| Magazine Feature |

Hour by Grateful Hour

ALS froze Mendy Rosenberg’s muscles — but it couldn’t chill his spirit

Photos: Family archives

Bayis means house. Standing alone, it usually connotes a family home, but there are various other “houses” as well: a beis knesses, for davening, a beis medrash, for learning, and a beis sefer, for teaching. For the past 14 years, there was a house on East 27th Street in Brooklyn that was all of those rolled into one. It’s where Mendy Rosenberg lived until his petirah just over a month ago.

Fifteen years ago, Mendy was diagnosed with ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, once commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and over the decade and a half that he lived with the dreaded illness, it transformed him from a regular Flatbush balabos into a teacher’s teacher.

He and the doctors, they taught each other. They taught him that modern medicine’s prognosis for ALS is a life expectancy of three to five years. In return, he taught them that when there’s a will to live, all the prognoses in the world go out the window. If you love life dearly enough, anything becomes possible — even 12 more years, in which to celebrate two sons’ bar mitzvahs and three children’s weddings and to be sandek at several grandchildren’s brissen.

And he taught what gadlus is. Decades ago, there were people who’d come to 145 East Broadway, hoping to catch sight of Rav Moshe Feinstein in his yeshivah, thinking they’d be wowed by a larger-than-life, magnetic persona. But only those who knew what to expect understood what greatness really looks like.

Mendy, too, taught what greatness really is. And this regular guy and his ordinary family, living in just another house on just another block in Brooklyn, have given every other Jew alive a lesson in the greatness that lies within them, too.

ITwas a morning in late winter 2008, and Shacharis had just ended in the Flatbush shtibel of the Hornosteipler Rebbe, Rav Mordechai Twerski. Mendy Rosenberg, one of the morning regulars, lingered in shul after davening.

He and his wife Malky had just learned that his body was harboring the ticking time bomb of ALS, which results in the progressive loss of the motor neurons that control voluntary muscles, until the ability to eat, speak, move, and finally the ability to breathe is lost. The vast majority of ALS cases have no known cause, and it has no known cure. Eye movements forming words on the computer become the only way for someone imprisoned within his body by ALS to communicate with the world outside.

A few others had stayed behind in shul that morning, and one of them, Donny, was using these quiet moments to go over the weekly parshah before heading out to his local business office. Until now, Mendy’s entire connection with Donny had consisted of an occasional, “Hi, how are you?” But now, Mendy started looking at the world differently. Spying Donny in his seat across the shul, Mendy came over and asked, “Would you like to learn with me?”

“He had just found out his diagnosis,” Donny recalls, “but no one else knew. He was walking and talking and looked just fine. I said, ‘Sure,’ and thus began a daily one-hour seder. Mendy picked the things we would learn, choosing those topics on which he wouldn’t be able to listen to a shiur. I owe him a lot more than he owes me, because we learned seforim that really forced us to broaden our horizons, things we’d never learned in yeshivah.”

Their hour-long daily seder, first in shul and then in Mendy’s home, began with the study of Derech Hashem, and from there they ranged widely across the breadth and depth of Torah. They learned Shir Hashirim and Koheles, made their way through Meor Einayim and Noam Elimelech and Tanya and delved into many of the Ramchal’s seforim. Mendy had found out he was descended from the Maharal, and one day he said to Donny, “Let’s learn Maharal,” and they did, completing several of his seforim. Before each Yom Tov, they’d learn something in preparation for it. And when they were stumped, they didn’t hesitate to turn to Rav Twerski and other local rabbanim for help.

“Why did he choose me?” Donny reflects after his friend’s passing. “Who knows? These are the things that happen in life that we just don’t know the reasons for.”

Who was Mendy Rosenberg in the before times? People who knew him early on describe a typical frum kid coming of age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, one of four siblings in a heimish Boro Park family. Mendy went to Yeshiva Be’er Shmuel for high school, followed by several years in beis medrash there and in South Fallsburg and Mir Yerushalayim. Eventually, he met and married his wife Malky, a fellow Boro Park native, and after several years in the old neighborhood, they moved to Flatbush in 1997.

Mendy was a kid who couldn’t sit still, and as an adult, too, he needed to always be on the go, busy with one thing or other. Starting out as a traveling salesman for his father’s plumbing supply business, he later went out on his own selling kitchen and bath fixtures. Hatzolah was perfectly suited for him, and he became Member K-28 in the unit based out of Canarsie, where the family business was located.

