On the yahrtzeit of Mendel Brikman, OBM, his family and friends recall a man who impacted many during his brief life of forty-three years.
by Dovid Zaklikowski
Eighteen bachurim had been chosen to spend a year on shlichus in Sydney, Australia. Among them was Mendel Brikman, a young man already well known for his zest for life, Yiddishkeit and Chassidishkeit.
In an effort to save money, the group had booked tickets that required two stopovers, one in Detroit, Michigan, and another in Osaka, Japan. Unused to such long flights, several of the bachurim developed airsickness.
Yossi Deren had a pounding headache and aching bones. Mendel was sitting next to him on the flight. At one point, Mendel got up to use the bathroom, and Yossi decided to stretch out for the few minutes that he would be gone. Soon, Yossi was asleep.
He awoke feeling much better and immediately returned to his own seat, expecting Mendel any minute. Then he glanced at his watch and realized that six hours had passed. Confused, he looked around. There were no empty seats on the plane. What could Mendel have been doing all this time?
Finally he spotted Mendel leaning on a post towards the back of the plane. For six hours, he had walked around talking to people, leaning on the backs of seats and letting his friend sleep off his airsickness.
When Yossi tried to thank him, Mendel shrugged his shoulders, as if it was nothing, says Rabbi Yossi Deren, today the director of Chabad of Greenwich, Connecticut. “He made as if this was the most natural response any person should have.”
Ezra Solomon first met Mendel in Sydney, but it was only back in New York that they became close friends. “I always felt that he was just there for me,” Mr. Solomon says. “He was interested in what he could do for me, more than what I could do for him.” He said Mendel had a tremendous ability to help people “achieve any goals that they wanted.”
Living across the street from the Brikmans, Yafit Yadgar got a first-hand look at how Mendel operated. “Their porch was always abuzz with someone Mendel was talking to and giving advice to,” she says. She said people were attracted to him because he was open, ready to hear whatever someone had on their mind.
At one point, she confided to him that she felt overwhelmed by her responsibilities caring for her family, running a gemach and studying mental health. “It is too much,” she told him. “English is my second language and I am planning on dropping my studies.”
He told her not to give up. “If this is something you want to do, go ahead and do it,” he said. “Focus on the long run, keep your eyes on the prize, on when you will graduate.” She credits Mendel with keeping her in school, where she is now doing very well.
Rabbi Sholom Leverton, a classmate of Mendel’s who was with him in Sydney, says that even then people sought Mendel out to ask for advice. “He always had an eye on how to help the other,” says Rabbi Leverton, today the director of Chabad of the Windsors. “He was loved by people much older than him, double our age. [They] respected [him] and took advice from him.”
Mendel’s cousin and business partner, Yosef Brikman, says that customers at Sterling Electronics got more than Mendel’s charm and courteous service. “He developed relationships with the customers,” he says. At the cash register, people poured their hearts out to him. Mendel listened, and when solicited, dispensed advice.
The store was officially open from ten to seven, but his family knew not to expect him until much later. “There was always one more customer in the store to talk to,” says his widow, Toby, “one more person to give advice to. He took on their worries as his own.” She is still hearing stories and receiving emails from people he helped, though she never heard about any of it during his lifetime.
Dr. Asher Goldstein, Mendel’s brother-in-law, described how he influenced people: “He crept into you with a kind word or two. Then he hinted to you how you could be a better person. He wanted us to not only be a Jew and serve Hashem, he wanted it to be with a geshmak, with a bren. Not only to listen to music, but to hear it, and of course, not only to eat food, but to enjoy the intricacies, the flavors, the artisanship that went into making this cupcake. ”
Mendel was careful with the words he used, and always tried to find the good in others, Dr. Goldstein says. “He cared not only about what was said, but how it was said, especially in regard to conversation with one’s spouse, children and parents.”
At the top of Mendel’s agenda was helping people with shidduchim. He put in extra effort to help older singles, Yosef Brikman said. Shortly before he passed away, Mendel came up with an idea for a shidduch. The family at first was hesitant, but eventually the mother decided to give it a try. Months after Mendel passed away, the couple became engaged.
More than Business
When Mendel set his mind on accomplishing something, he got it done. His business acumen was keen, Yosef says. “He knew how to run a business and come up with solutions in difficult situations.”
Those who worked with him say that if need be, he would figure out how to make a circle into a square. His role model was his father, Kalman, a long-time board member of Oholei Torah. Mendel’s father taught him not only his business skills, but also how to use his profits to help others.
“He learned from [my husband] to be there for the other,” says his mother Shulamis, “Mendel took this as a lesson to live with. He always made sure the next person was okay. He would ask them how they are doing and helping them out with what they needed.”
Chaplain Colonel Jacob Z. Goldstein knew Mendel from a young age. “He would always be with his zeidah Brikman in shul, sitting at his side,” says the father-in-law, who davened in the same shul as the Brikmans, “he was always very respectful his grandfather, his parents and the others he interacted with.” He says that this trait was central to their decision to agree that their daughter Toby date Mendel.
Once, Mendel heard about a family that had been planning to go on shlichus, but lacking funds to cover the upcoming yom tov, had postponed the move. “He sent us all the appliances that we needed for that yom tov,” the shliach says. This discreet kindness was one of many that came to light only after Mendel’s passing.
