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Woman Warrior Dina Hurwitz on Pain, Faith, Humor, Strength

Google Dina Hurwitz. You may find a video of a poised, articulate, lovely woman speaking before thousands of fellow Chabad emissaries at their convention in 2016 or before an attentive crowd at a Chabad House. “She’s got it all together,” you may think.

But behind that smooth facade lies an honest, fragile, deep and strong woman warrior. A woman who is facing an excruciating challenge withBehind that smooth facade lies an honest, fragile, strong warrior candor and courageous faith—a challenge that has changed her family’s lives in unimaginable ways.

Dina was a typical Chabad girl. Fun, pretty, well-versed in Torah and Chassidus. Born in Nashville, Tennesee, she was raised in California. At 14, she went to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., to visit family. Her cousin’s best friend was a young man named Yitzi Hurwitz. “I never met anyone with so much joy and excitement. He literally danced when he walked. In the end, that’s who I’m going to marry,” she told her mother.

Dina and Yitzi did marry in 1996, when she was 21 years old. She was sure that no one else could possibly have such a deep love. Their delight and happiness shines from pictures of the two.

The young couple moved across the country to start a Chabad center in Temecula, Calif., a small community about 100 miles from Los Angeles. “Yitzi’s life dream was to be a foot soldier of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and show people how beautiful it is to be Jewish,” explains Dina. A hands-on father, he adored their growing family. Life progressed, filled with the normal demands of work, travel, community, family.

In 2012, everything changed.

Yitzi started complaining, “Something’s not right with my mouth,” he said. Friends joked about the non-drinking rabbi who had slurred speech, sounding drunk. Six months of testing led to a devastating diagnosis: bulbar onset ALS, the most aggressive type of this neuromuscular disorder more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Communication between the brain and muscles fails to work properly, and the muscles slowly atrophy and die. At first, Yitzi’s speech was affected, with some diminishment on his left side, but many normal activities were still possible. He was able to communicate through a text-to-voice app. But the disease forged mercilessly ahead.

Dina helplessly watched “this outgoing musician, storyteller, dancer, rabbi and great communicator, who could talk to anyone in the world,” lose all those abilities over the period of a year-and-a-half.

Today, Rabbi Yitzi is bedridden and mostly paralyzed. A tracheotomy has extended his life well beyond the expected two-year duration. After nearly five years, this dancing, singing beacon of life is more than 95 percent immobile, except for two things: He can smile, and he can move his very expressive eyeballs. Period.

Many would be tempted to wallow in self-pity or anger. But the couple has heroically risen to the challenge. Even with these unimaginable limitations, Yitzi expresses intense love and optimism, and deeply touches many lives, combining the latest technology and his ironclad determination to find whatever way possible to give and spread happiness. He shares his indomitable spirit by laboriously writing a blog with the movement of his eyes, focusing on each letter with a Tobii gaze-activated keyboard; a daylong, exhausting task. This weekly blog has thousands of followers around the world.

And as for Dina? At first it was about sheer survival (mental, physical and logistical): raising their seven children, dealing with ongoing complex medical issues, finances and countless other demands, without collapsing or marinating in bitterness. But this enormous challenge has grown, and grown her, into more.

She has cried. And mourned. And been bitter. And coped. And laughed. And loved. And learned.

She shares her insights, frustrations, faith and compassion freely. A small family blog, “The Caffeinated Thinker,” started before Yitzi’s illness has grown into an honest and empathetic source of strength for thousands of readers. Dina shares her path, how she learned to differentiate between pain and suffering, and how a woman who was “completely paranoid about public speaking” realized that she had vital life lessons to share. She now speaks about her story in many venues around the world with humor, poignancy, a few tears and, most importantly, gritty, real-life inspiration that every member of the audience can take home and apply to their challenges, big or small.

Following are a few of the many powerful insights Dina has learned:

Identity: If asked who we are, most of us would describe our talents and our work, as this forms our identities. As Dina watched all these talents slip away from Yitzi, she realized that he never lost his self. His core was a loving soul. As a teaching goes: “We’re not a body with a soul, we’re a soul with a body.” Left with only his eyes as a means to communicate, she says in some ways he’s exactly who he always was. “We all are a soul-burning strong. We have value—whoever we are and whatever we do or don’t or can’t do—just by virtue of being alive.”

