By all rights, Mendy Klein and I were the unlikeliest of pairings. He was a 60-year-old successful, recently retired Cleveland businessman when we first met, while I was a 32-year-old from Queens with a house full of little kids.
We struck up a conversation one day when we both ended up at the same bris and realized that we had far more in common than anyone could have ever imagined. Both of us shared a passion for helping kids in crisis, and it didn’t take us long to figure out that we were working the same cases — he was dealing with the financial end while I was working out the legalities and other practical matters.
We literally felt that we were kindred spirits drawn together for a greater good, and while I had been operating as a lone soldier, Mendy brought an organized professionalism to the table — one that gave birth to Amudim, which, in just four years, has worked over 4,100 cases.
In the early days of Amudim, he used to tell me that he had the easy job — all he had to do was to write out the checks instead of dealing with the heartbreaking details of our cases, something he felt he could never do.
About two years later, we were having dinner together and discussing some of our current cases and he told me that it pained him to realize that he was able to eat during the conversation. He told me that hearing the horrors that people were facing, he shouldn’t be able to eat for a week, or even a month, and the fact that he was able to go on with dinner troubled him deeply.
Baruch Hashem, our generation has been blessed with many wealthy philanthropists, but Mendy’s involvement went far beyond the financial. He took every case to heart, and when he heard about someone who was suffering, he suffered with them. Mendy would go to drop-in centers and he would sit for hours, talking to the kids and listening to their stories. He needed to know why they were in pain so that he could figure out what to do to prevent it in the future.
Once, Mendy and I were walking together and a girl in jeans came up to us and started talking to me in Yiddish. Having a soft spot for his own chassidishe roots, Mendy joined the conversation and she poured out her heart to him. The two of them exchanged contact information and, as far as I was concerned, that was the end of the story.
Six months later, the girl called me up and asked me for Mendy’s phone number, which she no longer had. It was only then that I found out that Mendy had followed up with her after that initial meeting and had paid for her to spend six months in a rehab facility.
That was Mendy, always giving from the heart. He had so much compassion for other people. I would get emails from him, sometimes written at 2 a.m., asking me to update him on a case that we had talked about a few months earlier. He truly cared about each and every person, and the generous donations that he made were just a small part of what he did for so many people.
That deep sense of commitment that Mendy had for himself extended to others in a very big way. When it came to giving, it wasn’t just that he would write out a check — there were emails that would go out to a group of gvirim about particular situations and Mendy would reply saying how many thousands he would give, spurring others to follow his lead.
The night before the levayah in Eretz Yisrael, we sat down and tried to estimate just how much money Mendy generated through those emails. The number was in the millions, yet Mendy always kept a low profile, preferring to avoid the limelight.
Just two weeks ago, an article that appeared in this newspaper’s Inyan magazine profiling me included a sidebar from Mendy, as one of our board members. Quite naturally, Mendy was not at all happy about the situation, expressing indignation that by including only his input, the other board members might have felt slighted.
Mendy had high expectations for everyone around him. The only language he knew was how to push, although it was always done with heart. He never took no for an answer and he didn’t expect any different from anyone else.
As Amudim grew and we needed more staff I told him that I couldn’t afford to hire anyone else — an answer that he refused to accept, telling me that I needed to make it happen. There was no arguing with Mendy, because he knew that at the end of the day, there were lives that needed to be saved and saying no just wasn’t an option.
And when, just a few weeks ago, I felt that I couldn’t go on anymore, and I sat down and wrote out my resignation letter, saying that I was only human and the job was taking an emotional toll on me and my family, Mendy set me straight once again, telling me that first of all, I wasn’t human, and that second of all, my resignation was denied.
Everything that Amudim has done, every life that we have saved, all comes back to Mendy. I had spent years trying to bring the issues of abuse and addiction into the mainstream to no avail. But with Mendy behind me, everything changed, because while I had been working at the micro level, Mendy operated on a macro scale.
He orchestrated a meeting for me with the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and created Project Lishmor with Torah Umesorah, both monumental accomplishments that have been instrumental in raising awareness and creating lifesaving initiatives throughout our community. While Mendy championed so many worthwhile causes, Amudim struck a chord deep within his heart. He kept pushing harder and harder because as long as even one person was suffering it was too much for him to bear.
No matter what issues came up, Mendy was always there, not only for Amudim, but also for me and my family. He believed in me and he gave me wings, kicking me when I wasn’t giving 110 percent and holding me up when things were just too much to bear.
Just weeks ago, when my father had a medical emergency in Israel, Mendy made sure that every detail was taken care of in the hospital, and when it came time to bring my father back to the United States and we had to lay out tens of thousands of dollars until the insurance came through, Mendy wrote out a check without batting an eyelash.
Last year, Mendy called me before Sukkos and told me, “Your wife needs a vacation. I want your family to come to Eretz Yisrael with my family.”
It wasn’t business, it was family. Mendy was like a second father to me, and there was no doubt that we were family. We argued like family. We hugged like family. We shared in each other’s simchos. And today, we stand crying and brokenhearted together with the Klein family, as we try to comprehend the loss of a giant with an oversized heart who did so much, for so many, in his own quiet way.
My last conversation with Mendy took place at 4 p.m. on the day that he was niftar. He started telling me that the heartache and pain in this world were just too much and that we needed to do more. He told me that we needed an answer from Shamayim, because we just aren’t winning the battle down here in this world. Just hours later, Mendy left us.
Mendy, you taught me not to take no for an answer, and now it is my turn to demand the same from you. We need you now, more than ever, and, just as you said, we need an answer from Shamayim. Now that you are up there in the Olam Ha’emes, where nothing is impossible, we need you to storm the kisei hakavod and to fight for our kids, so that we can finally end the pain and the suffering.
And please, please, please … Don’t take no for an answer.