Learning to focus with Dina Hurwitz

Dina was driving the older children from school in LA on a Friday when Yitzi phoned with the dread diagnosis. It was his 41st birthday.

DINA AND Yitzi Hurwitz, pre-ALS. (Courtesy) (photo credit: Courtesy)
DINA AND Yitzi Hurwitz, pre-ALS. (Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Seven years ago, Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz could no longer move his thumb, making it impossible to type on his cellphone, his only manner of communicating with the world. He could still move his eyes. He began to learn eye-tracking technology developed in Israel in which eye motions become a pointer on a keyboard. Focus is everything.
Dina Hurwitz, married to Yitzi for 22 years, has a lot to say about focus.
The California-based Rabbanit Hurwitz is speaking to a large group of women in Jerusalem. The event is sponsored by Chabad of Talbiya and Chabad of Baka, two Jerusalem neighborhood branches of the international Lubavitch movement. The two local Chabad women emissaries (shluchot), Channi Canterman and Nechama Dina Hendel, plus Hurwitz are poster-worthy of a generation of Jewish women who are bringing up large families while developing and carrying through Jewish outreach programs. They look so put-together that their multitasking seems easy.
It’s not. Each of these women has dealt with the vicissitudes of carrying out her mission and experienced her own devastating loss and pain.
Before registering, I was worried that this talk would be about silver linings. If you scout around the Internet, you’ll see that some of Hurwitz’s appearances have been framed as the silver lining of a tragedy. I knew the outline of Yitzi Hurwitz’s heartbreaking life story, how the energetic, articulate and popular young Rabbi of Temecula, California (93 kilometers north of San Diego) had trouble enunciating, and soon was diagnosed with incurable ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), like the late Stephen Hawking. Hurwitz is confined to his bed. Laboriously using his eyes, he manages to send a weekly Torah commentary. Many Jewish musicians have done covers of a song he wrote, “Shine a Little Light,” which, not “Silver Linings,” is the title of the evening’s lecture. Said organizer Canterman, a former classmate of Hurwitz’s, “It’s not our role to tell someone there’s a silver lining in a terrible situation.”
Dina signals early in the lecture that she’s going to be candid. She, too, grew up in a Chabad emissary family, but it wasn’t picture perfect. Her parents divorced. She lived with cousins to attend Beth Rivkah of Crown Heights. A shy teen in Brooklyn, she was infatuated – maybe already in love – with her 16-year old cousin’s guitar-playing, ebullient best buddy Yitzi. When later she started dating, she broke her vow to take her time finding the right husband. She and Yitzi were engaged after five dates; she was married at 21. In a Chabad movie showing the glowing bride and groom, Yitzi’s mother says, “They were a perfect couple. Key and lock.”
His dream was to be a foot soldier in the Lubavitch Rebbe’s outreach army. Dina agreed on the condition that they serve as emissaries in Israel or America, within driving distance from a religious school.
She wound up driving 1,600 kilometers a week in Temecula, California. After their seventh child was born, she was confined to bed for three years. That’s when Yitzi wrote the “Shine a Little Light.” After she regained her strength, she went back to running the household and teaching. She began writing a blog, The Caffeinated Thinker. He took on additional jobs as a kosher inspector at a distant farm and a chaplain at a state mental facility.
Dina was driving the older children from school in LA on a Friday when Yitzi phoned with the dread diagnosis. It was his 41st birthday.
“I searched my car phone for ALS cures. None came up. Ice filled my heart,” she says. Every case of ALS is different, but Yitzi’s debilitation was swift. Dina still winces at the nastiness of a supermarket cashier who mocked him for what she judged as drunken speech. Dina isn’t thick-skinned enough to brush off cruelty. It’s her honest vulnerability that makes her so compelling.
She asked Yitzi what he dreamt of doing while he was still mobile?
“He didn’t say he wanted to take me to Hawaii,” she says, with a bittersweet smile. “He wanted to write a Torah.”
Telling the children fell to her.
“You’ll experience a lot of emotions – fright, sadness, anger. Whatever you feel is okay. None of it is an excuse to ruin your life. I don’t know how, but we’re going to try to live one moment at a time. Don’t Google your father’s disease. The writers don’t know our God and don’t know our Rebbe. Stay open to miracles.“
Wise and brave words, but she was terrified.
“Not just my heart, but all my dreams were frozen,” she says.
The kids fell apart. She had migraines. The community they served for 15 years was wonderful, but they needed to leave their posting. She chose Los Angeles. At least the older children wouldn’t have to change schools.
When his breathing became too hard, Yitzi had to decide whether or not to have a permanent tracheostomy, which would prolong his life. He chose life. He was expected to live two years. That was September 2014. Round-the-clock nurses and generous donors allow Dina to bring up the children. Once the quiet half of the couple, she has become a much-requested motivational speaker.
A vibrant, attractive 45, Hurwitz never speaks directly of her lost intimacy, but mentions that she moved first into the kids’ bedroom and then rearranged the sleeping so she could have her private space. She looks back on her pre-ALS blogs “with shame” because people “might think I’m a lot stronger than I am.”
An example from 2012: “As a daughter of Abraham and Isaac, I have inherited the strength to do whatever it takes to hold my head up straight and walk the path G-d has led me on.”
Her blogs are different now. From 2017: “Purim is over and it wasn’t awful. It wasn’t fantastic, either. Every day is a concerted effort to be positive and happy… it’s harder and harder to be positive. It is these days, the ones where it is a mitzvah to be happy that I find challenging. The days that were defined by the energy of Yitzi are what I miss so much. Let’s just hope the mitzvah of being happy is counted by the minute and not the day.”
Her advice for the audience?
“Say yes to your children if you can, because life is tough. If it’s not an inviolable educational principal, will it matter in five years? Be a good friend. Create a space for your friend to share fear without judgement. Don’t be harder on yourself than you would be on your friends. Preserve the joy in your life amidst the hardship. Music helps. Fill the house with it. Difficult as it is, keep your inner focus on the good. Focus is everything.”
“If I’m a little light, you’re a little light/ Together we are so bright.” Simple words from the refrain of “Shine a Little Light.”
Some 150 Jerusalem women stand and serenade Dina Hurwitz. Their sisterly love is focused on Dina Hurwitz. “Shine a Little Light” sounds less like a song and more like a prayer.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.