Rabbi Yehuda (“Yudi”) Dukes, a pioneering online teacher and the director of JNet, an organization that connects Jews around the world in Torah study—and whose faith and good spirit during a valiant, months-long battle with the coronavirus inspired people around the world—passed away on Jan. 21. He was 39 years old.

After contracting the virus in March, Dukes was hospitalized and spent months in a coma. Even as his voice—one familiar to thousands—had been silenced and a ventilator, and later, an ECMO machine worked to keep him alive, he inspired a movement of people doing good deeds in the merit of his recovery.

After valiantly battling the initial infection and the various complications that resulted for months, Dukes eventually recovered enough to return home. His return home after 242 days in the hospital was widely celebrated, but not long afterwards, he returned to the hospital with further complications.

Baruch Dayan Ha’emes. Blessed is the true Judge. Yudi is safe. He is protected. You have carried him straight to the highest heights,” wrote his wife, Sarah. “We will see you again, Yudi. We love you.”

“Yudi epitomized the teaching of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—quoted in Hayom Yom that ‘a soul may descend to this world and live 70 or 80 years, in order to do a Jew a material favor, and certainly a spiritual one,’ ” said Rabbi Menachem Posner, staff editor at Chabad.org and friend and colleague of Dukes. “That’s what Yudi did. His soul came down to this world, and he spent his life doing favors for everyone he met.”

Remembered as a positive person who always had a smile on his face, Yudi lived and breathed his calling to connect Jews with each other in the study of Torah by way of JNet, the Chabad-Lubavitch organization he led that connects people with phone chavrusas, or study partners, for weekly Torah-study sessions.

For him, JNet was more than a vehicle to foster Torah study. It was a way to uplift people, to help them grow as Jews and as members of the global Jewish community.

“Yudi was passionate and charismatic, dedicated to his mission to unite thousands of Jews across the globe in the study of Torah,” said Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, executive director of Merkos Suite 302, the organization under which JNet operates. “Through his work at JNet, Yudi impacted countless lives, inspiring them to share Judaism with others.”

Dukes continued to operate JNet even as he recovered in his hospital bed, working off of his phone and iPad in between blood checks, procedures, visits and therapy sessions.

Dukes with his wife, Sarah
Dukes with his wife, Sarah

‘Wherever He Went, He Made Friends’

Chaim Schneur Zalman Yehuda Dukes was born and raised in Morristown, N.J., the eldest of nine siblings and the son of Aaron Leib, a statistician, and Hinda, a personal trainer. After he completed grade school in Cheder Lubavitch in nearby Morristown, N.J., he went on to study in Chabad yeshivahs in Brunoy, France; Montreal, Canada; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Brooklyn, N.Y.

He then went on to serve as a student shliach (emissary) in Budapest, Hungary, where the impact he made continues to resonate today, before receiving his rabbinical ordination in Manalapan Township, N.J.

“Wherever he went, he made friends he kept for decades,” said Posner. “Twenty years later, he was still in touch with people he met in Hungary, Argentina—everywhere he’d been. There were people he called before every Shabbat for decades.”

After his marriage to Sarah Spangenthal in Charlotte, N.C., he turned his focus to what would become his calling: JNet, the dynamic chavrusa-creating service that has seen thousands of people across the globe partnered with fellow Jews to study Torah.

A talented Torah reader and cantor, his sweet voice was an integral part of people’s religious experience in Ballantyne, N.C., where he went every year for the High Holidays, as well as in Charlotte and in his hometown of Cedarhurst, N.Y.

A patient teacher, he made time to teach everyone. Middle aged-beginners just starting to learn Hebrew reading in Budapest, fidgety bar mitzvah boys from Long Island wishing to master the intricate skill of Torah reading—everyone knew they could count on him to smilingly coach them along, with good cheer and encouragement.

Dukes in 2003, when he served as a student shliach (emissary) in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo: Demecs Zsolt)
Dukes in 2003, when he served as a student shliach (emissary) in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo: Demecs Zsolt)

He was a devoted husband and family man who put his children to bed each night and prioritized their needs and well-being above all else. But no matter how busy he was, he always found time to continue his own study of Torah, never missing a day of Chitat or Rambam, studying the Torah portion with Onkelos’ commentary each week, and completing broad swaths of Talmud and Chassidut, some of it with his own JNet chavrusas, of which he had several. And he never turned down the opportunity to do another person a favor.

“Yudi was always glad to do a favor,” said Posner. “Just a real people’s person. He instinctively connected to them and helped people in whatever way he could.”

Throughout his difficult, nearly year-long ordeal, it was Dukes who more often than not gave hope and consolation to others. Asked in a November interview if he had any last words for readers, his response came without pause.

“Yes!” he said from his hospital bed. “I would tell them that the one thing we must do is believe more. Believe in ourselves, believe in our loved ones, believe in our communities and believe in G‑d.”

Throughout his ordeal, Dukes' family was an pillar of support and love.
Throughout his ordeal, Dukes' family was an pillar of support and love.

In addition to his wife, Sarah—who over the last months has inspired countless people around the world with her faith and optimism—Dukes is survived by their six children.

He is also survived by his parents and siblings: Chana Feiga Dukes (Minnesota); Dovber Dukes (Chicago); Shifra Livne (Israel); Asher Dukes (Minnesota); Hadassah Burrows (Rechovot, Israel); Shmuel Dukes (Chicago); Rochel Dukes (Minnesota); and Elisheva Dukes (Minnesota).

The levaya (funeral procession) of Rabbi Dukes will begin at 3 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 21, at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y. It will be followed by his being laid to rest at 4 p.m. in the Old Montefiore Cemetery, 121-83 Springfield Blvd., in the Springfield Gardens section of Queens, N.Y.

To join in JNet’s worldwide Torah study in memory of Rabbi Yudi Dukes, click here.

To assist the Dukes family, visit the Dukes Family Fund here.