His melodious voice has been forever changed. He can no longer sing as part of the religious services he used to lead or read aloud from the Torah.
He can still speak, but it’s often difficult to make out what he is saying. Words that had previously flowed with careful pronunciations and a tinge of whimsy – even through a distinctive East Coast accent – are now flat. It doesn’t hurt him to speak, but it sounds as if it does.
The disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, has robbed Rabbi Yitzchok Hurwitz of what had been normalcy. Commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, it has changed how he moves through the world and interacts with people, including his family, which includes seven children ranging in age from 7 to 16, and the members of the Chabad Jewish Center of Temecula, CA.
It has not, however, stripped him of his smile, his positive outlook or his desire to grow the Chabad, the inclusive Jewish community center that he and his wife, Dina Hurwitz, founded here around 14 years ago.
“I love connecting with people and I thought it would stop,” Rabbi Hurwitz wrote on a piece of unlined white paper during an interview at the center on Friday, Oct. 4. “But I have found other ways to connect.”
Hurwitz, 41, was diagnosed with ALS in February, less than a year after he and Dina moved the Chabad, which they had run out of their house, to a suite in a shopping center near The Promenade.
His particular type of ALS is called bulbar onset, which starts in the brain stem and spreads to other parts of his body. He can still walk and drive, but his speech and throat functions have been constrained.
The months following the diagnosis have been draining for both Hurwitz, who lost 15 pounds in September from his eating difficulties, and his large family, which is not used to seeing their father so vulnerable.
But all members have showed remarkable resolve, Dina Hurwitz said, stepping up to help out where they can, making meals and helping with services and classes.
In September, more help arrived in the form of Rabbi Sholom Katz and his wife Chaya, a young couple who moved to Temecula from Brooklyn.
For much of September, the Katzes and the Hurwitzes were busy with High Holiday services and observances. With those now complete, the foursome is working to add new programs and tap into the youthful energy of Sholom and Chaya, 25 and 22 respectively.
Rabbi Katz said he doesn’t have the musical talents of Hurwitz, who sang and played guitar, but he has his own talents and together they have formed a good team, one that, hopefully, will be a fixture in the community for years to come.
At a recent City Council meeting, Hurwitz was honored by both the council, which named Sept. 24 as Rabbi Hurwitz Day, and city residents, who took to the podium in City Hall to thank him for his years of service and wish him well in his battle.
Others provided funny stories of the rabbi’s time in Temecula — the menorahs at the Duck Pond Park that grew larger each year during the city’s holiday season — and shared memories of him being there for family members in need.
“We know this disease he is fighting, he will overcome it,” said Dan Phillips, who identified himself as a member of the Chabad.
Rabbi Shmuel Fuss, founder of the Chabad in Riverside, said Monday he’s known the Hurwitzes for years and considers them very close friends. He said he and his fellow rabbis stand ready to help out where needed.
“Heart of gold, him and his wife; role models for the community,” he said. “The community loves them and they’ve done a lot for the community.”
A positive outlook
In many cases, people suffering from ALS experience a steady decline in muscle function that can sometimes end with paralysis.
At the doctor’s office, the charts routinely show bad news. Yet the Hurwitzes are focusing on the positive, the hope that Rabbi Hurwitz will be one of the people in which the disease “burns out.”
“People always have a choice in their lives to focus on the positive or focus on the negative,” said Dina Hurwitz. “Focusing on the negative, it’s not an enjoyable way to live your life, and for my husband, I don’t know if that’s an option because his whole being has always been positive. He’s a strong person.”
Rabbi Hurwitz waited a beat and spoke words that were familiar and clear: