Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz has been immobilized for seven years by ALS, which has cruelly robbed him of his movement but not his mind. His only method of communication is via eye movement, which he uses (aided by modern technology) to teach, inspire and uplift others across the globe.

Two years ago, a group of yeshivah students decided to give him a gift for his 46th birthday: 4,600 Jews around the world would don tefillin in his honor. The campaign caught fire, and the result was that an estimated 10,000 men in 15 countries put on tefillin and thousands of women lit Shabbat candles that Friday afternoon in his honor. The next year, they did it again, and 23,000 mitzvahs were done.

As thousands of well-wishers around the world prepare to celebrate his 48th birthday, Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz shared these heartfelt words with our readers:


By the Grace of G‑d
February 23, 2020 - 28 Shevat, 5780

To my dear brothers and sisters worldwide!

I know it is unconventional to ask for birthday gifts, but after many thousands of you granted me the most incredible and priceless presents in honor of my last couple birthdays—for which I am eternally grateful!—I actually am here to ask you for more!

Let me explain:

Growing up around the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, I was deeply “infected” by his love and passion for every single individual, and I made it my own life’s mission to help others—with special emphasis on sharing the mitzvahs the Rebbe singled out as particularly important entry points for our generation.

Tefillin

I would take great joy in running around to help what seemed like a never-ending stream of Jewish men from all walks of life put on tefillin on their heads and arms, some for their very first time. Alignment of the male head and heart is so sorely needed in our world; small wonder so many were so profoundly moved! Seeing others’ reactions only underscored the mitzvah’s centrality to my own life. The prayer and tranquility of tefillin is truly indescribable.

Shabbat Candles

I also became very passionate about sharing the joy and light of Shabbat candle lighting with Jewish women and girls from all walks of life, and I distributed thousands of packets of candles and candleholders, along with the traditional blessings and lighting times.

Dina and I would often hear back about the immense impact the small flames had on women’s homes and surroundings. I simply could not believe my good fortune to be able to bring light to people’s homes and families—and smiles to their faces—through this seemingly simple yet profound idea of the Rebbe.

(In my own home I always love watching Dina and my girls lighting candles each week. There is something so holy and pure about it—it fills the home with the Divine presence and G‑d’s blessing. It is also very moving to me that many women and girls use their candle lighting time to pray for their loved ones and for all who are in need of their powerful prayers.)

Birthday Campaign

One more all-time favorite of mine was the Rebbe’s birthday campaign: To mark one’s (Jewish) birthday with additional learning, prayer, introspection and charity, and especially to have a get-together with friends to celebratorily make concrete resolutions for increased good deeds the coming year.

The Pain...

After I was diagnosed with ALS seven years ago, the very first parts of my body that stopped working were parts of my head and my left arm—the very areas I’d place my tefillin! (And though I am very blessed and grateful for my loving neighbors and family members who painstakingly put them on me daily) I was devastated.

Further exacerbating that, of course, I could no longer help others put on tefillin, nor could I distribute Shabbat candles. And I certainly could no longer be the life of the (birthday) party in the way that I had been until then!

Making my challenge even more accute, it was literally on my birthday that I received my ALS diagnosis seven years ago!

Inevitably, as each birthday came around, the contrast between my current situation and my mind’s reel of birthdays past would play some serious tricks on me, and I’d start feeling really weighted down. Please don’t get me wrong: I put up a really good fight, and pretty much ran those negative vibes out of town! But let’s just say my birthdays were not easy...

And this is where it comes back to you:

The Joy!

Ever since thousands of you began gifting me these incredible #TefillinForYitzi and #ShabbatCandlesForYitzi campaigns for my birthday, I feel like I’ve regained a big part of my prior life and, actually, in greater measure than before!

It seems to me that to make up for the tefillin that I cannot don on my own, and for the tefillin and Shabbat candles that I can no longer aid others with, and for the birthday parties I can no longer lead—in lieu of all those holy acts, I’ve now actually been gifted every one of them, but many, many times over! It’s almost as if I’m now putting on tefillin, and lighting Shabbat candles, and celebrating my birthday, tens of thousands of times!