Pain vs. suffering: Dina describes the time her attitude started to expand, about two years after the diagnosis. Yitzi had to have a tracheotomy, adjust to it and start having 24/7 nursing care. After several months of incredibly intensive changes and pressure, she was finally able to get away for a women’s Shabbaton. Two mentors sat with Dina and explained the difference between pain and suffering. “We all have pain. It’s part of life. But suffering is pain without purpose. I slowly started to realize that maybe I could find purpose in this, maybe I could help others.”

Attitude: With characteristic candor and humor, Dina assures her listeners that she’s no Pollyanna. “I’m REALLY good at being non-happy. I believe in using our G-d-given“I have seven children and a husband who need me” talents. Mine is kvetching and complaining, and I use them well!” Yitzi can now communicate with his wife via texts to her phone. Since his typing is so slow and arduous, he has many saved messages that he can resend. One she often receives is: “You kvetch so nicely.”

So when Dina talks about choosing our attitude and choosing happiness, we listen. Not only is it her nature to enjoy a good kvetch, she’s got more than every possible reason to do so. She says, “If it was just me, I would have just closed myself in a closet and cried forever. But I have seven children and a husband who need me.”

When they were told that Yitzi only had two years, she thought long and hard. “What are the next two years going to be like? Mommy falling apart or a time full of good memories? I learned and decided that there’s really little we can control, any of us. But we can choose our attitude. Happiness is really a choice. Depending on our attitude, that’s in many ways how well we’ll do.”

About anger and arguing with G-d: Not an angel, she describes her journey through the grieving steps of anger at G-d. “G-d, if you think this is going to make us stronger, or better, or teach us something I guarantee You that it won’t work. Soon You will realize nothing good will come from this, and You will give up on this grand plan.” After many ups and downs, and much inner work, she eventually had the realization that there might actually be some good in the midst of this tremendous challenge. “Occasionally, I feel slightly wiser. I can see so much good and can use this to comfort so many others. I see how Yitzi has inspired so many in need of inspiration and reminded us all not to take life for granted. He may be locked in his body but his mind and heart and soul sing with freedom.”

On loss: “The pain we feel is directly related to the love we feel. If we are lucky, then the pain is excruciating. That means the love was so very powerful and special, and this is a gift we do not all get. So don’t hide from it, it is not a bad thing, it is a reflection of the love we have, and that is a blessing.”

Soul mission: “Let’s imagine for a minute that G-d took our hand in His and said: ‘I have a job for you. It’s going to be a hard one, but I know you can do it. Your path will be full of heartbreak and difficulties, yet you will be able to help and comfort many. When it’s time, I will show you how important it was and how necessary you are, but until then, although you will comfort many, none will comfort you.’ ”

This is probably true for most of us. Our challenges are straight from G-d, and we know He is good and kind, and the only reason He would put coal through the fire is to make a diamond. Our souls were each told something like this on their way down, and we really have no say in that part of the deal. The part we do have a say in is what we do with it.”

Finding purpose and acceptance: “As stubborn as I am, I refused to accept that this reality is ours for the long haul. That refusal allowed me to constantly imagine a miracle and things going back to ‘normal,’ yet prevented me from using this challenge in the way that Yitzi does, as a platform to reach those in a similar situation. He was the Chabad emissary in our small community of Temecula, and now he is an emissary to many people of the world trying to live with the challenges G-d has given them.

If the cost wasn’t so high, I would say he has been given a promotion. I don’t think I will ever achieve the level of peace that he has, yet it’s time to stop dreaming and get to work. Since Yitzi got sick, I have had the pleasure of sharing our story and the lessons we have learned with many people around the world. It is my way of finding purpose in our challenge. I never expected or wanted to be a speaker. I am shy and private, and this is so far from my comfort zone. Yet here I am. I have found a way to make my husband proud and bring comfort to people.

On self-care: “People who are the caretakers for a loved one, usually women, give their everything for months or years on end, often begin to fall apart and learn the hard way how important it is to take care of themselves as well. I am not very good at it, but I am learning. Make sure to eat at least two meals a day, preferably healthy. Vitamins are essential. Seven cups of coffee and two bars of chocolate are not helpful, no matter what. Walking in a place with more trees than people sets my heart at ease. Talking to a good friend who loves me, even when there is nothing left to love, is even more important than the vitamins (but take the vitamins anyway). Buying new lipstick or shoes can be very helpful as well, but sometimes, the thought that buying something will somehow change my circumstances is laughable or cryable. Reading a good book, coloring with my kids, watching the waves at the ocean—all good. Each person takes care of themselves their own way, but it has to be done.”

