On Sunday evening, November 17, there was a standing-room-only crowd of women at Congregation Ahavas Yisroel who came to hear Mrs. Dina Hurwitz share her inspiring story. With warmth and tears, Mrs. Hurwitz showed all of us how to face an extremely difficult challenge with love and hope and even joy. It was humbling and at the same time she gave each member of the audience the gift of hope.
I was nervous about covering this event. Would it be depressing? Would I leave feeling sad? In fact, I left feeling uplifted.
She shared how she grew up in California. Her father is a Chabad rabbi and, as a teenager, she lived in New York in her cousin’s house in Crown Heights. So, she met her husband Yitzi when she was 14, as he was best friends with her cousin’s brother. She shared how she would turn red whenever she saw him in the house. At the age of 14, she already knew that she wanted to marry him. When she was 21 and in shidduchim, he said no to going out with her, but finally he agreed to go out with her. He was the only person she ever dated. They had similar backgrounds as both of them grew up in Chabad families. His dream was to go out in the world and teach Torah where people didn’t have the opportunity to learn it. She shared how she married her best friend, someone she could build a beautiful bayis ne’eman with and who shared the same goals and values she had. “It was the best decision I ever made.”
They first lived in Colorado, and then, in 1999, they moved to a small town in California called Temecula. They ran a small Chabad House and she drove the children to school 50 miles each way. It was a good life and a nice community with nice people. When the recession hit Temecula, her husband took on many more jobs, in addition to running the Chabad House and the classes there. He did kosher supervision at a farm, and he had to check on the pipes and the cows every hour all night long, so he slept in his car, waking every hour. He also worked as chaplain at a state mental institute for the criminally insane. He used his time in the farm to prepare for the classes he was teaching. He also played guitar and sang. “He was always happy.” She noted: “His passion was our Chabad House, but he didn’t have time for it.”
At the age of 40, he started experiencing symptoms of slurred speech. He changed his schedule and slept better, hoping that would cure the problem. However, the symptoms returned. The first doctor diagnosed a sinus infection, but the antibiotics did not help. At this time, their older children were 11, 12, 14, and 15, and their younger ones were six, seven, and eight. The younger ones were in school in San Diego, and the older ones were in school in Los Angeles.
She and her husband went to a neurologist who said it could be one of four things and the fourth was ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease). She shared that her husband was a physically strong person who rarely got sick. She Googled cures for ALS and nothing came up except advertisements for ventilators and end of life.
She recalled tearfully how, that Shabbos, he said, “We’re not going to cry on Shabbos.” When Sunday came, I couldn’t stop crying, she said. “My whole world changed.”
“We had to continue living.” His speech had deteriorated more and more, and at one point in a store someone made a hurtful comment about drunken rabbis. She shared how ALS affects your moods so that if her husband started laughing, he couldn’t stop. She shared how painful it was for her at this time when her children didn’t know this and thought it was funny when they got him to laugh.
On her husband’s 41st birthday, they received the terrible diagnosis that he had one of the most aggressive forms of ALS. Over 300 Chabad rabbis came to his birthday party. They were worried that they would have to cheer him up, but they left uplifted. “Yitzi never wavered from saying, ‘I’m here to do what Hashem wants me to do.’”
She shared how she worried how to tell the kids. People at Chai Lifeline helped her on how to have the discussion. The doctor had given him two years to live. Her husband asked her what she had always wanted to do, so they started writing a sefer Torah and finished it the next year.
A Chabad bachur came to their house and ended up staying for six months. He helped arrange trips for their children and became like a fun older brother for their children. “We are part of an amazing community. All over the world people were davening for us.”
Mrs. Hurwitz shared: “I felt passionate about being honest. I told them that Tatty is sick. We don’t know what Hashem has in store for us, but we know He’s there for us.” She continued, “I told them you will feel a lot of emotions. Some days you’ll feel angry. Some days you’ll feel disappointed. Right now, everything is so scary. We just have to live one moment at a time.”