Mendy’s kinetic personality made sitting in the beis medrash a challenge, but it lent itself to excelling in another way. Barry (Berel) Licht, a good friend of Mendy’s ever since high school, remembers him as “a guy whose immediate response to anyone who’d ask for a favor was, ‘no problem.’ He didn’t even know what the favor was and whether he could do it, but somebody needed help, so, ‘no problem.’ And if you’d ask him, ‘Mendy, you don’t even understand what’s going on here, so how’re you going to help?” his answer would be, ‘I dunno, but we’ll figure it out.’ It was true naaseh v’nishma — he’d first say yes and then think about how to proceed.”

Then, at age 43, the most dreaded three-letter acronym in the English language made its appearance in Mendy’s life. It all began with a pain in his arm. He went to a doctor, who gave him muscle relaxants for what he thought was a pinched nerve. But when many weeks had gone by and the pain was still there, he consulted a neurologist who suspected ALS and sent him on to another doctor at Mount Sinai, whose tests confirmed the diagnosis.

Five years ago, in a letter of chizuk he wrote to “Reb Dovid,” someone who’d just received his own ALS diagnosis, Mendy recalled the moment he’d been given the very same news: “I have this situation for around nine years,” Mendy wrote. “At first I was devastated, especially when the doctors gave me such terrible news I mamish couldn’t breathe. I was quite young, with five children ranging from six thru eighteen.”

Mendy, who seemed to never stop moving, was suddenly facing a life frozen in immobility. Mendy, who never ceased helping, was staring at a future in which he’d forever be on the receiving end instead of the giving one, dependent on others for every function of living. If greatness lay deep within, his life’s defining challenge had arrived to bring it to the surface.

Not long after beginning his seder with Donny, Mendy felt he desperately needed to find a way forward through the gathering gloom, and he set out for Eretz Yisrael to seek advice from various tzaddikim. One of them told him something that would come to be the guiding light for the next decade and a half of his life: “The pasuk says, ‘Baruch Hashem yom yom, blessed is Hashem every day.’ But Mendy, that’s not for you. What you need to focus on is ‘Baruch Hashem b’chol sha’ah v’sha’ah. Don’t think about more than the next half-hour. You’re sitting here right now? You’re learning with someone? The sun is shining? Your wife is next to you? Your daughter just entered the room, or maybe she just got engaged? Whatever’s happening, bless Hashem right now. Bless Him every hour on the hour. Don’t wait for an entire day to go by to do it.”

Mendy would repeat those words countless times in the ensuing years, as he wrote in his letter to Reb Dovid: “I thank Hashem every day, and sometimes mamish every hour.” His chavrusa Donny recalls, “Sometimes I would remind Mendy, ‘We have an hour to learn. Forget about tomorrow or even five hours from now. This hour, just this hour. You don’t have to be at work, I don’t have to be at work, the sun is out, the birds are singing. Let’s learn.’”


endy returned from Eretz Yisrael filled with newfound purpose. He sat down separately with each of his children for a heart-to-heart talk to prepare them for the challenging times ahead. His second-oldest daughter, Geli Cagan, remembers the very first thing her father said when he took her aside.

“He said to me, ‘I just want you to know — it’s not your fault.’ My father understood that a kid can feel guilty over a parent’s illness, thinking ‘If only I’d davened better’ or ‘It’s because of my aveiros.’ He wanted me to know that wasn’t true.”

For the first year following the diagnosis, the Rosenbergs continued hoping for a cure, searching for some miraculous way to fend off the invader called ALS that so suddenly had taken over their lives.

“Someone told me about this doctor on Long Island who was doing something with neurons, and we used to take Mendy out there three times a week,” Malky recalls. “We were trying to do whatever we could do as hishtadlus. And for all I know, it did help.”

Ultimately, Mendy and Malky faced the reality that the longed-for yeshuah was not on the horizon. There was a great chesed Hashem, however, in the fact that Mendy was generally in good health throughout the years.

“I used a regular doctor for my husband,” Malky says, “because after a certain point, there’s nothing the ALS clinic at Columbia is going to do for you. His health only began to go downhill after he got Covid, and although he pulled through it, it damaged his lungs. After that, he was in and out of the hospital with pneumonia and other issues.”

