It started as a side project with yeshivah friends some 40 years ago, but one person turned the goal of publishing diverse and advanced Torah books in English into a lifelong pursuit. More than 150 volumes later, with hundreds of thousands of books in circulation—ranging from talks from the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, delivered weekly in Yiddish, to the Code of Jewish Law authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad—Rabbi Yonah Avtzon, who passed away at 61, leaves a legacy as one of the most prolific English-language Torah publishers, giving generations of Jews the opportunity to connect with their heritage.

On any given day, he could be seen standing outside of Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in discussion with colleagues or friends, or on his phone at all times of night or day. The subject of his animated conversation would range from the nuances of translating a difficult portion of an obscure Chassidic tract to helping a young couple, for whom he was the matchmaker, work through an issue together.

Known informally as “Yaineh,” Rabbi Yonah Avtzon, who passed away early on Wednesday morning, 3 Shevat (corresponding to Jan. 9), was an army of one. As the longtime director of Sichos in English (SIE), he oversaw the collection, translation, production, and distribution of hundreds of titles, most notably the talks of the Rebbe.

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He was born in Detroit in 1957, the eighth of 15 children, to Rabbi Meir and Cheyena Avtzon, survivors of Stalin’s oppressive regime. Despite the many challenges of living in the former Soviet Union, Avtzon’s parents managed to remain fully devoted to Judaism, risking their lives to enable others to appreciate and observe their Jewish heritage as well.

In Detroit, the Avtzon home served as a bastion of authentic Chassidic warmth and inspiration. After studying at Telshe Yeshivah in Chicago, young Yonah went on to study at the central Chabad-Lubavitch yeshivah in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he would begin to develop the primary focus of his life: disseminating the Rebbe’s teachings to the English-speaking world.

Sichos in English began as a small-time operation in 1977, a side project for the teenage Avtzon and fellow yeshivah students—translating and printing the Yiddish talks of the Rebbe into English and distributing them in pamphlets to many thousands of eager readers around the world.

In time, with the blessing of the Rebbe, the operation expanded to include the writings of other Chabad Rebbes and Chassidim. Even as SIE burgeoned into a major publishing operation, Avtzon remained focused on his goal, getting high-quality Jewish content into the hands of as many people as possible.

To that end, the prices were always kept low, and almost all content has been made available for free online.

Rabbi Yonah Avtzon
Rabbi Yonah Avtzon

In 1983, he married Rivka Hazan of Bnei Brak, Israel. She was born in Moscow, where her parents were stalwart Chassidim who bravely kept the flame of Judaism burning in Soviet Russia. She immigrated to Israel with her family at the age of 6.

The Avtzons made their home in Brooklyn, and Rabbi Yonah Avtzon continued to pursue his publishing work. In time, he was honored with assisting in the English translation of the Rebbe’s Michtavim Klaliim, public letters, which were published several times a year.

In response to guidance from the Rebbe, he took it upon himself to personally edit every single book that he published, and this became his guiding principle.

When Rabbi YY Kazen began sharing Jewish content on the nascent internet in the mid-1990s, Avtzon was one of his early partners, eager to dispatch the texts he was producing to ever-widening audiences in an entirely new medium.

In recent years, SIE embarked on a monumental translation of and commentary on the Code of Jewish Law known as Shulchan Aruch HaRav, authored by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement. It was a painstaking labor of love to which Avtzon dedicated several hours every day, personally reviewing every page.

To date, seven of the planned 12 volumes have been published, and the eighth is expected shortly. The project, which consumed much of Avtzon’s time in recent years and is expected to exceed $2 million in cost, is the collaborative effort of a team of translators and rabbinic experts led by Rabbis Eli Touger, Sholom Ber Wineberg and Uri Kaploun, all of whom had been working with Rabbi Avtzon at SIE for decades.

“He always had the latest manuscript on hand and was always very proud to share which part they were up to,” says Rabbi Meir Simcha Kogan, chief operating officer of Chabad.org, where the work is hosted online. “His was a labor of love. He used his last energies to meticulously review the latest texts that were coming up for publication. Even in the last few weeks when he was clearly suffering, he continued to carry his signature smile and completely threw himself into this work. SIE was among the first partners we, at Chabad.org, had in disseminating Jewish content online. The Chabad.org readership is eternally grateful to Rabbi Avtzon for his generosity. He clearly understood and was genuinely dedicated to his mission, putting that ahead of everything else.”

With his dancing hazel eyes and affable manner, Avtzon was eminently approachable and uniquely candid. These attributes, along with his keen insight into human nature, made him a sought-after and highly successful shadchan (matchmaker).

He had been ill in recent months and was found unresponsive on Wednesday morning, 3 Shevat. Poetically, it was on that same Hebrew date in 1992 that the Rebbe spoke publicly about how each and every individual could serve as the “mouth” of the Rebbe, an extension of his efforts to spread Judaism and inspire others.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by their children: Rabbi Levi (Chaya) Avtzon, Chanie (Rabbi Yitzchok) Wolf, Rabbi Shmuly (Mushkie) Avtzon, Mushky (Rabbi Eliyahu) Edelman, Brooklyn; Sheina (Rabbi Elimelech) Oster, Brooklyn; Stery (Rabbi Dovid) Goldberg, Brooklyn; Chenny Avtzon, Zalmy, Sruly, Sholom Ber, Meir and Leah.

His siblings: Adela Bernstein, Rabbi Leibel Avtzon, Esther Blau, Rabbi Yossi Avtzon, Riva Kaplinsky, Dina Borenstein, Rabbi Gershon Avtzon, Rabbi Sholom Avtzon, Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon, Devi Baumgarten, Sternie Chesney, Shainy Tiefenbrun, Rabbi Lazer Avtzon and Chanie Zirkind.

He also leaves behind siblings-in-law, more than 200 nieces and nephews, and many grandchildren.

To help continue Rabbi Yonah Avtzon’s legacy at Sichos in English, visit the donation page established in his memory here.