Caring, communicating, sharing: The communication between this special couple is paradoxically limited, yet so intense. “Yitzi can say so much with his eyes. We actually spend more time talking and being together than most married couples.Dina’s honesty, courage, sharing of struggles, pain and growth have benefited so many With all of today’s technology and devices of instant communication, many are losing touch with the simple gift of face to face human communication and presence. We need to see each other’s faces, expressions, look each other in the eye and share our true selves.” She urges her audiences to share their stories and real selves, and offer their gift of compassionate listening to their friends. “We need to share our stories, to connect and support each other. While we often can’t solve someone else’s problems, concern and creating a feeling of community are absolutely vital.”

Dina’s honesty, courage, sharing of struggles, pain and growth have benefited so many. She has taught by hard-earned lesson with words from the heart, helping us learn to choose happiness and honestly share our humanness with those around us; to cherish each moment of life and each muscle we can move; to appreciate each smile and word we can share and give.

Pianist Shoshana Michel Expresses the Poignancy of Chassidic Melodies

Shoshana Michel, 59, started playing piano when she was just a child.

A door-to-door salesman for a local music studio came by and asked if anyone in the house wanted to take music lessons. She started on the accordion at the age of 7, and then moved on to piano shortly after.

In high school, she accompanied the choir. Then she fell in love with ragtime music and added the four-string plectrum banjo to her repertoire.

When she was 17 and her brother was 14, the two siblings got a gig at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor (which is still around) in Los Angeles. Afterwards, she landed a job at the well-known Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., which had opened a “Roaring 20s” area, where she played piano for people walking by.

Michel went to college, got married, got divorced, played for different musicals and performed piano at a food court in Redondo Beach, Calif. She got remarried, moved to the Chassidic community in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and stopped playing music in the early 1990s. About nine years ago, she moved into a house that could accommodate her piano and started playing ragtime again, and then four to five years ago, she began performing nigunim, traditional Jewish melodies intended to stir and express the soul.

This type of music-playing was prompted at the request of a friend in Crown Heights who asked her to play for Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each new month on the Hebrew calendar. Though she couldn’t read Hebrew, Michel was familiar with the religious melodies from synagogue services.

“I looked through until I found melodies I liked that sounded pretty to me,” she recounts. Following the performance, “I was really taken aback by the response I got. I didn’t realize the impact nigunim would have on people.”

She started putting her song renditions on YouTube, and now she’s marketing her first CD, “Soul Whispers,” which was released this spring. Recorded on a grand piano at New York University over the past two years, she notes that working on the CD opened her up as an artist and a musician. “I’ve been able to compose,” she says, “and I’m able to compose in the New Age genre.”

Michel became involved with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement about 25 years ago. She wanted to become Torah-observant, and so her sister’s mother-in-law took her under her wing.

Today, she’s one of a handful of observant women in her community who play music, she says. She plays for audiences of just women, or men and women separated by a partition, a mechitza, with an eye towards being open to what makes others comfortable, she explains. “It’s great to be able to express what’s in your heart, what’s in your soul. Your music is a part of you.”

A fan of klezmer, she picked Chassidic music when she was exposed to it for the Rosh Chodesh event and has focused on it because it speaks to her. “It’s soulful. The people who wrote it had something in mind; it wasn’t just, ‘I’m going to make a pretty melody,’ ” she stresses. “They had something behind that when they wrote it—the yearning, the joyfulness, comes through the music.”

Michel has played a few concerts in Crown Heights, and is transcribing her arrangements and making them available for people who want to play them.

Meanwhile, her recorded songs are available via online music services, such as Spotify, and will be on Pandora soon, meaning that these nigunim are now being played around the world.

It’s important for the soulful melodies of the nigunim to reach people, she stresses. “It’s very healing. Whatever a person needs from the music, they’re going to get from the music—whatever they need for their soul.”

Michel’s parents have been her biggest musical inspirations, she notes, having exposed her to a wide variety of different music genres. “My father loves classical music and opera, and had encouraged and taught me to be open to all styles of music. My mother loved music from her generation, and I picked up her love for music from the swing era.”

Michel says she feels her Jewish practice and involvement with Chabad opened up a part of her that makes her music more evolved than if she wasn’t observant. “I think I could play all the pieces, but they wouldn’t sound the same,” she says. Now, “I have a connection.”

She even acknowledges sometimes getting goosebumps while playing: “There’s a part of me that is committed to the spiritual aspect of it. The people who composed the melodies ... there is a meaning, a whole history, behind most of these pieces.”

