by Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky
Many have been touched by the story of Rabbi Yudi Dukes, who tragically passed away in January after a ten-month battle with complications from COVID. Yudi, a 39-year-old father of six, was the tireless director of JNET, a network that connects Jews all over the world for one-on-one Torah study.
Yudi’s passing has been a tragic loss for our office; his personality and passion will be sorely missed.
It is now one year since Yudi was hospitalized with COVID, at the beginning of the pandemic’s dramatic spread in this country. I remember that one of the last things Yudi did before being intubated was to finish working on his JNET newsletter. Despite his rapidly deteriorating medical condition, he kept sight of his work, which mattered to him so much.
Over the ensuing months, the Jewish community prayed for Yudi. Inspired by the strength and faith of Yudi, his wife Sarah, and his family, thousands pledged to do more acts of goodness and kindness in Yudi’s merit. In letters from around the world, hundreds of children wished Yudi a speedy recovery, and listed the specific mitzvot they resolved to do with him in mind.
During the week Yudi fell ill, our office, like the rest of the world, was in the midst of a dramatic transition to remote programming. For example, CKIDS, the Chabad Hebrew School network, went virtual almost overnight. We learned on Friday, March 13, that many states would be closing their schools.
Our staff immediately got to work and spent that Saturday night producing 3 spectacular classes in time for Sunday morning Hebrew School, to help our instructors across the world make the transition to Zoom learning. The next morning, over 21,000 students, and their families, watched our videos. At no time was there an interruption in our students’ learning, and we continued to coordinate and provide our instructors with effective resources and adapted curricula for a new normal.
We found certain benefits to remote learning. A recent survey of Chabad Hebrew school administrators found an increase of 37 percent in family participation during the pandemic. In many cases, students participating from their living rooms were joined by their entire families. Sibling and parents gathered around the screen to learn, while also enjoying the classes’ games and crafts.
The study also found that 20 percent of Chabad Hebrew schools saw an increase in their students’ Hebrew reading skills. Why? Because teachers found that in the virtual setting, Hebrew reading practice is far more effective one-on-one than in groups. The increase in one-on-one instruction by the teachers provided helped many students improve their skills significantly.
Amidst all this change, it dawned on me that we had one program in our office that needed no pivot at all, and that was Yudi’s JNET. There never was in-person learning in JNET because it has always been exclusively about remote learning. JNET connects partners who study Torah by phone or internet, creating a study opportunity for the home-bound, for those who live in remote areas without access to in-person study, and for those who simply prefer to study from the comfort of home. Now, essentially, our entire office had gone JNET style. And this has got me thinking.
With the advent of remote services like telehealth, people no longer view medical care as necessarily an out-of-home experience. In many cases, you can open a laptop and connect with the right professional for the services you need. There is no commute or waiting in an office; just you and the doctor discussing your health. In a certain sense, the pandemic has made medicine more accessible, and more personal, than ever before. Presumably, many of the creative solutions that have been developed over the past year will continue to be used, even post-pandemic.
Essentially, we’ve seen the advent of the JNET model, and I see it as an opportunity.
As Jews, we hold social gathering very dearly. Much of Jewish life surrounds the synagogue, holidays, and family celebrations. These always have been, and will continue to be, absolutely crucial to Jewish life, and we look forward to resuming our social interaction very soon, G-d willing. But clearly there’s also room for, and benefits associated with, remote, personal interaction.
If you’re not the sort of person who is likely to go out and attend a Jewish class or social event in a group setting, why not take advantage of one-on-one Jewish “telehealth” options like JNET? It is possible today to study any topic that piques your interest, in a non-formal setting. It’s simply studying by phone or internet with your chavruta (study partner) — a personal, joint effort at exploring the riches of our tradition.
Our office has pledged, with G-d’s help, to keep JNET going in a way that will honor Yudi’s legacy and make him proud. I am encouraged by the success JNET has seen thus far, and we are committed to its exponential growth. I am also excited to see how JNET will serve as a model for exciting new advances in the Jewish experience, that will help us get through these trying times, and grow together in the future.
Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky is the Executive Director of Merkos302, the umbrella organization under which JNET operates.