In sharing his fond memories of his good friend Mendy Deren, Senator Joe Lieberman connected the event marking Mendy’s Shloshim to Chanukah with the observation that “the story of Chanukah was essentially a war of the Greeks vs.the Chassidim.” The Greeks felt that we had to assimilate into the foreign culture and Chassidim like Mendy showed us how we can engage the world while remaining pure and faithful to the values of Torah.
Held at the Chabad Center in Stamford, the Melava Malka on the fourth night of Chanukah brought together over 200 of Mendy’s friends, admirers, confidantes and acquaintances who shared memories and inspiration they gained from him in the short but rich 36 years of his life. Thanks to Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, a close friend of the Deren family who whilst unable to participate in person, the event was broadcast live on the internet allowing for family and friends from around the world to join in as well. This was facilitated by his son Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky and the Beis Medrash LShluchim.
The evening began with Rabbi Avrohom Sternberg from New London, CT who used stories of Chassidim and lessons from the tears of Yosef at his reunion with Yaakov and Benyomin to describe the resilience of remaining strong in the darkest of times and his own personal experiences with the family. Mendy’s brother Rabbi Chezy Deren, MC of the night, then invited everyone to join in the singing of the lively melody of “Veharikosi Lochem Brocho” explaining the words which have become a symbol in the Deren family of Hashem’s promise for Brochos that we continue to hope for every day.
After all the guests had a chance to enjoy some of the Chanukah delicacies from the lavish buffet, Mendy’s parents, siblings and wife Sarah, were asked to come up and partake in the writing of a Sefer Torah which was commissioned in Cape Town where his brother Rabbi Oshy Deren is a Shliach and brought the Klaf of the Torah with him to connect the two communities in this special Mitzvah. Rabbi Yossi Deren then gave words of thanks on behalf of the family to the entire community of friends around the world who have been such a constant flow of support, care and concern throughout this trying experience and then on behalf of his siblings gave a word of appreciation to their parents who have superhumanly held their family together as pillars of strength and sanity throughout the harshest times of their experience.
The highlight of the evening was a powerful and awe inspiring lecture by Rabbi Yisrael Deren who masterfully combined a complex analysis of the Siyum of Mishnayos as a window into the infinite questions to how we can continue our lives, with strength and vigor when events beyond our understanding seem to shake our foundations. For everyone sitting there, Rabbi Deren’s ability to convey this message, in a voice at times choked with emotion and at times ringing with strength and inspiration, was a living lesson in Chassidus, Emunah and Bitachon reflecting the example that he and Mrs. Deren have been for their family and thousands of friends and admirers from around the world. His words connected the Rebbe’s commentary on the closing words of the Mishnayos “Hashem Yevarech es Amo VeShalom,” in the context of the debate between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel. These represent the opposing forces in our human experience, and the concluding statement is our path in finding some sense of peace, of shalom, in our own moments of inner conflict.
A special video was then shown “Mendel, a Shliach Forever.” Produced by Jewish Educational Media, the video combined a slideshow of Mendel’s life and moments with the Rebbe, and a Sicha where the Rebbe in moving words describes the only response to the hardships of Golus is to motive us to do more to end it. The video ends with a frame from the website www.MendelsLife.org, a platform for friends and family to share Stories with, or Mitzvos and Projects on behalf of, our dear Mendel.
Despite the late hour, Senator Joe Lieberman, who came with his wife Hadassah straight after Shabbos from Washington D.C. that evening to partake in the event gave a beautiful message connecting his experiences with Mendel both in Connecticut and in Washington and the warmth and strength he and all of us can take from that. Woven into the story of Chanukah in the context of the work of Shluchim today, the Senator asked everyone to take a lesson from Mendel, a maccabi of our times, to recommit ourselves to our task.
The closing words were given by one of Mendel’s close Chaverim, Rabbi Avremi Berkowitz who asked to share some of his very personal memories of Mendy. In his short words he so aptly captured Mendel’s remarkable ability to use every moment of his life to help others, from their work together in Moscow with prominent leaders of the American Jewish Community, to the times that Mendel reached out to a lonely Shliach in India, Rabbi Gabi Holtzberg, whose wife had just given birth to a child with a Jewish genetic condition. “I can understand him” Mendel said, and reached out to use the hardship of his own life, as a way to ease that of a new friend.
His final story was something he had heard from Jay Feinberg, founder of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation. “Mendel insisted that the Mayanot Birthright Program in Israel include a visit for every participant to the Gift of Life registry. Today there are close to 2,700 names registered because of Mendel’s initiative. Of those, three have already been matched as donors and the recipients are alive today because of that. And there are still more that will be matched. Even after his life, Mendy is still saving the lives of others.”