And then there are the many of you who’ve messaged me about other good deeds you’ve done in my honor, including some of you who are not Jewish (and not commanded to put on tefillin or light Shabbat candles), who donated to charitable causes in my honor, or learned about G‑d’s Oneness, or did other good deeds in my honor to make our world a better place.

Wow! I am profoundly humbled and grateful. And very, very happy! You’ve truly helped me and touched me to the core.

Thousands upon thousands of holy and transformative acts of tefillin, Shabbat candle lighting and more—all done in my honor. What more could I possibly ask for? What more exciting birthday and birthday presents could a guy possibly wish for?! How much more explicitly could I be fulfilling my beloved role as an emissary of the Rebbe?

My Greatest Joy

Even more exciting to me, though, is the fact that I know very well that I am not the only beneficiary of these spiritual treasures.

Every single one of you who dons tefillin or lights Shabbat candles or performs other mitzvot, or helps someone else do so, is certain to derive enormous spiritual and even material benefit from the G‑dly blessings that each of these acts brings to you and your loved ones and everyone around you—and the entire world!

And that, my dear brothers and sisters, is by far the greatest birthday present of all:

To know that somehow because of my birthday you were blessed, and that all those around you were blessed, and that these blessings will keep paying themselves forward across the globe for eternity! wow! Now that feels like living life at its very highest! What more can I possibly say?

My Request:

It is with all this in mind that I write to you now, in advance of my birthday this Thursday, 2 Adar - February 27, and ask you:

Please can you join in my celebration?

Will you please put on tefillin in honor of my birthday? Or light Shabbat candles? Or perform some other mitzvah, another act of goodness and kindness, in honor of my birthday next week? Also, can you please share the beauty of these mitzvahs with others, so that they, too, can bask in the immense light and blessing of these mitzvahs?

(A special additional request to all the women and girls: Please can you include me, Yosef Yitzchak ben Brachah, in your special prayers as you light your Shabbat candles? It would be an amazing honor for me.)

If you would only know how much pleasure these mitzvahs give me, and how much blessing they bring you (and me and all of us), you’d do them many times over! I have no words to express it. I simply consider them to be the most meaningful and amazing gifts ever given. I am forever grateful to you.

Response to Antisemitism

There is one more thing that I must mention:

We all know that Jews across the globe—and even right here in the United States!—have been experiencing heightened levels of antisemitism. We also know of the Rebbe's response to tragedy and darkness: Bring even more light and goodness into the world! (The darkness is then automatically diminished.)

It is surely more important now than ever that we increase in our charity and our good deeds, and that we all proudly and openly perform these important mitzvot, undaunted and unshaken in our adherence to our timeless faith in G‑d!

I wish I could be out there on the street right now helping people to perform these mitzvot. Alas, I cannot. But to all of you who can: Extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures! Please go find someone else—in your office, in your neighborhood park, on the street, wherever—and encourage them to do another mitzvah. Trust me: Even if you must go out of your comfort zone to do so, you will forever be grateful that you did.

May G‑d answer all of your prayers—and our collective prayers—and remove all darkness, illness and suffering from the face of the earth, and grant us true Redemption for our entire world, speedily in our days!

Sincerely,

Yitzi Hurwitz


Editor's Note: Here's information on how you can join the public celebration:

Take a picture of your mitzvah.

(Shabbat Candles: Take a picture of your pre-lighting prep this Friday, Feb. 28, and send AFTER Shabbat!)

Send pictures by WhatsApp (or text) to 770-810-5134, by email to TefillinForYitzi@gmail.com or online at TefillinForYitzi.com.

Keep checking TefillinForYitzi.com for latest photos and videos! (Pre-candlelighting pictures from this Friday (Feb. 28) will be posted beginning March 2 on TefillinForYitzi.com/ShabbatCandles.)

#TefillinForYitzi signs are available for print at TefillinForYitzi.com.