Mendel Gordon, an American lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), completed his service as a paratrooper and met the girl of his dreams only to learn just weeks after they were engaged that he had cancer. Doctors in Israel advised he should seek emergency surgery in the USA to the tune of $90,000 – a sum way beyond his family’s means.

What happened next was remarkable. In an exclusive interview with Aish.com Mendel Gordon describes the incredible story of friendship that saw the soldiers in his army unit stand by their brother in arms and raise every dollar needed to pay for the complicated surgery that saved his life.

Challenges of a Lone Soldier

Originally from Brooklyn, at 19 years old, Mendel Gordon signed up to serve in the IDF in 2015 after falling in love with the Israel during a year of yeshiva study. After convincing his parents of his plan to join a combat unit and passing a tough physical trial, he enlisted in the paratroopers’ brigade where he saw 2.5 years of active duty in Hebron and along the Gaza border preventing attacks into Israeli territory.

“The training was tough at times,” Mendel said, “carrying 120 pounds of equipment and long marches, but the hardest part was not seeing my family.” Financial difficulties had prevented a visit, yet a year and a half in to his service, a charity supporting Israeli soldiers run by the late Ari Fuld, (murdered in a terror attack in September 2018), stepped in to fly his mother Mindi Gordon, in to see her son’s unit receive their red berets at a special ceremony at the Western Wall.

Mendel (second from right) with his unit.

“It was pretty emotional for us both,” Mendel says, remembering how the distance caught up with him when he spotted his mom among the crowd of proud family members. “We are a very close family,” he added. However the experience also opened his eyes to the bonds of friendship and support that exist within the IDF – although back then he never imagined they would save his life in just over a year’s time.

Despite the cultural and language differences he faced being a lone soldier from another country, Mendel says the friendships he made in the army ran deep. “It’s through what you go through together day in and day out that friendships develop. You have to literally watch each other’s backs,” he said. “Constantly protecting each other and looking out for each other creates a powerful feeling of mutually responsibility.”

Tragedy Strikes

In October 2017 feeling energized and excited about life having just been discharged from the army, he began dating Ruchama Tokayer, the 19-year-old sister of a friend from his yeshiva days, and quickly realized he had found the girl he wanted to marry.

He proposed, she accepted and life was dreamy, until his life took an unforeseen change of course. While spending Shabbat at his fiancé’s home Mendel noticed three small bumps on his neck. “I didn’t feel unwell at all,” he said, but he got things checked out. Following a biopsy and multiple blood tests, just before Passover in April 2018, Mendel learned the devastating news that an aggressive form of Hodgkin's Lymphoma had spread throughout his body.

“Imagine being hit by a truck and then you wake up on the pavement. That would be a good way of describing how that felt, a feeling of slowly returning to consciousness.”

The couple took the advice of their family and rabbis and postponed their wedding plans when doctors backtracked on initial optimism they could treat his condition after struggling to locate the origin of his cancer. As a heavy question mark loomed over their future, Mendel was referred to the Sloane Kettering Hospital in New York where more similar cases had been treated.

After the diagnosis was confirmed he updated his family and made calls to his army friends to let them know what was going on.

After the word got out, Mendel’s phone received a flurry of supportive messages, many from the soldiers in his unit. “We’re with you,” said one. “We got your back” read another.

“Where you go, I go”

Without any hesitation Ruchama, Mendel’s fiancé insisted she would accompany him to New York for his treatment, although at that time there was no idea on how long it would take, or whether it would be successful. “She didn’t sign up for this,” he said, looking back. “But she stayed by my side. She came with me to New York stayed with her aunt and uncle and was there every day to look after me.”

Once in the U.S., the Gordon family learned Mendel’s treatment would cost around $90,000, and together with family and friends they got to work to raise the money. “My parents didn’t have the money and I had no way to fund what was needed,” he explained. “There were so many medical bills to pay.”

Initially they held an “bracha – blessing party,” which doubled as an engagement party in which some 300 friends and family arrived with donations and good wishes, with most of Mendel’s friends and family meeting Ruchama for the first time. “We raised a good amount but it was no way near what was necessary and time was not on my side.”

It was through a Facebook post about this event that Mendel’s army friends first learned he needed to raise a large sum of money.

“We’ve got your back”

Recalling his army service, Mendel says his company commander, Roi Friedberg, was someone he’d go to for advice but not someone he felt he had an especially close relationship with. “I always liked him, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t have more of a connection with him than any of the other soldiers.” What happened next showed him that the bonds of friendship went far deeper than he could have thought.

Roi Freidberg immediately mobilized the 150 soldiers under his command, detailing Gordon’s situation and explaining that although he was now on the other side of the world, Mendel needed their help and they would do whatever it took to help him. Issuing an usual order, the soldiers were commanded to take out their phones and share a high impact post to social media, with a link to a fundraising site Friedberg had created. “They literally went to war for me,” Mendel said.

Roi Friedberg (center) with his paratroopers

But Friedberg wasn’t done. Since the unit needed extra firepower he decided they would all reach out to Omer Adam, one of Israel’s most popular singers, and implore him to add his weight to their campaign. “We will all send him a message at 1pm today,” he told the paratroopers, “and we’ll re-send him this message every day at this time, until he shares our post to his tens of thousands of fans.”

Omer Adam shared the post and the unit turned their attention to other Israeli singers and performers, along with other initiatives concluding with a sponsored 5km run with a beer party at the finishing line.