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin, program director of Chabad of New Orleans, loved stopping in at Sterling to chat with Mendel on his visits to Crown Heights. He always came away feeling uplifted, he says. After Hurricane Katrina, when their Chabad House was in shambles, he stopped in at the store and told Mendel about the situation without asking for assistance. “He was very empathetic about our challenges,” Rabbi Rivkin says. “As we parted, he unassumingly slipped a significant sum of money into my hand to help us with the recovery.”
In 1996, Mendel married Toby Goldstein and began to build a family in Crown Heights, where he became an integral part of the community. “One of the things that I was lucky to see,” says their son Yossi, “was just this special love they had for each other, love in its truest form. Anybody who saw it knows exactly what I mean.”
Rabbi Shmuel Brook spent many hours speaking to Mendel about his business and other matters over the years. There was one subject, however, that was always on the top of the list. “There was nothing more dear to him than the chinuch of his own kids and the entire Crown Heights,” he says. “He lived chinuch.”
No matter how busy he was with work, Mendel never missed an opportunity to be part of his children’s lives. He learned with them, kept up with their studies and attended every parent-teacher conference. Asked to speak at a siddur party for one of his children, he enthusiastically shared his appreciation for the dedication of the teachers and school staff.
The decline in the use of Yiddish in the classroom was one of his pet peeves. He actively encouraged his children’s teachers to speak more Yiddish and was happy when they did.
According to Rabbi Deren, Mendel’s love for Yiddish goes back many years. In Sydney, he chose to be roommates with one of the bachurim who spoke more Yiddish, and when he assisted a boy there with his bar-mitzvah preparations, he encouraged him to say the maamar in Yiddish. The boy did, and Mendel was very proud.
After Mendel got sick, Rabbi Brook says, his love and devotion to his children became even stronger: “The only thing that he cared about was how much more he could give his children.”
In 2010, Mendel was diagnosed with a terrible illness. He kept the news to himself at first, not wanting to burden those around him. “He never wanted anyone to feel bad for him,” Toby says. “He pushed himself to live normally as much as possible.”
When word eventually got out, he assured worried family and friends that he would live with whatever challenges came his way. “I am going to make sure that every living moment will be lived to its fullest,” he said.
Knowing he would not be able to continue working in the store, he looked for a profession that would accommodate his deteriorating health and decided on social work. Unfortunately, his frequent visits to the hospital made the required study impossible.
He redoubled his efforts to engage with his children. He made sure to be there to greet them when they came home from school, and at the supper table, he asked that everyone take a turn to say something special that happened to them that day. “He never gave up an opportunity to be with the children,” says Toby. “He was so involved, every step of the way, until the last second.”
Mendel’s friends rallied around him, giving back all they could for his friendship over the years. Dr. Eli Rosen and the dedicated members of Crown Heights Hatzolah assisted the family tremendously. “Although it was hard, he was very positive throughout everything,” Toby says. “That is what kept us going.”
Those who came to visit Mendel found that he comforted them more than they comforted him. When Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz was at the beginning stages of his battle with ALS, visited New York, Mendel, who was also already sick at the time, went to visit him. Though it was difficult for him to talk by that time, Mendel had a message he wanted to share. He told Rabbi Hurwitz that there was something they could learn from their shared experiences. “Unfortunately, we are living through challenges, but we have to appreciate the little things that we took for granted until now,” he said. “With Hashem’s help, we will climb out of [our sicknesses]. When we climb out of it, we will have a greater appreciation [for the world around us].”
He blessed Rabbi Hurwitz that all of his procedures should go smoothly, that Hashem should send doctors who would heal him, and that he should see tremendous miracles. He also reminded his friend of happier times when they were in camp together. “Keep on trucking,” he said. “Stay motivated. We should have you back singing to us and inspiring us [very soon].”
Even from his hospital bed, Mendel continued to care for others. Chaim Marcus came to stay with his friend in order to give Toby a few hours of respite. Mendel had just had a tracheostomy and was unable to speak. At two in the morning, as Chaim was dozing off in the chair, Mendel began trying to mouth a request to the nurse.
Finally, the nurse figured it out. In the middle of the night, as he was recovering from a difficult procedure, he had asked for a pillow for his friend.
Mendel left a deep impression on the doctors and nurses who treated him, many of whom still keep in touch with Toby. He would ask them how their day was going, share a story or a vort, and make sure they left with a smile.
During a visit, Avraham Fried let out an involuntary “oy” when he saw how his friend’s condition had deteriorated. Mendel looked at him with a big smile and said, “No oys around here!”
In the last few months of his life, Mendel made plans to renovate his house, designing the layout and choosing tiles and paint. His family carried out his instructions, and though he never saw it completed, the house became a permanent reminder of his presence, literally surrounding his family with his care and love.
On the 21st of Tishrei 5777, surrounded by his family and friends, Mendel returned his neshamah to Hashem.
Rabbi Moshe Pinson, a community activist and dear friend of Mendel’s, says that during the many visits he made, he never heard Mendel complain about his situation, even when it became extremely difficult for him to speak. “It was just positive energy 24/7,” he says.
The week before Mendel passed away, he told Moshe, “I am not doing well. I want to give you a bracha that you should continue to do good things. Don’t worry what happens, just continue to move on.”
Dovid Zaklikowski is a noted historian and writer, his upcoming books Kosher Investigator: How Rabbi Berel Levy Built the OK and Transformed the World of Kosher Supervision and Footprints Colorful Lives, Huge Impact are available on pre-order for a discount and free shipping.
Reprinted from the Oholei Torah dinner journal honoring alumni