In Tammuz, 5734, a special neshamah entered this world, and just 39 years later he was brutally taken from us. For the past five years, we have followed the heart-rending details of the trial, but a great part of the tragedy is that a life so fully lived has been overshadowed by the drama of his death.
Having become a household name, it might surprise some to learn that my brother-in-law Menachem Stark, Hy”d, was rather low-key in life. He shunned the limelight and would typically arrange that others receive the accolades in his stead. Although he was careful that no one ever feel ignored in his presence, he was equally concerned that his generosity and kindness remain unknown. He was so adept at hiding his chessed that even his family never knew the full extent of it.
To us, Menachem was just a sweet and kind human being. A fun guy who loved to kid around but couldn’t tolerate discord and would always stop a conversation if he thought someone was taking offense.
Menachem loved people, and, in turn, everyone loved him. He was the genuine sort, the kind of man whose eyes would light up when his face broke into his signature smile. It was only during the shivah that the family first got to hear stories of his amazing generosity that we, who thought we knew him so well, knew nothing about: credit card bills paid, homes repaired, tuitions covered, grocery bills sponsored — most of the stories revealed for the first time ever.
One of the younger nephews who was present marveled that Menachem did all that he did, gave all that he gave, without recognition. It is precisely the lack of kavod that confused this child so. He could have gotten so much kavod; why would he choose not to?
Try explaining the concept of not needing kavod to a child, and you quickly realize that it is difficult even for an adult to grasp. It is so much human nature to crave recognition. How could Menachem totally shun it? But Menachem did grasp the importance of kavod. He truly understood what kavod is, and how essential it is too; that is why he was always so careful with the kavod of others.
His manner of giving reveals how important the dignity of others was to him. He could have simply given his dollars and been done with it. Instead, he would come up with creative ways to either pay existing bills directly, or eliminate expenses entirely, or provide the recipients with employment so that they wouldn’t feel like it was a handout.
One of the countless stories that greatly highlights his magnanimity in this regard was related at the shivah, this time from a family that couldn’t pay their simchah hall bill after a big event. Months later, after they scrounged up the cash, they were advised that their bill had already been paid in full. The hall manager confessed that he didn’t know who paid the bill — the man wouldn’t leave a name.
It was after Menachem’s passing, with his photo in all the papers, that the hall manager recognized him and notified the family. They were friends of Menachem’s. They had no clue that he had even known of their financial downturn!
And that was precisely how Menachem wanted it. He allowed them to retain their pride and social standing. He wanted them to speak to him with the same comfort and dignity that they had up until that day.
Kavod is important, Menachem knew — which is why instead of taking it, he gave it.
Another remarkable story involved a kollel yungerman whose sole means of income was from the boys he learned with after school. These sessions were often necessary for the students’ success in yeshivah. In one instance, a boy’s balance was steadily accumulating, which, in turn, meant the same for the tutor’s personal debt.
Out of nowhere, Menachem called the tutor, asked if so-and-so was a student of his and how much was outstanding. Shortly thereafter, Menachem sent over the balance.
In the months and years that followed, Menachem was in touch regularly, inquiring about the boy’s success and whether additional help might be needed. He also arranged future payments with the tutor, requesting that, going forward, each month’s bill be sent to him directly. The checks always came like clockwork.
The yungerman later related that he couldn’t determine Menachem’s connection to the situation, but was impressed with something else Menachem asked for: He asked that the family continue to be charged a minimal amount. Whether they paid or not wasn’t important; the intention was to preserve their pride and to prevent them from finding out that they were receiving help from outside sources.
We can speculate about Menachem’s intent. Was the purpose to arrange a regular paycheck for a working man — by purportedly helping the student out? Or was his intention to be there for this boy, who direly needed remedial help? We can never know for sure, but chances are that this creative giving involved a healthy dose of concern for both.
And then there was the story about the young orphan from Crown Heights whose mother came to pay her respects and who related how, at the time of her son’s bar mitzvah, she couldn’t fathom from where she would conjure up the necessary funds. A friend told her that it had all been arranged and that she only needed to invite the guests.
“The affair was lavish and lovely,” she shared, “and all sponsored by a perfect stranger whose name I had never heard before, Menachem Stark.”
As the stories kept pouring in, his wife remarked that there must have been two Menachems. One gently woke his sons at 5 a.m., took them to yeshivah, found the time to learn, went to work, was around to help at the kids’ bedtimes, and always had time to truly care about each family member.
This Menachem was the most devoted husband, father and son; consistently going above and beyond what the role called for. It was obvious that his wife came first, but so did his kids, his parents, and even his siblings. Somehow, no one ever felt unimportant in his presence. His family knew they were his number one priority, which makes the other amazing deeds he did even more impressive.
There must have been another Menachem, though; one who always had time to assist anyone in need. Whether it was helping a panicking young bachur search for his lost tefillin, graciously giving business advice to those who sought his professional insight, or, financially, giving generously and repeatedly to any and all who asked (and many who didn’t).
His tenants, business associates, employees, neighbors — and perfect strangers — all had amazing stories to share, from his friendly greeting every morning, his impeccable integrity, his offer of a car ride on a colwinter day, to the unexpected lunch for a group of kollel yungeleit studying nearby.
Even the UPS guy stepped up during the shivah; he, too, wanted to offer his condolences and share an incident that took place just two weeks before. Mr. Stark had handed him a hundred-dollar bill with the suggestion to “get something for your kids for the holidays.”
Menachem thought about these things; he thought about people.
Menachem had a simple but profound philosophy about life: He believed we are here to make the world a better place. Perhaps that’s not so original, but his dedication to his beliefs ran deep. A perfect example of this was his tendency to genuinely compliment all who came into his presence, not because of what he might get from them, but because he believed that the simplest and purest way to give to others is through the words we share. It was impossible to be around him and not be taken in by his warmth.
And it is impossible to have known him and not feel the chill of his absence.
If Menachem could read what I’m about to suggest, I’d probably get to hear his tinkling laugh. Still, I don’t think he’d disagree with the message.
After all, if we look closely at his too short life, we can’t fail to see that the beauty in his giving wasn’t the dollar amount but the fact that he gave it in a way that left the recipient feeling comfortable. As often as not, it wasn’t even money that he gave, but advice, guidance, time, help and encouragement.
As it turns out, one doesn’t need a huge bank account to give; he only needs a warm Yiddishe heart.
Each and every one of us has that. On Pesach, as we say kol dichfin yesei v’yeichal, let’s remember all those who can be fed with a kind gesture. Compliment your spouse. Your kids. Smile to whomever you come in contact with. Take the time for someone who needs it. Give them of yourself.
And do it l’iluy nishmas Menachem Meshulem, a”h, ben Yisroel