I also warned them not to Google the disease. In the last 50 years, there have been zero breakthroughs. She emphasized, “People who write these articles don’t know your Tatty or our G-d.”
“My kids asked me, ‘Are you telling us he can die?’ I said, ‘This is what the doctor said but we have to know Hashem can do anything.’”
She shared how sometimes her son will cheer her by saying, “Mommy, one step at a time.” She shared how “there were not a lot of changes right away, but every dream you had: Hopes and dreams became fears. The outpouring of love was so incredible to see. It’s incredible how the Jewish community is!”
They decided to move to Los Angeles. It was a hard decision. “It felt bad planning for things to get worse.” They moved to an apartment next door to a Chabad school. There was no privacy at all, but it turned out to be a huge blessing. Their house is always full of yeshivah boys. There are Gemara classes, chavrusos for her husband, and minyanim. This brought so much joy into their home.
Every month he grew physically weaker. “Though there was constant loss, Yitzi never lost his balance.” She shared how his dream of being a teacher never changed. He said, ‘Now I can reach thousands through the computer.’ He never lost focus.” She shared how she had to become the mouthpiece. Shy by nature, she now had to finish his speeches. Two years from the first doctor visit, he had to have a “trach” and they had to have a nurse 24/7. He speaks with his eyes on the computer, and though he is permitted in this situation to use the computer on Shabbos and Yom Tov, he never does. Instead, he painstakingly uses a chart with letters to communicate on Shabbos and Yom Tov.
She stated, “We do have a lot of beauty in our life.” Most of the time, Yitzi is in bed. He can communicate best there. He has 100 visitors a week, both Jewish and non-Jewish visitors. Some people come to pour out their hearts and some come to play music.
One Sunday morning, two policemen came to visit. She shared how she was frightened but they just came to visit and they said there is a lot of goodness and beauty in this room. She imparted, “You see the best parts of people constantly.”
Her husband writes a d’var Torah every week and publishes a blog shared by thousands. Right now, he is editing and working on Pirkei Avos. He is very busy and very much focused. “You don’t go into his room and feel sadder.”
She shared how he bought her flowers this week and he sends her loving text messages daily. He has all his s’farim on his computer so he can daven and learn.
“We’re coming up to seven years since his diagnosis. It’s incredible that he’s lived past what they said.”
Mrs. Hurwitz then shared her own feelings openly. She said that it’s okay to be tired. It’s hard and lonely and it’s okay to acknowledge uncomfortable feelings. She said women in general are hard on themselves. Some of the most negative messages we hear are our own. We have so much on our shoulders: family, jobs, and community obligations. She noted, “We’re so good to everybody and not always good to ourselves. We have to learn to be good to ourselves so we don’t burn out.” She acknowledged that everyone has challenges and we need to be extra kind to ourselves. When having a bad day, try to label the emotion you are experiencing. Give yourself permission to feel fears, etc. It will go away.
She continued, “Joy is important. Be happy. I don’t have a choice; I have to be happy for my kids and for Yitzi.” She shared changes she made: “I gave up on taking myself so seriously. We have a lot of music in the house.” Many of their children play guitar and she started learning guitar. They have a keyboard, a harmonica, and tambourines. “Music is a good way to release tension. Music affects the joy level in the house. If something is upsetting, I ask myself if it will make a difference in five years.
She tries to say yes to her children, just as we want Hashem to say yes to us. She says yes when it’s not something that will hurt their relationship with Hashem.
She ended with the idea that “love is the biggest blessing Hashem gave us. Love is incredible. It makes you go beyond your capability to do what needs to be done.” She blessed our community that in all our relationships we should have a lot of love and that we are able to express it, and have good health always, and enough inner strength to help others.
People left uplifted by the beautiful lessons in emunah and love that Mrs. Hurwitz shared. May Hashem bring a miracle cure for her husband, and may we hear of no more sickness.