Menachem Mendel Oberlander, of blessed memory, had been ill for as long as I had known him. My brother knew him before he got sick, but I did not. Mendel was the son of Rabbi Baruch and Batsheva Oberlander, head Chabad representatives to Hungary. A bright and questioning child, he was fluent in four languages. By the time I arrived in Budapest to be part of the Pesti Jesiva (Yeshivah Gedolah of Hungary), he was back home after his first bout with cancer. A frail boy with suspenders whose life consisted of Torah study, reading, family, and the Jewish community of Budapest, he was planets away from the other kids on the streets of Budapest.

Time passed. I left Budapest. The cancer came back, but Mendel stayed the same.

When I started answering questions for Ask the Rabbi at Chabad.org, I began receiving regular questions from Mendel.

Looking back at our records, I see that he initiated a total of 439 email threads, some of them developing into long conversations with dozens of back-and-forth discussions.

And there were the phone calls. I knew he was in America for camp, treatment or a family celebration when he would call. He loved his family and he relished the opportunity to celebrate with them. In a squeaky voice, so faint that I could hardly hear, he would repeat his questions over and over again—the questions that had been weighing on his mind that he needed to share. Sometimes I had an answer on the spot, and more often than not, I would promise to get back to him if I came across an answer.

My last correspondence with him was about how he should say tefilat haderech (the traveler’s prayer) when leaving for a short trip from which he would return that very day. As usual, Mendel was not satisfied with the information I first gave him and he kept on probing for more. His first question on this subject came in on January 5, 2010 at 8:30 AM and the thread continued until November 10, 2011 9:34 AM.

I do not know how many such trips he took during the almost two years that we discussed this issue—although I shudder to think about the trips I know he was taking to medical centers in Vienna and the US in a desperate attempt to cling to life, a life for which he fought so valiantly for over ten years! During the course of this single conversation, I have had two children, moved to another country and bought my first car. But Mendel was frozen in time, forever a teenager trying to create a Yeshivah for himself in the hospital room in New York, at home in Hungary, in the raw loneliness of his own mind.

Mendel would ask questions about anything Torah related. Sometimes he had questions about the Talmud passages he was studying. Other times, he would ask about the structure of the prayers. The intricacies of the Passover seder, detailed questions on the laws of kashrut, the daily study portion, these and more were what was on his mind.

Some of his questions made it painfully clear that he was ill. He asked questions about how to properly wash his hands when waking up in the morning (or night) if he was too weak to get out of bed. He worried about how to say the bedtime Shema if he was unable to sleep and about the laws of hearing the shofar and the Megillah with his hearing aids. He was also concerned with a seemingly-extra verse in the Torah and some cryptic words in the Talmud.

His father, Rabbi Baruch Oberlander is a respected halachic authority and head of the Bet Din of Hungary. Yet, Mendel was never satisfied with the responses he received from him, suspecting that his father was being lenient with him due to his frail health. In our last conversation, I consulted a rabbi in Crown Heights before responding to his question. Mendel made sure to find out who the rabbi was and whether the rabbi's answer was that the practice in question was merely acceptable or if it was truly the best way to serve G‑d.

Mendel’s parents, Baruch and Batsheva, are two of the most determined and dedicated people I know. They moved heaven and earth to help their beloved son. The family spent years cramped in tiny apartments and basements in Brooklyn as Mendel went for treatment. No expense was spared and no effort was too much. The same gritty single-mindedness that contributed so much to the Jewish renaissance in Hungary was devoted to making a miracle for Mendel. And they did make a miracle. Mendel lived for 10 more years. 10 years of Torah study, love and wonder.

Mendel attended Camp Simcha, a special camp for children with serious illnesses, and loved going there. I made sure to ask him about his camping schedule each summer—knowing that it was one of the few things which he shared with other boys his age. Mendel also enjoyed listening to music. (In fact the first time I met him, I was delivering a children's tape that my brother (then teaching in South Africa) had sent him as a gift.) I also remember that he liked to listen to the Yiddish music by Reb Yom Tov Erlich and loved to watch the Itche Kadoozy shows on Chabad.org.

Mendel enjoying a meal in Brooklyn with some old and new friends from Pesti Jesiva and Chabad.org. (L-R) Mendel, Rabbis Yudi Dukes, Moishy Goldman, Menachem Posner, and Chaim Benjaminson.
Mendel enjoying a meal in Brooklyn with some old and new friends from Pesti Jesiva and Chabad.org. (L-R) Mendel, Rabbis Yudi Dukes, Moishy Goldman, Menachem Posner, and Chaim Benjaminson.

Another aspect of Mendel was his sense of humor. He liked to joke. If I answered an email too quickly, he kidded me about how I must have made a mistake by not delaying. He liked to share a corny joke in any one (or more) of the languages that he knew.

Somewhere in a lifetime of suffering, there were those islands of normalcy. I hope that we at Chabad.org were one such island. Mendel was twenty years old, but to me he remained frozen in adolescence, a boy whose life was cut short by a disease that robbed him of his brain, but never his mind.

To me mendel@zsido.com has become a sacred email address, sanctified by tears and by the little big boy who wanted more than anything else to be a Yeshivah student and a Chabad emissary.

Baruch dayan Haemet, blessed be the True Judge.

I have no doubt that as soon as he is able, Mendel will begin peppering Elijah the Prophet with his questions. And if Elijah will not know the answer, I am sure that he will turn to G‑d himself. After all, Mendel never stopped asking.