During the past 10 months, thousands of us have become deeply attached to Rabbi Yudi Dukes, who passed away on Thursday after a protracted battle with COVID. Through the inspiring social media updates from his wife, Sarah, we’ve followed his ups and downs, his victories and setbacks, and basked in the glow of their unending faith and unwavering belief that tomorrow would be a better day.

I’ve been a friend of Yudi’s for most of my life, having met him in yeshiva when we were both teens.

Our friendship was cemented when we traveled to Budapest to spend the year as shluchim. We did a lot together. We studied Talmud together. We cleaned the synagogue every week for Shabbat together, splitting the $50 monthly stipend between ourselves. And we went on mivtzoyim together every Friday, putting on tefillin with Jewish men, giving Shabbat candles to the women, and encouraging everyone to add to their Jewish observance.

Yudi and Menachem singing Szól a Kakas Már, the unofficial anthem of Hungarian Jewry.
Yudi and Menachem singing Szól a Kakas Már, the unofficial anthem of Hungarian Jewry.

There were nearly a dozen in our group, but Yudi was the one who forged personal friendships with so many locals, establishing connections he carried with him for the rest of his life.

In time, we both returned to New York, started families and embarked on our respective careers within Chabad. While I found my place at Chabad.org, starting as part of the Ask the Rabbi Service and gradually shifting into the editorial department, Yudi took the reigns of the fledgling organization called JNet and turned it into his life’s calling.

Over the years, we’ve kept in touch, sharing details of our lives, our celebrations, and our challenges.

I’m not going to write that Yudi was an angel, otherworldly and perfect. He was not. He was a human, with shortcomings, challenges, and blinds spots. Just like you and me. Yet, at the same time, there were things that were different. There were principles that he lived (and died) by, things we all know but all too often fail to follow.

Since the moment I received the bitter news, I’ve been mulling over what made Yudi different. What stood out? I think that if I were to summarize the way he lived his life, I’d say he was the embodiment of the teachings of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), the classic collection of wise sayings and adages of the sages of old.

Here are some:

“Greet Every Person With a Smile”

Upside down and still smiling.
Upside down and still smiling.

Yudi’s smile was legendary, so broad and open that it practically cracked his face. And he flashed it often, naturally and freely. It’s no accident that the word he chose as his WhatsApp status was “smiling.”

Yudi was solicitous to a fault, and he took an active interest in everyone’s lives. We’d sometimes chat by phone as he walked down the street, and he could not go more than a few paces without calling out a greeting, sharing a kind word, or inquiring about someone’s well being.

With a natural knack for languages, he loved to speak with people in Spanish, Hungarian, Hebrew, Yiddish, or whatever language they’d find most comfortable, getting to know them on their terms, in their comfort zone.

On the Shabbat after his passing, someone approached me in synagogue and told me how bad he felt about the loss of my friend. Another fellow standing a few feet away turned around and said. “Yudi? He and I were good friends.”

Like thousands of others, he felt that he was Yudi’s good friend. Yudi had a way of making everyone feel that they were his best friend. And it wasn’t a ruse. It was the truth, because everyone was his dear friend.

“Raise Up Many Students”

Even as JNet grew to encompass thousands of members, Yudi remembered each individual, not just what they were learning and with whom, but also details of their lives, their families and their predilections.

And he saw each person for who they were—a Divine spark whose potential was waiting to be tapped. Each person was treasured; each one was unique.

I was sometimes amazed by the lengths he would go to get a textbook to a student, or otherwise help them, not because it was his job, but because he genuinely cared for and respected them.

Yudi surrounded by friends at his wedding. The author is sitting to his left.
Yudi surrounded by friends at his wedding. The author is sitting to his left.

“Make Your Torah Study Set”

Between a demanding job, a lengthy commute, and six children at home, Yudi was busy. Yet, he miraculously made time for Torah learning—notably the daily regimen of Chitat (Chumash, Tehillim, and Tanya), as well as the daily portion of Rambam, which he would normally study early in the morning before returning home from synagogue to get his kids ready for school. Day in, day out, week in, week out. He made sure to stay up to date in his studies, sometimes falling behind a day or two but always catching up.

He also made time to learn extra, studying tractate after tractate of Talmud, and making his way through complex Chassidic discourses—always looking for ways to apply their lessons in his daily life.

