A group of yeshivah students gathered at the bedside of Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz last week and presented him with a digital portrait composed of thousands of miniaturized images of men, women and children around the world doing mitzvahs in honor of his 46th birthday.
The students, who study near the rabbi’s home in Los Angeles, and often learn and pray with him there, decided that an appropriate 46th-birthday gift would be 4,600 Jewish men putting on tefillin and sending photos of their mitzvah to the rabbi, who has ALS and can no longer walk or talk.
Using social media and an article posted on Chabad.org, the campaign went viral, and photos of tefillin-wearing men bearing #tefillinforyitzi placards began to pour in via text message and email.
One picture came from day-school students in Brooklyn, N.Y., who helped a 105-year-old man in an assisted-living facility to put on tefillin.
Almost 6,000 miles away in Israel, a group of young women studying at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem expanded the campaign by taking to the streets on Friday to distribute Shabbat candles to women and girls in the rabbi’s honor. In the Mahane Yehuda outdoor market alone, 150 women took candles to light that evening at home before the start of Shabbat.
Yet one of the most touching images of all came from Maplewood, N.J., where Jeffrey Kingsley shared images of him and his teenage son, Harry, wearing tefillin, accompanied with the brief message that he, too, has ALS.
“Rabbi Yitzi and his wife are such an inspiration,” says Kingsley, who has lost movement in his lower body.
“Even though he cannot even move his mouth, the fact that they maintain such a positive attitude and devotion to their family is very special.”
Back in Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilmember Paul Koretz got in on the action, announcing that the city of Los Angeles “applauds [the rabbi’s] towering leadership and inspiring example,” and “joins in saluting and celebrating with [him] and his countless students worldwide on the joyous occasion of his 46th birthday.”
They noted that through his “writings on the world’s largest Jewish website Chabad.org, and [his] personal interaction [with others, he] inspires people across the globe with his joy, faith and optimism.”
The city’s leaders summed up the key motivation behind the campaign by noting that Hurwitz is “a follower and emissary of [the Lubavitcher Rebbe,] Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, who taught about the immense significance of one’s birthday and how to fill it with spiritual content and resolutions.”
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On Friday, as the messages came in fast and furious, Dina Hurwitz wrote:
“The pictures and videos and voice notes have us mesmerized. I should be cooking for Shabbos, but I am sitting with Yitzi trying to absorb all of this. What we saw was an overwhelming outpouring of love and kindness.”
“We think of ourselves as regular people with an unusual life,” she continued. “Aside for a few minor bouts of embarrassment over all of this attention, we are really so humbled and honored that all of you did all of this.”
After the rabbi’s illness was diagnosed, a video production of “Shine a Little Light,” a beautiful and inspiring song the rabbi had written years earlier, was created by a number of well-known musical artists. Dina Hurwitz said that this year’s birthday campaign reminded her of “the outpouring of love and brotherhood we saw at the beginning of Yitzi’s illness, and again when the song came out.”
“It reminded me that although surviving a storm is important, it’s not the same as living a joyful life. To all of you who contributed to this campaign, this was just the medicine that we needed: an infusion of love and joy to get us over this hurdle.”