A Woman Who Never Stopped Giving

This past Friday the world lost a special soul, my dear sister-in-law, Rebbetzin Henny Machlis. Thousands of people the world over were touched by her vibrant personality, her warm smile, her sagacious words, her deep Torah convictions, and her love and devotion to the Jewish people. But perhaps what stood out the most was her tremendous chesed (kindness). Together with my brother, Rabbi Mordechai Machlis, she hosted more than 200 people every Shabbat.

Early in They opened their home to the less fortunatetheir married life, Mordechai and Henny made aliyah (immigration to Israel) their common dream. But even in the few short months between their wedding and moving to Israel, they established their home on pure, unadulterated chesed. As newlyweds, they opened their hearts and home to the less fortunate, the homeless, and those whom no one else wanted to host for Shabbat. Their apartment on East 4th Street may have been small, but the room in their hearts was vast.

When Mordechai and Henny moved to the Maalot Dafna neighborhood of Jerusalem, their home became famous for their wonderful Shabbat meals. Henny would stand, peel, chop and cook huge amounts of food, using their own funds to pay for it—which didn’t last too long. Rather than turn anyone down, they chose to borrow “over their heads” to accommodate the vast number of guests. People would line up outside to partake of Henny’s food and bask in the warmth and comfort of a spiritually uplifting Shabbat—many for the first time in their lives.

Over the years, the numbers evolved to about a hundred Friday night and a hundred for Shabbat lunch, and a smaller amount of guests for shalosh seudot, the third meal! The Machlises’ modest apartment was set up wall-to-wall with tables and chairs, and the sumptuous meals included gefilte fish, an array of salads, two kinds of soup, chicken, side dishes, kugels, cholent, dessert, and the list went on and on. Henny said that even when she wasn’t well and her children took over the bulk of the cooking, she would still make an effort to spice the food, praying to G‑d that the guests would be spiritually elevated by her food.

And the guests! Yeshivah students, seminary girls, older singles, community members, soldiers, as well as beggars, drunkards, homeless people, and tourists who walked home with Rabbi Mordechai from the Kotel on Shabbat morning. It took a special soul to welcome all these people into one’s home. But regardless of their appearance or comportment, Henny greeted everyone with a warm smile and a hearty “Shalom.” She had this special charm that made every person she came in contact with feel special.

As a devoted wife, she encouraged her husband in his scholarly work as a maggid shiur (Torah lecturer) at Yeshivah Lev HaTorah and as a Judaic Studies lecturer at Bar Ilan University. Their Shabbat meals were run as a team. Rabbi Mordechai spoke and led the meal, and Rebbetzin Henny would add her spice—a chassidic story, a parable or a Torah thought.

Even with Henny’s devotion to the Jewish people, Her foremost concern was raising her 14 childrenher foremost concern was raising her 14 children with unconditional love and the Torah ideals she held so dear. Surprisingly, even with all these strangers making themselves at home at the Machlises’ (including sleeping on the couches, on the floor or in the car), the children appreciated and valued the chesed that Henny Machlis did, and helped her in her noble work.

Rebbetzin Henny had a staunch belief in G-d, and even when undergoing painful operations and difficult treatments, she always believed that G‑d would come to her aid. She came to New York for treatment, and once, when she was riding in the back seat of my car, I heard her talking. I thought she had whipped out her cell phone and placed a call. A glance in the rearview mirror told me that she was talking to G-d like one talks to a father: “Abba, nothing else, please.”

She believed with her whole heart that ein od milvado—there is no other power in the world besides G-d. She spent many hours davening at the gravesite of Harav Reb Usher Freund, of blessed memory, in Jerusalem, and at the Ohel of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, in New York. Many people sought her advice and counsel, crediting her with finding their soulmate, achieving marital harmony and returning to the path of Torah observance.

At the end of her funeral last Friday, an hour and a half before Shabbat, the crowd sang Eishet Chayil, “Woman of Valor.” I have never heard singing at a funeral before. Listening to the proceedings on a telephone hookup amidst my copious tears, I realized that every verse of King Solomon’s Eishet Chayil really and truly described Henny Machlis. She was an eishet chayil par excellence.

So now, who Who will greet us with that warm embrace now?will greet us with that warm, loving embrace when we get to the Machlis home in Maalot Dafna? V’hachai yiten el libo, “And the living shall take to heart.” Her husband, her children and her spiritual children will, G-d willing, follow in her footsteps, keeping Torah, prayer and chesed as a priority in their lives. May Rebbetzin Henny intercede on high for her family, her extended family and all of the Jewish people.

May we merit the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days, when we will be reunited with our loved ones.