For the first stretch, Mendy was able to be wheeled to the minyanim at Rav Twerski’s shul several blocks away. But when that became too difficult, the Rosenbergs’ house became a fully functioning shul, with a regular daily minyan for Minchah and Maariv and a full davening on Shabbos, Yamim Tovim, and even the Yamim Noraim. There was a Megillah reading on Purim and shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah — and even a Shabbos Shuvah derashah, courtesy of Shloimy Berger, a neighbor who was a regular at the minyan.

Reb Shloimy recalls those early months and the heartbreaking transition away from independence: “He lost his speech fairly quickly. I always sat next to him at davening, and I remember fighting with him to convince him not to stand up at Lecha Dodi. How important is it, after all, to stand at Lecha Dodi? But he had this tremendous will to stay independent and do things like he’d always done them, for as long as possible. He didn’t want help turning the pages of his siddur, so I bought him these rubber tips for the fingertips, like bank tellers used to use. The condition was degenerative, but he was fighting all along for independence.”

But Mendy was determined to keep on giving to others, as he always had, only now he’d have to find new ways to do so. One way was to turn receiving into giving.

Barry Licht would take the Wednesday shift to put tefillin on his friend, and he says, “It was he who gave me chizuk. He used to help me get through my week so many times because when I’d leave that house, whatever stresses were happening in my life just faded away compared to his situation. Sometimes, he’d ask me to massage his head, and I would have this feeling that he asked me that just so I could feel good helping him.”

In his letter to “Reb Dovid,” Mendy enumerated all the blessings in his life — “I married off two of my girls and made two bar mitzvahs, I have a daughter in nursing school, four zees vee honey grandchildren, an eishes chayil who does so much, a great rebbe/chavrusa” — and wrote of his belief that “Hashem will continue doing all these great things solely because I did not give up. You cannot… let me rephrase that, you must not give up.”

Of all the gifts he bestowed, however, perhaps the greatest of them was creating a home atmosphere for his beloved family that wasn’t just normal but downright upbeat.

“It was a heavy diagnosis,” Malky says, “but it was never sad or dark or anything like that in our house.” She quotes Mrs. Ruchie Weisz of Monsey, whose family is an ongoing inspiration to many in how they deal with her husband Reb Avrohom Dovid’s ALS. “Ruchi says her husband decided long ago that those three letters stand for Always Live Smiling.” That’s the motto that’s kept Reb Avrohom Dovid going since his ALS diagnosis in 2005 when he was just 31 years old. And in between his round-the-clock daily chavrusas and two Shas siyumim, he and Mendy had something else in common that defied medical explanation — despite the fact that neither of them could talk, eat or take a sip of water for years, they could both smile.

“That’s what Mendy did, and that’s what we did too,” Malky says. “Mendy was always a doer — he had no zitzfleish, so he had to be doing something, even with ALS. Until the last year, he refused to stay in bed. He would get up and into his wheelchair and either go to daven or to learn here in the dining room.”

Mendy insisted on being part of everything that went on, and, his son Binyomin says, the family installed cameras all over the house just so his father could see what everyone was doing. Mendy had special alarms he could activate for various needs, and one of these — nicknamed “the Alligator” by his grandchildren for reasons known only to them — enabled him to alert a grown-up if he saw one of the little ones doing something they shouldn’t be, like climbing the stairs.

On Purim, Mendy was dressed up in sync with that year’s family costume scheme, and on Simchas Torah he was right in the middle of the dancing — literally. And despite the complicated logistics involved, he made sure to be in attendance at a grandson’s school for his Chumash seudah.

His sharp and playful sense of humor didn’t disappear either — it just found new ways to express itself. Mendy’s eye-tracking computer-based speech synthesizer offered a variety of voices in which to convey his words, and the usual one was that of “Ryan,” a masculine, British-accented voice. “But then every so often, without telling us,” Malky recalls, “Mendy would switch the voices on us for fun, to some lady with an Australian accent.”

Often, family members didn’t need the voice to know what Mendy wanted to say, because they became really good at figuring out what he was trying to say even from just two letters. Other times, it became a fun guessing game for the kids to decipher Tatty’s intentions. Still, Malky observes wistfully, “there were probably times he wanted to say a lot more, and we didn’t understand.”

As Mendy’s condition deteriorated, he went from using a walker to a regular wheelchair, and finally, a power chair, but his daughter Geli remembers how “he always made jokes about it, never made it awkward or scary. All he wanted was, ‘Don’t make me a special case.’ His situation was normal, just part of everyday life. When we kids wanted something, we’d still argue with him. Of course, there were always people who would be uncomfortable around him, doing things like asking loudly, ‘Can you hear me?’ because they thought he wasn’t all there. But Tatty would always just laugh about it.”