“The Exacting Person Cannot Teach”

In Budapest, Yudi taught Hebrew reading to a group of beginners, many of whom were middle-aged. It was no easy task, but with patience and perseverance, he guided them, helping each one become familiar with the Hebrew letters, their sounds, and how to put them together into words.

A natural teacher, he taught bar-mitzvah boys to read the Torah and chant the haftarah, coaxing out their latent talents, and helping them accomplish more than they or their parents ever thought possible. Accomplishing much more with honey than with vinegar, he carefully and patiently guided each of his students to maximize their potential.

“Make Yourself a Master”

Following the Rebbe’s call for each person to follow the Mishnaic adage to find a mentor, Yudi regularly sought—and then followed—the advice of a trusted mashpia, a wise and learned chassid.

Once his mashpia had spoken, Yudi followed like a soldier, confident that this was the path G‑d wanted him to follow. Humble enough to recognize that he did not know it all, he was glad to be guided and was grateful for the insights he gleaned from others.

Yudi and Sara Dukes savoring the sweet moment of Yudi's brief return home.
Yudi and Sara Dukes savoring the sweet moment of Yudi's brief return home.

“Know Him In All Your Ways”

Yudi saw the Divine hand in everything that happened, big and small. A “chance” conversation that led to another JNet volunteer, a fender bender that could have been much worse, an unexpected bit of revenue before the credit card bill was due … he celebrated all these and thanked G‑d for orchestrating things for him.

A classic example: A particular painful bout of kidney stones (I think) landed him in the hospital over Shabbat. No synagogue, no Shabbat table, no friendly faces—just a lot of pain. To make matters even less pleasant, he soon discovered that the fellow in the hospital bed next to his was recovering from a gunshot wound. For reasons that need not be explained, the gentleman was handcuffed to his bed and under round-the-clock guard.

Rather than bemoan his fate, Yudi understood that if Divine Providence had given him an entire Shabbat with this person, he must have something to accomplish.

So he whiled away the quiet Shabbat by teaching his roommate about the Jewish belief in the soul and how every person has a spark of G‑d within him or her.

By the end of the weekend, the roommate himself said: “I know why I had to be shot. It was so that I could get these messages from you.”

Mission accomplished!

“On Three Pillars the World Stands: … on Kindness”

Yudi was a natural doer of favors. He cherished the opportunity to offer someone a ride, lend them a piece of equipment, or help solve a problem for them. He did not look for accolades, or even to earn rewards from Above. He was simply hardwired to share with others.

“This Is the Way of Torah ...”

The Dukes family recently celebrated their son's bar mitzvah at the Ohel.
The Dukes family recently celebrated their son's bar mitzvah at the Ohel.

Yudi was actively involved in his children’s education. He encouraged them to learn tracts of Torah by heart, rewarding their efforts and coaching them along.

This included tailoring the educational track for each specific child, doing what was best for him or her, and ensuring that each child was in the environment that best catered to his or her needs.

“You Needn’t Finish the Job, But You Mustn’t Shy Away From It”

Yudi had his fair share of personal challenges, things that went wrong and circumstances that seemed to make success impossible. Yet he set aside the hopelessness of the Big Picture and soldiered on, scaling the same mountains day after day, with optimism and faith, confident that G‑d would crown his efforts with success. And He did!

Yudi saw himself as a work in progress, constantly toiling to hone his patience, the way he interacted with his family and friends, and his work ethic. He was never satisfied to say, “This is who I am, and these are my failings.” If there was room to improve, he put in the effort to make those improvements.

“In a Place Devoid of Men, Endeavor to Be a Man”

He did not look to become a leader or an icon, but when he realized that no one else was going to do it, he rose to the occasion.

While this became most apparent over the last 10 months, it was really nothing new. When sitting amongst friends, Yudi was the one to raise the level of conversation, encouraging people to discuss and assist each other in their spiritual pursuits. Leading by example, he’d open up about his own experiences, making it easier for others to follow suit.

And indeed, from the way Yudi and Sarah have lived the past 10 months, we have all been granted a path to follow, paved with unshakable faith, positivity, perseverance, and love.

Rabbi Yudi dukes has been laid to rest surrounded by fellow shluchim, who devoted their lives to sharing Torah and Judaism with others.
Rabbi Yudi dukes has been laid to rest surrounded by fellow shluchim, who devoted their lives to sharing Torah and Judaism with others.