Bringing a final measure of comfort
Cantor Lenny Mandel’s life experiences allow him to conduct funerals of depth and meaning
Lenny Mandel of West Orange is a person full of contradictions.
He has a powerful, deep voice that commands attention and respect, yet he’s full of emotion and cries at the drop of a hat. Knowing this, I also know that if I were nearing (and fearing) the end of my life, I would want a meeting with Lenny Mandel.
Cantor Lenny, as he’s fondly known, went to cantorial school at Yeshiva University, has been the chazan at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson since 1997, and was ordained as a rabbi in 2010. When he was a student at YU’s Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music, he said, he performed in secular venues as well. “From the time I was 15, I performed in almost every club in Greenwich Village.”
But it was an experience with his dying father and the vision that his father’s longtime caregiver, Mattie, told Cantor Mandel that confirmed his belief that there is more to death than dying. “There are 613 mitzvot that we as Jews try to attain,” he said. “When I walk out of a hospital room or away from a person’s sick bed, I trudge to my car, sit there for a long time, and don’t move. Providing peace to the dying is the ultimate mitzvah.”
With humor, sensitivity, and a dose of quirkiness and wit, Cantor Mandel talks about what he knows — and is honest about what he doesn’t. “When people ask me why someone is afflicted with ALS or why innocent people get hit by cars or why so many children are killed by gun violence, my answer is: ‘I don’t know.’”
Cantor Mandel may not have all the answers, but he does know that he doesn’t want people who are dying or their families to suffer. “When communicating with someone who is nearing the end of life, I want them to see in my eyes that I understand and care about their fears, worries, and uncertainties,” he said. But he can’t provide an explanation that makes sense. “I want them to know they’re about to go through the most mysterious experience that we as human beings could ever know. I want them to see in my facial expression and in my body language that I am with them.”
Cantor Mandel describes these visits as not difficult, but uplifting. His goal is to offer peace, calm, and serenity.
“My father, an extremely devout man, spent the majority of his life attempting to allay my own fears about death,” he said. “He would tell me joke after joke until I begged him to stop. But I think he knew if rabbinical school was in the cards for me, I couldn’t adequately help my congregants come to terms with death until I’d come to terms with death myself.”
Cantor Mandel was about 7 when his fears about death surfaced, he said, and they remained in his psyche for years.
When his dad was 80, Lenny was still asking him if he were going to die. His father’s response remained the same: “We’re all going to die.”
Affirming the truth that none of us are immune to death has opened up a way for Cantor Mandel to hone his skills as a spiritual adviser, empathic listener, colorful storyteller, and insightful judge of character. “I hope to bring people closer to a place of acceptance by sharing what Judaism teaches us about the soul,” he said. “As a messenger of the congregation, I ask that God overlook my flaws and accept my prayers for them. I know people who are dying need to talk. Can I make the experience simpler for them? I hope so.”
Helping people who are dying, supporting the family, and officiating at funerals has changed his life. “When I’m asked if there’s an afterlife, I tell people that I don’t believe God is the great puppeteer, manipulating what happens to you here and in the hereafter,” he said. “I believe that when you die, you go up in front of a tribunal and God welcomes you in. I hope there’s a world that is heaven, even paradise.”
He puts his heart into every funeral service at which he officiates. Emotions run high. “Loving kindness — chesed shel emet — is the last mitzvah we do for the deceased by burying them.” During the height of the covid pandemic, Cantor Mandel officiated at 16 funerals in three weeks. “There were so many restrictions,” he recalled. “Five people were allowed at the gravesite, and that included the rabbi and the funeral director. There was no touching, no shovels. We filled the graves with dirt using our hands.”
In one case, a 105-year-old man who had no next of kin was not given a eulogy. “No one knew the man.” Cantor Mandel respectfully performed a service for only the funeral director and three gravediggers. “Sometimes Jewish Family Service refers an indigent family to one of the local Jewish funeral homes,” he said. These services are referred to as tzedakah funerals. “It is our duty to offer the dead and their family rachmones,” mercy, he said.
Cantor Mandel explained that both cantors and rabbis can officiate at any event that is considered religious, with no concern for synagogue affiliation, religion, race, or gender. He is deeply grateful for the opportunities he’s had to give back to the community. “All cantors serve as a shaliach tzibur, messengers of the congregation.”
Jayne Demsky of Mahwah thinks about her mother’s death. When Sandy Rosen, from Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was in her 50s. After it metastasized to her bladder, then spread to her kidneys and lungs, her decline was fairly rapid. “She’d also battled chronic lymphocytic leukemia, all with grace, courage, and a positive outlook,” Jayne Demsky said. Ms. Rosen had trouble walking and soon needed a wheelchair. It became clear to her doctors that she was dying.
