Rabbi Mendel Deren, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary considered by many New York area businessmen as a personal adviser and confidant, passed away during the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries. With his family by his side in his New York University hospital room, Deren succumbed to complications from a lifelong condition. He was 36.

Over the course of seven days, a string of family and friends came to the Deren family home in Stamford, Conn., to offer condolences. Many were classmates of the young rabbi and shared stories of growing up with an exceedingly intuitive scholar, but businessmen representing the gamut of Jewish backgrounds also told of a wisdom that transcended Deren’s age and experiences.

“He had a remarkable understanding of how people thought and what they really meant when they said something,” revealed Steve Batkin, CEO of the Greenwich-based insurance broker Lampe Batkin Associates. “Whenever I had issues with people, I would call Mendy and ask him what he thought.”

Deren’s keen insight into other people’s emotions left those who came to him for advice feeling refreshed.

“I would complain sometimes,” said Greenwich attorney Steve Finkelstein. “And he would give me a boost. He had the most positive outlook on life; I benefited greatly from the relationship.”

Over the course of his professional life, the rabbi built and nurtured relationships with movers and shakers in the financial world, first as development director of the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and later for Chabad-Lubavitch of Western and Southern New England.

As one after another of his acquaintances arrived to share a memory of Deren, family members expressed pleasant surprise at how far his reach spread.

“Up until now, we knew who Mendel was,” said nephew Menachem Deren. “Now, we’re getting to know Mendy.”

One man, who frequently prayed at Deren’s bedside in the hospital, came to Stamford to grieve and offer his condolences. The family knew little about his connection with the rabbi, and he himself didn’t share much. But as he got up to leave, his wife decided to reveal her husband’s connection to Deren.

“My husband was working at the World Trade Center on 9/11,” she related. He “saw things that day that no human being should ever see. From that day, he became withdrawn, avoiding work and family responsibilities that resembled normal life.

“We tried to help him come out of it,” she continued, “but it just didn’t work. One day, Mendy showed up at our house, [saying], ‘Come, we are going out.’ I don’t know where they went, what they did or what they spoke about. All I know is that three hours later, they came back to the house and [my husband] was a changed man.

“Mendy gave me my husband back.”

Rabbi Mendel Deren
Rabbi Mendel Deren

Overcoming Challenges

Deren, the second child of Rabbi Yisrael and Vivi Deren, was born in 1974. At the time, his parents recently established Chabad-Lubavitch of Western and Southern New England in Amherst, Mass.

He would later be diagnosed with Bloom syndrome, but his parents realized early in his life that he was small for his age.

“Mendel was very small at birth and did not grow well,” said his mother. “We were very concerned.”

Deren was less than one year old when his mother wrote to the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, expressing concern about her son’s condition.

The Rebbe responded to the word “small” and quoted from the prayers made at a child’s circumcision.

“This small child,” he wrote, “will be a great man.”

Over the course of his life, Deren would tell his mother, “Before I start the day, I think about the Rebbe’s blessing. What can I do to make sure that it materializes?”

Rabbi Mendel Deren reads from the Torah at the Bar Mitzvah of Allen Mekibel at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
Rabbi Mendel Deren reads from the Torah at the Bar Mitzvah of Allen Mekibel at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

Deren’s condition and its complications could cripple even the strongest of people. But he always pressed on.

“He had some of the greatest challenges any human being could live with,” said his brother, Rabbi Yossi Deren, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Greenwich. “But you never heard a complaint come out of his mouth.”

“He did not make a big deal about his challenges,” echoed Finkelstein. “He made a big deal about the good things in his life.”

Deren’s father explained that his condition likely gave him a window into other people’s hardships.

“During a time of hurt,” he said, “Mendel was the one to reach out to others.”

“I know what that individual is going through,” Deren once told his father. “I could feel his challenges.”

Among the many stories shared in Stamford was that of a respected philanthropist, a pillar of the community who gave millions of dollars to charity, but all of a sudden, fell ill.

According to the man’s associate, “understandably, calls for charity stopped coming.” But one day, Deren called to see if the sick man needed anything.

“No calls came besides for Mendy’s,” the associate revealed. “He wanted to see him. Maybe he could help him. He understood what he was going through and wanted to share words of encouragement with him.”

“Mendel carried a very heavy load,” stated Yisrael Deren. “But he felt that the reason G‑d gave him these challenges was so that he could empathize with others during their challenging times and help them.”

Rabbi Mendel and Sara Deren
Rabbi Mendel and Sara Deren

He Never Gave Up

Over the past few months, Deren’s condition progressively worsened, ultimately necessitating his hospitalization. The news came as a shock to his friends, who knew the rabbi for his impeccable manner of dress and the way he walked, as if nothing out of the ordinary was transpiring.

Just before this year’s emissaries’ conference – which Deren always looked forward to as the one time each year that he could see all of his friends gathered in one place – people around the world received e-mails urging them to recite Psalms in his merit. Every year, Deren planned a Chasidic gathering for all of his arriving friends, and his wife Sara, a native of Jerusalem, resolved to hold one in a room at his hospital.

During the gathering, friends, family members and associates told inspirational stories and filled the air with Chasidic melodies well past midnight. At 2:00 in the morning, a select few went up to his room to continue singing.

As the gathering reached its conclusion, Deren’s body embarked on its final struggle.

“He never gave up,” said Finkelstein, “he fought to the end.”

As the numbers on the monitors in the room started dropping, Deren’s friends left him to be alone with his family.

“When they were in the room,” said Rabbi Chesky Deren, his younger brother, “that was when the final stretch began. He passed away a few short hours later.”

Back at his parents’ house, the younger Deren spoke with his brother’s unused identification card from the conference hanging behind him on a hook.

“How apt that he should have left the world on the day when all of his friends and all the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries from around the world were here,” noted the brother. “All of his friends from across the globe were there to say their goodbye.”

“He made me feel special,” said Finkelstein, “even though he was the special one. It is such a tragedy to lose him.”