As the campaign grew in momentum, eventually involving over 5,000 people, Mendel and his family looked on in wonder from New York. The full amount was raised.

The spirit of friendship spearheaded by his company commander left his family speechless. “I think then my parents started to understand more what I was doing in Israel in the first place, and why I was drawn to want to be there all of that time.”

“I was shocked, beyond shocked at how much everyone helped,” said Mendel’s mother, Mindi Gordon. “It was beyond amazing.”

Life-saving surgery

At Sloane Kettering, Mendel reacted well to chemotherapy and underwent the complex surgery which removed the cancer in the lymph nodes throughout his body. Doctors closely monitored him after the surgery and eventually gave him the all clear.

Mendel attributes his recovery to the Almighty and to the collective effort from friends, family and especially from his unit. Hundreds of people had joined a Psalms group for his recovery. “As I realized how many people really cared, what the soldiers in my unit were doing for me, and how many people were thinking about me, it made me feel like there was an extra force out there giving an extra push, fighting with me.”

All the while, Ruchama was there by his side in the weeks following the surgery, visiting and caring for him every day. “If I start to talk about what I feel about what she did for me, I’ll start to cry,” he said. “I don’t know if I can properly articulate that.”

The couple finally came back to Israel on November 25 to get plans back on track for their wedding. At the airport, they were met by over 30 soldiers and commanders from his unit. “It’s just an amazing feeling of being a part of something so strong,” Mendel said.

The wedding

The couple had to rethink their wedding plans, this time for positive reasons, with hundreds of people who had supported him wanting to take part in the celebrations. Not wanting to exclude anyone, they left an open invitation to join for the dancing with around 500 guests indicating they would come.

 

Finding a wedding hall that would suit them and that they could afford also involved an incredible turn of events, which began the night after Mendel’s surgery when he received a text from a soldier in his army unit whose father owned a large hall in Jerusalem and wanted to offer it to the couple for free.

Mendel and Ruchama on the way back to Israel.

“I was so full of morphine at the time and at that moment, it was so far away.” Once he regained some strength, the couple kindly refused the offer, explaining that should Mendel make a good recovery, they would have a smaller, private wedding.

Later, when they understood how many people wanted to attend, Ruchama made enquiries from New York and found a perfect place in Israel. When she explained why she and her fiancé couldn’t come and see the place in person yet, the owner replied that his son was serving in her fiancé’s unit and that he had already offered them the venue for free! Mendel and Ruchama were speechless.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Mendel said. “The feeling of being looked after throughout all of this was immense. We never know what is happening in our lives,” he added, “But I have felt that I have had God’s protection throughout.”

At his wedding he had an opportunity to say some words to the friends who had done so much for him. “These are things that are very hard to express in words. I told them they were my friends for life and how much they had helped me. This was the wedding I didn’t know would ever happen.”

Full Recovery

We often wish people who are sick the Hebrew blessing for a ‘refuah sheleimah’ – a complete recovery, however Mendel struggled with this idea. “My health is never going to be what it was. I was a fit, healthy combat soldier and I’ve just had a 16-inch incision from my neck to my abdomen. The reality is I’m not going to return to that place where I was.” Troubled by this he asked a rabbi about this question and was given a beautiful answer.

“My rabbi explained the idea of completeness in my recovery did not have to be about returning to something that was, but rather about the bigger picture of who I would become, and what I would choose to do with the rest of my life.” He added, “This was an idea that really spoke to me especially after all the kindness I had received.”

He began to think about the future and his first thought was to repay some of the tzedaka (charity) which he had received. “I decided I would like a career in business, make $10 million and give it away to people who need it.”

Struggling to Stay Positive

His other thought was to help encourage others. He admitted that it was not always easy staying upbeat himself, and was at times overcome by negative feelings. “Why did it happen to me? Why me? Why so much pain? I was stuck in a rut,” he said. “I was angry at the illness that had flipped my life on its head and I wasn’t at all at peace with what had happened. To be honest,” he added, “at times I felt very angry and frustrated.”

His rabbi suggested he start to change the way he was thinking by speaking more positively. “He said even if I didn’t feel that way, in essence, if you talk the talk, you will walk the walk.”

Taking a deep breath, desperate to get into a more positive place, he created a Facebook page entitled “From the army to war – battling cancer” to share some thoughts to encourage others fighting cancer, starting with an honest description of how he had been feeling with a call to others who had been feeling similarly to locate whatever positivity they could find, to use it to fire up their fight towards recovery. The response was overwhelming.


Since that first post, more posts have followed, and now a new idea in which he has teamed up with Roi Freidberg, the IDF commander who led the campaign, with the pair telling their story of crisis, friendship and how he learned to think positively.

“We want to wallow in our problems,” he recently told a crowd of university students at a seminar in Israel. “It’s so easy to fall into those feelings we have. It feels good, let me be angry, the world screwed me over, let me be upset. But who are you helping? What are you accomplishing besides negatively affecting yourself? Choosing to put aside the bad in your life and focus on the good makes you feel good but more importantly, puts you in control of your own situation.”

Getting married

Today, newlyweds Mendel and Ruchama Gordon are living in Israel, with the drama of the past year behind them, working to make the world a brighter place. Mendel now works at a startup company in Jerusalem, committed to realizing his dreams and changing the world for the better.

Follow him at https://www.facebook.com/Armyvscancer/