If Jay Litvin was anything, he was a pioneer, constantly on the move, always searching for more. His resume is impressive, spanning the social justice movements of the 1960s to the radioactive towns and villages of Ukraine and Belarus in the 1990s, where he bravely saved thousands of children.

And to many around the globe, he was a pioneer of using the Internet in ways that would only become mainstream years later with the advent of blogging and then social media—sharing his life, his struggles, his triumphs and his insights with thousands of readers of Chabad.org.

As we mark 20 years since his untimely passing, we present you with an adaptation of his biography, written by his wife, Sharon, as an introduction to the book in which his essays have been brought to print, The Life I Have: Essays on Fatherhood, Finding Judaism and Illness.

Get to know Jay through the many essays he wrote on Chabad.org over the years, organized by here by theme.


If the Senn High School Yearbook of 1962 is a reliable barometer, Jay Litvin was a popular guy: girlfriends, school clubs, and a tight group of poker-playing friends. The Litvins lived in West Rogers Park, a solid middle-class neighborhood heavily populated by second-generation Jewish families.

College was where Jay began to see a path ahead that differed from the expectations of his parents and peers. After beginning and then dropping out of the University of Illinois at Champagne, and then from the University of Illinois in Chicago, Jay ended up at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. There he discovered political philosophies and activism and met his lifelong friend Paul Shain. Together they found work with youth groups on the rough streets of Chicago’s west side and were active in the civil rights movement of the mid 1960s.

One night, sitting at a bar on Chicago’s north side, Jay struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to him, a documentary filmmaker working in the new cinema verité style made possible by the development of 16mm handheld cameras. Jay was captivated by the possibilities and soon began his on-the-job training as a sound recorder and film editor at the Film Group of Chicago. In 1966, he helped film a march of protesters led by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) into Cicero, Illinois, an all-white suburb of Chicago, to protest housing discrimination. It was a volatile afternoon resulting in an 8-minute film, Cicero March, that documented the passions and vitriol in the struggle for equal rights in America. In the spring of 1970, Jay met up with Paul in London. They bought a motorcycle and spent several months traveling around England, France, and Portugal. In Paris, Jay discovered yoga, French New Wave cinema, and a culture of intense political analysis and action that he found exhilarating.

Jay and I met at the Film Group offices on Grant St. in Chicago one late November afternoon in 1970. I was meeting a friend and Jay was a staffer among several sitting around a large table talking. We were interested in each other at once. A few days later, he asked me out for the first time. Six months thereafter we were married and on our way to Oregon to forge a back-to-the-earth, home-cooked life, little understanding that we were city kids who would eventually need to return to the hustle and buzz of urban living.

By the autumn of 1972, we were in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Jay was to help produce half-inch video productions on the theme of synergy. Half-inch video was the first television technology that was small and cheap enough to put video production in the hands of community people, something of great interest to Jay and Paul, who dubbed it the “People’s Production Technology.”

In 1975, several good friends moved out west—California, Oregon and Washington State. We followed suit, liquidating our household and loading up a van with camping equipment and two kids, and hit the road to find a new home. After traveling and camping up and down the Pacific coast we went inland to Tucson, Arizona, a desert town surrounded by stunning mountain ranges.

Jay was tired of sitting at an editing table. He enrolled in a two-year course at the Tucson branch of the New York Institute of Bioenergetics to qualify as a Bioenergetic therapist. To bring home a salary, he worked first as a counselor and later as the program director of a court-mandated drug counseling program at Tucson Awareness House, where he spent his days talking and listening to clients from the courts, prisons, and streets. (This experience was useful years later when he was asked to consult on the administration of a drug rehab center that Chabad was running in Los Angeles). Parallel to these interests, he continued to be curious about the ways different types of knowledge—esoteric, spiritual, psychological—could be used to build a more unified and meaningful life, with values, practices and wisdom that could be transmitted to his children and future grandchildren.

A car accident insurance settlement brought us unexpected funds that we decided to invest – in an adventure. We gave away or sold our household goods, again, drove down to Nogales, Mexico, and got on a Mexican train bound for Tepic, where the four of us caught a bus to the Jalisco coast and the thinly populated beach village we had “found.”

Jay exulted in the primitive lushness, the mountains tumbling down to the Pacific, the rudimentary, cashless, agrarian Mexican Indian life. The few expat Anglos to drink with were mostly old timers, escapees from the law or the day-to-day grind of the north.

Praying in the outdoors he so loved. - Photo: Yaakov Litvin
Praying in the outdoors he so loved.
Photo: Yaakov Litvin

Jay made friends with a local man who taught him to fish with just line and hooks among the rocks along the coast. He used a machete to cut wood for our cooking stove and bamboo for our beds, which were suspended by ropes (to avoid snakes and scorpions) above the sand floor of our palapa. He learned how to whack the top off coconuts for the milk that reportedly discouraged intestinal parasites. He studied Spanish from little dog-eared phrase books and spoke to everyone in the language. Jay accompanied Alejandro, his friend, on burros for day long treks into the jungle. Alejandro’s mother was a curandera, an herbalist, and he showed Jay the plants used to heal different ailments, igniting Jay’s lifelong interest in herbalism.