Since Ms. Demsky no longer was a member of a shul, she asked around, and was introduced to Cantor Mandel. “It was a blessing,” Ms. Demsky said. “Not only did he share my late dad’s name, his words of comfort and genuine kindness towards my mom were what got her through her last days.”
Many people who have not renewed their memberships at the synagogues where their children attended preschool, Hebrew school, and celebrated becoming bar or bat mitzvah have similar concerns. “I was terrified that when the time came, there wouldn’t be someone to adequately represent Mom— all that she was to her friends, neighbors, family and community,” Ms. Demsky said. “From a three-hour meeting with Mom and several follow-up calls with me and my younger brother, Michael, Lenny’s comforting approach meant so much to us. He made himself available for whatever we needed, big and small.”
“Mom was the skeptic beyond skeptics,” Ms. Demsky said. “She was scared to death and didn’t want to die. She wanted answers.” While she knew intellectually that Cantor Mandel might not be able to offer anything tangible, Ms. Demsky appreciated how he praised her mother for the wonderful life she had led. “My mom needed someone who would care enough to allay her fears, listen, empathize, understand and care about how she lived her life. Cantor Mandel was deeply interested in her life and encouraged her to express her deepest fear — leaving her two children.”
Cantor Mandel assured Ms. Rosen that because she’d raised such strong and amazing children, and because they had each other, they’d carry on as adults, together and separately, in the way she’d raised them. “He didn’t sell us a bill of goods about the great temple in the sky,” Ms. Demsky said. “Knowing Mom was looking for something, anything, he gave her hope that there was something more to consider. He believed and expressed that her soul would move on in her children.”
In October 2022, knowing her son and daughter always would be close, Sandy Rosen died. Her life was honored with respect and dignity, with Lenny Mandel leading her funeral.
When Michelle Blieberg’s 51-year-old brother, David Cooper, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in November 2020, his doctors told him his cancer was inoperable. “My sister and I had no unrealistic expectations for his course,” Ms. Blieberg said. “Nor did he.” They were both committed, from the inexplicable news of his condition to his death just nine months later, to following his lead.
Mr. Cooper, the father of two children, Marielle and Will, lived in North Babylon on Long Island. He was offered the opportunity to live in comfortable private housing in northern New Jersey, much closer to his oncology team at Memorial Sloan Kettering in Montvale and Basking Ridge and Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack. But despite the commute to regular and exhausting appointments, he insisted on staying on Long Island “He wanted to be as close to his kids as possible.”
Knowing that the end of Mr. Cooper’s life was near, Ms. Blieberg and her sister, Nicole Ehrhart of Fair Lawn, had candid conversations about what was important to him. “David was explicit about not having his funeral in a temple,” Ms. Blieberg said. “He did not want anything religious.” Mr. Cooper’s idea of a sendoff was similar to the fraternity parties he’d enjoyed at Syracuse University, complete with specially themed Yankees or Beatles or other “I knew David when…” giveaways.
“Our brother had a million friends,” Ms. Blieberg said. “He brought lightness to people’s lives and had an amazing sense of humor.” His sisters felt it was important to have a nice mix of religious tone and sharing of memories. “Our goal was to find a rabbi that David could relate to.”
While Cantor Mandel had every intention of meeting Mr. Cooper at Vitas Hospice in Wayne, unfortunately by then Mr. Cooper was unresponsive. “But David knew that a cool rabbi was coming to see him, someone he’d really like,” Ms. Blieberg said. After long telephone discussions with Ms. Blieberg from her home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, about who Mr. Cooper was and the kind of service he wanted, Cantor Mandel arrived at the hospice in Wayne. The first person he encountered was David’s ex-wife, Jill. Coincidentally, Jill had just attended a funeral on Long Island for a young person who had died tragically. Cantor Mandel had officiated. This endeared her to him. Since David was unable to speak to or hear him, Cantor Mandel took the opportunity to get to know David’s kids, Marielle, 16, and Will, 14. Will, reluctant to communicate about his dad, deferred to Marielle.
“Watching how Lenny engaged Marielle and drew her out was indescribably touching,” Ms. Blieberg said. While Cantor Lenny was interested in learning about Mr. Cooper, he seemed more concerned about connecting with his daughter. “It was palpable how much David loved his kids and Cantor Lenny could see that.”
Michelle and Nicole were impressed by Cantor Mandel’s sensitive and thoughtful approach to their niece and nephew as they prepared to lose their father. After his death in August 2021, Mr. Cooper’s friends came to New Jersey from all over the world to honor him.
“For someone who never really had the chance to meet or talk with David, Lenny got it down,” Ms. Bleiberg said.
Throughout the service, Cantor Mandel, wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt that peeked from his suit jacket, was able to communicate to everyone at the funeral not only who David was as a friend, sales and marketing professional, partner, brother, uncle, son and father, but also was able to interject with empathy and emotion the challenges, interests, passions, and essential moments that made up his life.