Camp Koby: Fun and ‘therapy lite’

Koby Mandell Foundation runs camps for bereaved children from families who had terrorism losses.

August 15, 2019 11:19
Camp Koby:
Fun and ‘therapy lite’

Getting ready for Shabbat at Camp Koby. (photo credit: COURTESY THE KOBY MANDELL FOUNDATION)

The children jostle in a ragged line in the central Israeli town of Petah Tikva, as they wait for a counselor to twirl strands of sugar around a paper cone for the beloved “sa’arot savta,” or cotton candy in English. In the nearby air-conditioned gymnasium, another group prepares to climb into large plastic bubbles and roll around.\

Outside, a catering company is barbequing giant ribs of asado that fill the air with mouthwatering smells awaiting the campers who have gone to a water park for the day.

It looks like any other summer camp in Israel, albeit a bit more upscale than most. But this is Camp Koby, and every child here has lost a first-degree relative to terror, illness, or an accident.

“Everywhere else, I felt people see me only as a headline, as a ‘bereaved brother,’” says Noam Armoni, whose brother was killed in an army training accident last year. “Here I’m just a regular kid and that makes me feel more normal.”

He says he had some hesitations about coming to the eight-day overnight camp, but “people treat each other as family here, not as strangers.”

Camp Koby is really four separate camps that meet for eight days each in a youth village on the edge of Petah Tikva. There is one camp for religious girls, one for religious boys, one co-ed religious camp and one co-ed secular camp. In all, 400 kids will attend camp this year. It is completely free for the campers, and the $250,000 budget is covered by the Koby Mandell foundation.

Koby Mandell was the 13-year-old boy from the Jewish settlement of Tekoa who was murdered in a cave along with a friend, Yosef Ishran, by Palestinian terrorists in 2001. Soon afterward, his parents Seth and Sherri Mandell established the Koby Mandell Foundation to help other families who have been affected by terror. In recent years they have expanded their work to include families affected by other types of loss.

The staff at Camp Koby includes different therapists who work with the campers focusing on art, music and drama. What’s unique about the camp is that the therapists – all trained in different disciplines – are full-time staff who live with the students in the dorms at the camp for the eight-day session, and are available around the clock. Mandell says the idea is just to open the conversation for many who find their grief difficult to discuss.

“It’s ‘therapy lite,’” says Seth Mandell, who in his past life was a Hillel rabbi at the University of Maryland. “Most of the real therapy happens at night, when the counselors and kids just talk to each other.”

The idea for the camp came about after his daughter Eliana, who was 10 when Koby was murdered, came home crying after a fight with her best friend. When she told her friend she was upset over her brother’s death, her friend replied that she too was upset, so Eliana should quit using that as an excuse.

“She didn’t realize our kids had no support in the society around them for having lost their brother in such a complicated way,” Mandell says. “We give them the sense of being understood. Psychologists say that one of toughest parts of bereavement is the sense of isolation. Here one seven-year-old walks up to another and says, ‘What happened to you?’”

Hadas Mizrachi knows that feeling well. Five years ago, she, her husband and their five children were driving in the West Bank on the way to a Passover Seder at her parents when a Palestinian terrorist opened fire on their car, killing her husband and wounding her. She spent months in the hospital and still has three bullets in her body. All five of her children have attended Camp Koby, and she often volunteers as a house mother.

“It has been so good for them because they know they are not alone,” she says. “Working in drama and putting on plays has been so important for them.”

Today her oldest daughter is doing her national service studying to be a paramedic and will serve for three years.

She met her husband, Baruch, when they were just 16, and they were married for 21 years before he was killed. She says she is very grateful to the Koby Mandell Foundation, and has attended the women’s retreats as well.

“It’s not only the material support,” she says. “It’s the hugs, the love. It’s very special.”

Many of the counselors, all of whom are volunteers, were former campers, like Yuval Gottlieb – her mother died of cancer a year and a half ago, last summer she was a camper, and this year she’s a counselor.

“One of the things that is the strongest is the combination of joy and fun and giving space for depth and pain,” she says. “Last year was my first year and after eight days, I feel I have friends for the rest of my life. We talk almost every day. I always have someone to laugh with me, and cry with me, and we have discussions that you just don’t have anywhere else.”

The Koby Mandell Foundation also runs programs for American teenagers to visit Israel – one group volunteers at Camp Koby, while another works with Ethiopian children. The Foundation’s yearly budget of $1.7 million is raised mostly in the US from both private donors and public foundations.

Psychologists say many of these children, who have lost siblings, feel responsible for taking care of their parents who are grieving the loss of a child. Camp lets them escape this responsibility, at least for a while, and be a child again.

Many children also feel guilty for enjoying themselves or for laughing after a loved one has died. Camp gives them the chance to get away from all that, and to just be normal kids having fun again. ■

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