Rabbi Yudi Dukes’ Incredible Legacy
Sarah Dukes inspired thousands by chronicling her husband’s 10-month battle with Covid-19.
Chaim Schneur Zalman Yehuda ben Hinda Yocheved. For months, that name has been in my prayers each day, as I – like thousands of other Jews around the world – pleaded for him to have a complete recovery, adding our voices to a huge groundswell of people all fervently hoping and begging for his well-being.
Most people knew him as Rabbi Yudi Dukes. A popular rabbi and former director of the online Jewish learning network JNet, Yudi was a wonderful friend to all who knew him. “He always put a smile on your face,” recalled Rabbi Chaim Bruk, Co-Director of Chabad of Montana and a former classmate of Yudi. “He was a special guy – he taught people how to smile.”
Yudi and his wife Sarah lived in New York with their six young children. In late March, 2020, both Yudi and Sarah – like so many people in their community – became ill with the first wave of Covid-19 that hit the New York region hard, killing thousands of people. Sarah quickly recovered but Yudi – only 38 at the time and in good health – became gravely ill. He was hospitalized and couldn’t breathe on his own.
I first met Sarah in August 2020, when I interviewed her for an article about his leaving the hospital and reflecting the optimism of Yudi’s doctors. Yudi was finally able to breathe on his own, recovering his strength and health, and was looking forward to moving to a rehab facility soon.
From the beginning, Yudi’s case defied all odds. When I told my husband, a doctor, that I was talking with a woman whose husband spent four months on a ventilator, he said, “That’s impossible.” People don’t survive four months on a ventilator, yet miraculously Yudi did. “It was clear to me that it was all in God’s hands,” Sarah Dukes told me at the time.
I was privileged to see the world through Sarah’s eyes and hear her constant whisper of appreciation and faith in my ear.
During the many months of Yudi’s illness, Sarah reached out to people around the world, asking everyone to pray for his recovery. She started sharing her insights and thoughts on Facebook, and posting updates about Yudi’s condition, generating a tidal wave of responses. People reached out to Sarah, telling her how Yudi was inspiring people to pray, do mitzvot and try and be their best selves. Even while he was confined to a hospital bed, Yudi had a profound effect on untold numbers of people who all embarked on an intense period of prayers, learning and good deeds performed in his merit.
I became one of those people praying for Yudi and followed Sarah’s posts, privileged to see the world through Sarah’s eyes and hear her constant whisper of appreciation and faith in my ear.
Those posts changed me. Hearing Sarah constantly urging Yudi on, asking people to pray, sharing her doubts and fears as well as her faith opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the world. With Sarah Dukes rejoicing in every day that Yudi continued to live, I found myself appreciating life more deeply. When I read Sarah’s expressions of her complete faith in a loving God, it deepened my own beliefs as well.
Yudi went to a rehab institution but soon developed grave medical complications that brought him back to the hospital. Even though his condition was worsening, he continued to defy the odds.
“I was told that some of the staff at Cornell came to Yudi’s room just to see a miracle,” Sarah posted in December 2020. “By nature, Yudi wasn’t ‘supposed’ to survive past last Wednesday. But not only did he survive, he is awake and alert… I am grateful for his nurses who treat him with kindness and compassion, and have the patience to try to figure out what he is trying to say or request.”
For a while in November, Yudi seemed to be doing much better and was even able to go home for a time. Sarah posted a beautiful video of him arriving at their house. Hundreds of people who’d been praying saw Yudi wave and embrace his daughter as he was brought out of an ambulance on a stretcher, still ill but well enough to be at home.
Sarah’s many moving posts reflected her incredible level of gratitude, even when faced with a horrible situation. “Thank G-d I was able to get two hand squeezes from Yudi today soon after I arrived, and this was very moving for me” was one typically inspiring post, at a time when Yudi’s health was deteriorating rapidly.
“Like a bop bag that pops back up after it’s been punched down, I will continue to keep doing what needs to be done no matter how many ‘blows’ I get from G-d,” Sarah wrote in one November 2020 post. “Because I am committed to G-d and that’s what commitment is. Commitment is continuing to stay loyal and plow through the challenges even when you don’t want to (and there have been SO many times I didn’t want to and just wanted to give in to my despair), and continued to trust even through, what appears to be, such darkness….”
Beset by challenges and struggle and heartbreak, Sarah Dukes was giving us strength and encouragement. Her posts reminded us that God is in charge of the universe. They reminded us of the power of prayer.
In recent days, Sarah’s posts became more urgent: Yudi’s health was failing fast. He needed a liver transplant, but then became too ill to remain on the transplant registry. He spent many days struggling to be awake. Each setback and each triumph was documented in Sarah’s posts. Even at the end, when he was so terribly sick, Yudi continued to defy the odds, staying alive long past the point doctors expected, even waking up and managing to communicate long after his doctors thought he would be able to do so.
On January 10, 2021, Sarah posted her final pleas for the many people around the world who’d been praying for Yudi to do some one last time. On the morning of January 21, Sarah informed us all of his death. “Baruch dayan haemes. Blessed is the true Judge,” she wrote. “Yudi is safe. He is protected. You have carried him straight to the highest heights. We will see you again, Yudi. We love you.”
Even in the depths of her despair, Sarah managed to carry us all.
In the hours since his death, the community that grew up around Sarah and Yudi’s family – inspired by Sarah’s chronicles – has continued to pray and to mourn. For many of us, it feels like our own relative has passed away. “I can’t stop crying,” wrote Sara Crispe, the Executive Director of The LifeWrite Project, who lives in Vermont, and knew both Sarah and Yudi Dukes. “I think the power of Sarah’s posts was that people who didn’t know them or hadn’t even heard of them before, now feel like family. I have gotten so many responses from people telling me that… She reached out to the world for support and in doing so ended up supporting thousands by uplifting and inspiring them.”
Sarah taught us what it means to have faith and to look at the world as a place of beauty and hope. Even in the depths of her despair, she managed to carry us all.
Through these past months, Sarah’s and Yudi’s journey became our journey. Her determination ignited our determination to do good and make the world a better place. Her optimism stimulated us to look at the world with more joy. Her faith inspired our faith. Chaim Schneur Zalman Yehuda ben Hinda Yocheved – Rabbi Yudi Dukes – reached people around the globe thanks to Sarah’s posts. He and Sarah inspired us to be better people, to care more, to love more, to feel more connected with the Dukes family and with each other. For that we will always be grateful.
A fund had been established to help support the Dukes family. To donate, go to: https://www.charidy.com/cmp/dukes?fbclid=IwAR2JCnRAZjfaNiSnXMT8Byes5r33HKBEDqIYceuhuGjfYBOVi4qAeqSnM1w