To the Rosenberg grandkids, however, there was nothing more normal — or fun — than being around Zeidy. They’d never known Mendy any other way, and when they were told it was because he was sick, their reaction was an incredulous “What?!” Geli remembers overhearing a few of the little ones discussing the “best place to sit on Zeidy,” i.e., on the top or the side, and indeed, the rhythmic breathing of his ventilator and the warmth of his heating pad made him an inviting place to put babies, who invariably would fall fast asleep on him.

In the summertime, when the Rosenbergs went to a colony upstate, the grandchildren were constantly bringing their friends over to see their Zeidy. Since he was unable to swallow, Mendy always kept a folded-up square of paper towel in between his teeth to absorb the saliva, earning him the moniker of “Marshmallow Man” among the kids of the colony. And sure enough, his eineklach, thinking that’s what was normal, started sporting paper towel squares in their own mouths.

Mendy, “before.” He had a kinetic personality, always a doer, always helping everyone around him, but without much zitzfleish to sit and learn. Now he’d face a new horizon

When so much gets taken away in a person’s life, it sharpens the appreciation for what remains, for the seemingly small — but actually, huge — blessings that fill the lives of us all.

Like a smile.

Mendy’s smile, says his wife, “was one thing that was never affected until the end, which is unusual for those with ALS. You could see it on his face all the time.” And it became yet another gift he was capable of giving in abundance to family and friends and everyone around him.

“We lived for that smile,” Shloimy Berger recalls. “Those who knew him would look for that little smile peeking out, when we’d see the corners of his lips turning up ever-so-slightly.” Shloimy gave a devar Torah each Shabbos after Mussaf, and he says, “I’d spend a lot of time during the week looking for something to say that would bring Mendy chizuk, often something about how much HaKadosh Baruch Hu values our thoughts and intentions even when we can’t act. I hoped he liked the Torah I was sharing with him, and I’d look for the smile to see if he approved.”

Even more than serving as a beis knesses, the Rosenberg home became a veritable full-time beis medrash. Before his diagnosis, Malky reflects, “Mendy always went to minyan, but he wasn’t much into learning. He was just a regular guy.” That began to change once he started his daily seder with Donny.

Then, four years into ALS, Mendy attended the Siyum HaShas of the daf yomi at MetLife Stadium in August 2012. He came away from the event inspired to begin learning the daf — or more accurately, living it. In the course of each day, Mendy listened to about nine different online shiurim on the daf, with the voices of his favorite maggidei shiur becoming the sacred background music of daily life in the Rosenberg household.

Malky says she used to “always know what daf we were up to. Now that Mendy’s not here, I know we’re still in Nedarim now, although I don’t know where. The silence is weird, not to hear the daf going all the time.” She pauses, then adds, “Sometimes I put on the daf when no one’s around. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be doing that, but it’s part of my life.”

In January 2020, as 100,000 Jews returned to the Meadowlands to celebrate the completion of yet another cycle of Daf Yomi, an elated Mendy Rosenberg was among them, this time as a mesayeim. Beforehand, he had been conflicted about whether to attend, because although he very much wanted to be there, he also didn’t want to be the center of attention.

But, Malky says, “I told him that if even one person learns because of you, it will all be worth it.” And indeed, at the Siyum, one of the speakers highlighted, for hundreds of thousands to see and hear, Mendy’s journey to complete Shas in the face of nearly inconceivable obstacles. “And in fact,” Malky adds, “afterward we heard a lot of stories of people who started doing the daf because of Mendy and are still doing it. One person said, ‘Sometimes, after I get into bed, I realize I didn’t yet do the daf, and I say to myself, If Mendy can do the daf, I can get out of bed now to do it, too.’”

Mendy’s immersion in daf yomi was accompanied by ever greater devotion to his other sedorim. “As the years went by and Mendy became sicker, you’d think he’d slow down, but to the contrary, the seder became even more important to him,” Donny says. “He would never miss, and he was just spending more and more time learning. Even when we had to adjust our seder times, it still had to be. Even when he had to be in the hospital, so long as he was up and alert, they’d put the tablet on his bed, and when 10:30 a.m. arrived, I would get a call: ‘Mendy’s ready to learn.’ He had lots of physical ups and downs, and sometimes I wasn’t sure if he was up to learning, and then I’d get a call from his wife, ‘Mendy wants you to come,’ and I’d say, ‘Okay, I’ll be right there.’ ”

For most people, the Rambam’s ruling (Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:10), “Until when must a person study Torah? Until the day he dies,” are just inspiring words. Mendy lived them. His last seder with Donny — they were going through the Ohr HaChaim’s commentary on Chumash — was on Thursday, and that Shabbos he entered the hospital for the last time. Two days later, on Monday afternoon, Mendy was niftar, but his primary physician, Dr. Chaim Gitelis, recalls that Monday morning Mendy, even while on several medications to raise his blood pressure, was learning the daf on his computer screen.