After a year in Mexico, our money ran out and we went back up north to a film editing job Jay had been offered in Milwaukee. He wanted to see his parents in Chicago, and it seemed like it might be a good idea if our two children learned how to read.

One Sunday morning before Chanukah, Jay happened to be watching TV with the kids when a long-bearded, black-hatted rabbi came on the screen to talk about the inner meaning of Chanukah. Jay was impressed. He had never heard a rabbi speak about Judaism with such depth and feeling. His encounters with Judaism had thus far been superficial, sterile, or perfunctory. Now he was curious. That chance encounter via television with a Chassidic rabbi changed our lives entirely. Jay’s essay, “Two Rabbis Came to the Door” describes our family’s initiation into a way of life both radically different from anything we had known before and weirdly attuned to our respect for traditional societies.

The 1980s was a decade Jay devoted to learning Chabad Chassidus and turning the learning into practice in everyday life. Everything—clothes, speech, food, attitude, relationships—was seen in a new light. Jay’s spiritual life blossomed, his devotion to G‑d was formalized, our family life deepened and enlarged. We had five more children from 1982 to 1993, and Jay worked hard to support the family and fulfill his obligations to pray with a minyan, learn Torah and Chassidus, and be an active member of our community. This was a period that demanded selfless attention to the needs of others, both family and community, but also provided us with a needed antidote to the self-absorption and lonely individualism of our era.


Jay had been doing consulting work for Chabad organizations in the U.S. for several years when he was asked to travel to Israel to collaborate on a large project Chabad in Israel was developing. Jay had never been to Israel. The organization, Tzeirei Agudas Chabad (Tzach) was in Kfar Chabad, a small, agricultural village (moshav) halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Kfar Chabad was also home to an outsized number of educational institutions, as well as families who had escaped Eastern Europe after WWII to settle in Israel. Jay was charmed by the village of few cars, old men with long beards riding bicycles, children roaming freely among the houses and tiny grocery stores. The work was engaging, and he enjoyed the full-throttle Israeli style of asserting ideas and opinions.

Jay speaking at the fourth National Conference of Shluchim. - Photo: Yaakov Litvin
Jay speaking at the fourth National Conference of Shluchim.
Photo: Yaakov Litvin

In 1990, the Rebbe asked the director of Tzach, Yosef Aronov, to address the problem of ailing children in the vicinity of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown by taking responsibility for their wellbeing. Families in Belarus and Ukraine were begging for medical help for their children who had been exposed to radiation that could lead to thyroid malfunction, low blood cell counts, and continued exposure to lingering radioactivity. Tzach inaugurated a program—Chabad’s Children of Chornobyl (CCOC)—to bring children to Israel for medical attention in a radiation-free environment. Despite the large-scale problems involved in taking children from one country to another, especially from the former Soviet Union to Israel, the first transport of 196 children arrived at Ben Gurion airport on August 3, 1990. Jay had spent the prior three weeks working night and day to bring the project to fruition. After the successful arrival of the first flight, Jay flew home to Wisconsin, arriving on the morning of August 6th. That night we had our 6th child, Rivky, a month early.

Jay continued to commute to Kfar Chabad to work on raising funds and public awareness of the project. In 1993, he was offered the position of public relations and media spokesperson for CCOC in Israel and we began the process of aliyah, a Hebrew word meaning “going up” into the land of Israel.

We rented an apartment next to the dormitory of the boys who had been brought to Israel and they were frequent visitors to our home. Jay cared deeply about the circumstances of these children’s lives and worked long hours, finally having one single job to focus on instead of two or even three. His office down the road from our apartment had foot-high stacks of printouts of research into the effects of radiation on children. He forged relationships with experts from the World Health Organization and eventually was invited to speak at conferences in Italy and England about the health outcomes of the evacuated children. Jay went to the Chernobyl site several times with Yossi Raichik, the director of CCOC, to see firsthand the extent of the devastation. To their surprise, they met older farmers living in wooden houses in the “Dead Zone,” burning radioactive firewood in their fireplaces, refusing to abandon their land.

For 14 years, Jay traveled back and forth to Minsk, Kiev, Chernobyl, Moscow, Rome, New York, Detroit, Tel Aviv, Chicago, and England. He, Yossi Raichik, Yosef Aronov and several other brave and dedicated souls worked ceaselessly with the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the governments of Israel, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and with major Jewish philanthropists throughout the world to further the work of removing children from the toxic environment to safe haven in Israel. Today many of these children have gone on to build successful lives in Israel and elsewhere, having had the advantage of excellent medical attention during their early years.

Jay was a restless spirit with a tender heart; over time he became concerned about the children left behind in the impoverished Belarus, especially those children with developmental, physical, or psychiatric impairments. He toured the orphanages and hospitals in post-Soviet Ukraine and Belarus that, because of lack of funds, warehoused these children. Children of Chernobyl partnered with a humanitarian group from Ireland to provide toys and therapeutic equipment to these forsaken orphanages. Medical supplies from New York were shipped to hospitals in Belarus and mammography machines were delivered to clinics in Ukraine. He searched for foster homes or sponsors in Europe and the U.K. for children with special medical needs that could be surgically repaired. Jay carried in his briefcase harrowing photographs he had taken of children with unrepaired cleft palates, spina bifida, schizophrenia and a host of other conditions; children left to languish in clean but barren orphanages and state hospitals. Jay would show these photos to anyone he thought might be able to help or contribute. Most people turned away from the disturbing pictures, but for Jay they were an urgent reminder of the work that needed to be done.

