be commanded to love another in the same way as loving God. “To be loved, is to be understood,” Yitzi concludes. While he has rabbinical dispensation to use his computer on Shabbat, Yitzi often refrains and rests his strained eyes from the intense workouts. “He communicates differently on Shabbat, looking at everyone’s faces directly; it’s more pleasant,” Dina says. She adds that she still detects the mischief and happiness of the man she married in 1996.
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Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz recently made a cross-country trip to be at his son’s bar mitzvah with family and friends in his hometown of Brooklyn.
On Monday, his youngest child, Shalom, 13, read from the Torah in the Brooklyn study of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The family visited the rebbe’s grave on Sunday, the New York Post reported. The rabbi cried at the grave as he prayed for his wife, his children and for a cure.
The rabbi’s wife Dina told the Post that her husband’s illness has helped the couple reach people that they could not reach before.