With his round-the-clock chavrusas and two Shas siyumim through inconceivable obstacles, Mendy became something he’d never have imagined — a Torah inspiration for thousands


wasn’t only Gemara. The modest house on East 27th Street became a beis medrash for emunah and bitachon, too, a place where the basic principles of how a Jew is to make his way through life and weather its storms were studied and discussed, because they had taken on a new, urgent relevance.

With Mendy — who Malky says “from day one, never complained” — as their inspiration, the Rosenbergs worked to strengthen and internalize their belief that all that happened was by the design of a loving Creator. They learned seforim on the topic and looked for His Hand in every detail of their lives.

“We really saw Yad Hashem in everything,” Malky reflects. “It was unbelievable, and we saw it in so many everyday situations all through the years. The Living Emunah books were a lifeline, and it happened so many times that I’d open it up, and it was just the thing we needed to hear. His last few days especially were choreographed for us from Shamayim: the fact that we took him to the local Community Hospital instead of Maimonides, where we usually took him, enabling a minyan to be at his bedside, and that he was niftar at a time that made it possible for him to be flown to Eretz Yisrael for a timely burial.”

As the end drew near, a kever in the Beit Shemesh cemetery was purchased for Mendy, which just happened to be right next to that of Malky’s uncle, Dr. Shia Weinstein, the founder of the Shema Kolainu autism center and Emunas Bais Yaakov in Boro Park. Weeks later, Reb Shia’s son took a trip to Eretz Yisrael to visit his son in yeshivah and went to visit his father’s grave — on what turned out to be the day of Mendy’s shloshim.

Mendy learned how to turn every hour of life into a blessing. “I married off two of my girls and made two bar mitzvahs, I have a daughter in nursing school, four sweet-like-honey grandchildren, an eishes chayil who does so much… Hashem will continue doing all these great things because I did not give up”

The Beis Hamikdash was also called the “beis habechirah.” When a Jew, coming from a world where Hashem’s presence can sometimes be hard to discern, walked into its holy precincts and saw the Shechinah openly manifest, it restored balance to his bechirah, his spiritual freedom of choice.

And for the last decade of his life, Mendy Rosenberg’s home was such a place, a beis habechirah in miniature. It’s where one came to behold what it means for a human being to consciously, heroically choose to live. To choose to learn Torah all day long without ever holding a sefer or saying the words. To bless Hashem, not just day by day, but hour by hour. For anyone fortunate enough to enter that space, it wasn’t simple to return to living life on autopilot.

There were Kohanim in that beis habechirah, too, a wife and children who served their husband and father with a dedication defying description. It was never that Mendy was their “project.” He was an integral part of the family, and they did everything they could to ensure that status. As Shloimy Berger observed, “When the aides were not up to par, it meant that Malky and her children would do what needed to be done. When you see young kids doing these things, suctioning out the lungs, you realize the unimaginable levels of devotion they had. That’s what enabled him to live so long.”

Dr. Reuven Cofsky, the Rosenbergs’ next-door neighbor and unofficial off-hours physician who kept a close monitor on Mendy’s meds and vitals, says that Malky “was Mendy’s nurse, nurse’s aide, and respiratory therapist all in one, doing everything for him yomam va’laylah, and she’s the one who really kept him going, especially during the last years. Yet her relationship with him was still one of unconditional respect, still consulting him when decisions had to be made.”

When Malky accompanied Mendy to the hospital for the last time, she took along the volume of Living Emunah she had been reading to him. It was Volume 6, and that Shabbos in the hospital she continued reading to him, completing Chapter 71 before putting the book aside.

During shivah, Malky says, “my son was having a hard time. So I said, ‘Let’s continue with the next chapter that I would have read to Tatty,’ and it was so appropriate. It was just what my son needed to hear, what we all needed to hear.”

Just like the story of Mendy Rosenberg.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 944)

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