Ultimately, Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl brought close to 3,000 children to Israel and helped many others receive the medical treatment they needed.

Jay receiving a dollar and a blessing from the Rebbe. - Photo: Yaakov Litvin
Jay receiving a dollar and a blessing from the Rebbe.
Photo: Yaakov Litvin

Second Intifada

During the second half of 1999 and early 2000, Jay began to feel acutely unwell. By Passover 2000, Jay had been diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His writing began to reflect his process of accommodating and possibly beating the disease through self-transformation; he switched to an entirely macrobiotic diet and began a regimen of traditional Chinese remedies in addition to conventional cancer treatment with chemo and radiation. It was astonishing that his work schedule barely changed and many people did not realize he was sick until his hair fell out. This period coincided with the Second Intifada (2000-2005), an extraordinarily terrible time in Israel. Jay had become friends with Sam Orbaum, of blessed memory, an essayist and writer for the Jerusalem Post, who was also in treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Sam and Jay joked about their situation.

“How can you care about having cancer when there’s a war going on?”

“But how can you care about the war when you have cancer?”

They passionately cared about both catastrophes.

As always, even with cancer, there were silver linings to appreciate. Jay reconnected with his oldest friends, strengthened his relationships with his sisters, and spent more time at home. As a couple, we healed past hurts and spent wonderful hours together listening to music and, of course, talking. Jay found new depth and sparkle in the world, silently cheering on younger, healthier people as they did things he could no longer do. And he was especially motivated to continue his writing, finding deeper and richer veins of thought and feeling that could carry his voice to his children after he was gone.

Jay was a deeply devoted father. His sympathy for his children—and children in general—was strong and abiding, expressed every day in multiple ways: sitting with them on city benches eating sunflower seeds and talking, taking them along on errands, knowing how to muster them into doing household tasks that became fun under his jovial leadership. When they walked places, he spun exciting stories out of his head that made the walk too short. He was ready with warmth and comfort at any and every injury, upset or hurt feelings, never rationalizing or minimizing emotion. He was there, heart and soul, for his kids and they felt it. (see Angels, The View From My Child’s Window, My Favorite Kind of Night, and more.)

Undaunted by his worsening physical condition, Jay continued to respond to situations where his talents could be of help by researching treatment options for sick, injured, or disabled kids in need, often making calls from his bed in the hospital or at home.

In his final year of life, as the physical, psychological, and emotional toll of the Second Intifada became unbearable. With the funerals of children, young people, neighbors, and acquaintances becoming routine, Jay started reading about trauma. He devoured every book he could find and started calling and meeting with people who were doing work in the field. He had a vision that Chabad was uniquely positioned, via the Chabad centers all over the world, to deliver trauma-informed care to victims of terror. Jay wanted to provide every Chabad emissary with the training and tools needed to respond effectively to catastrophic events. His scope was global. His ideas were prophetic, but ideas weren’t the point for Jay: the ideas needed to be operational, on the ground, helping people, especially children, have better, healthier lives. The Chabad Victims of Terror Project became operational in Israel in 2003.


So much of Jay is alive in his writings, pouring forth from his heart and soul. When I read his essays, I can hear him speaking; he wrote like he spoke. He had tremendous courage to write and print his articles. He agonized over them—was he revealing too much, was his process too intense? Did he have any right to broadcast his thoughts? Yanki Tauber, Jay’s friend and then the editor at Chabad.org, heard a lot of these worries and was enormously supportive. Not long after his essays started appearing, it became apparent that there was a large audience for what Jay had to say, not only among Jewish readership but across many demographics.

For my part, I sometimes nixed sections (or entire articles) because the subject matter encroached on family privacy. Sometimes I was uncomfortable but would bite the bullet. Sometimes we argued for days about a potential essay based on an actual event. For instance, one day in the chemotherapy treatment room an older guy, quite upset about the way he was being treated by the nurses, roughly pushed his wife, an elegant woman with a number tattooed on her forearm. It was a shocking event. She had made the mistake of trying to calm her husband down. Jay left the rough shove out of the essay, but he understood why the old guy pushed. I understood why the woman walked away, and then came back. Our argument evolved into an essay about the way we can act badly precisely to those who are the most devoted to us and upon whom we rely (see “Bonds”).

Jay started writing his essays before his diagnosis, before he understood that his life was going to be radically shortened. Yet he always intended the essays to be a way of communicating his inner life and devotion to family to his beloved children when they would be old enough to understand his values.

May these essays reach those who will benefit from Jay’s penetrating insight and dedication to bringing more light into our world, and offer comfort and perspective to those who are facing life-threatening diseases.

Read Jay's essays here.