‘Something that moves toward the light’

For women who have suffered the trauma of losing a loved one, the Koby Mandell Foundation offers a unique retreat.

Women who suffered the trauma of unexpectedly or shockingly losing a loved one take advantage of a weekend retreat organized by the Koby Mandell Foundation (photo credit: TIFFERET WEINBERG)
Women who suffered the trauma of unexpectedly or shockingly losing a loved one take advantage of a weekend retreat organized by the Koby Mandell Foundation
(photo credit: TIFFERET WEINBERG)
The Koby Mandell Foundation, which helps bereaved families of all kinds, is not a regular philanthropic foundation.
In 2001, Sherri and Seth Mandell lost their son Koby. He and his friend Yosef Ish Ran were brutally murdered by Palestinians just outside the settlement of Tekoa. This was the time of the second intifada, and Koby was 13. As it was later revealed, the boys had been stoned to death by their murderers, who also abused the bodies, in a cave half a kilometer from the family home.
However, ever since a parent’s worst nightmare landed on their doorstep, nothing but constant good seems to be emanating from that door.
For the past 15 years, the Koby Mandell Foundation has organized hundreds of activities for people who have suffered personal tragedies, assisting them in their distress and helping them to look beyond the pain.
One of the organization’s main activities is Camp Koby, a children’s camp of eight days in July or August, which has taken place every year since 2002. For the last four years it was located in Kibbutz Yehiam in the North. The camp, which is sponsored and organized by the foundation, is designed for children who have suffered severe trauma.
“The foundation incorporates what Seth calls ‘therapy light,’” says Jackie Goldman, the foundation’s director of counseling and support services.
“We don’t go in with a therapist to sit with a child and ask ‘How old were you when you were toilet trained?’ but we use therapists – whether they’re [in the fields of] art, music, psychodrama or bibliotherapy – to do activities with the kids. This creates a safe place, a place of normalization. These are the values of the camp altogether.”
Two weeks ago, the foundation held another significant annual event – a two-day retreat for bereaved women. It was attended by 36 women, each bearing a different story of pain and sadness, each trying to overcome her anguish.
The retreat took place in Moshav Yishi, a small green spot just outside of Beit Shemesh, amid the scenic Judean Hills. The women were accommodated in Country Yishi, a mansion and guest house equipped with a private pool. Owners Menahem and Deena Mendlowitz offered the place free of charge, providing the women with rooms, activity spaces and all the necessities.
Inside the large dining hall, the women are gathered around the small but plentiful buffet, filling their plates with a variety of cheeses, vegetables and breads. Sherri Mandell is also there, making sure that everything is in its place, giving friendly orders to her assistants and staff.
She invites me to sit with her in the small garden. The first thing we talk about is Koby.
“He taught me what it is to be a mother,” she says.
She explains that the first event the foundation organized after its establishment was the retreat for bereaved women, which has been repeated every year since.
“At Koby’s azkara [memorial] not long ago,” she says, “someone actually told me, ‘You have kept him alive.’” As we sit there talking, a couple of women have just returned from a swim in the pool. They look totally relaxed and stop by to thank Sherri with genuine enthusiasm for their time there.
Then they join the other women, some of whom are sitting in the hall, others in the large kitchen area or scattered around the estate.
TALI BEN-YISHAI is one of those women.
She is the mother of Ruth Fogel, who was murdered along with her husband, Udi, and three of their six children in the settlement of Itamar in 2011. Today, Ben- Yishai and her husband are raising the three surviving children in Jerusalem.
“There are angels in the sky, and there are angels on Earth whose only desire is to do good for people who are hurting,” she says. This, she elaborates, is what they do at the Koby Mandell Foundation.
For the past three years, Ben-Yishai has been attending psychodrama classes in Jerusalem that are offered by the foundation for free. She emphasizes the fact that most women who attend the group hardly ever miss a session.
“This itself is testimony to the fact that they need it,” she adds, noting that many come to Jerusalem from places such as Modi’in and the settlements of Elon Moreh and Shiloh.
Mandell says that the foundation has expanded the group’s operation base to Samaria and Kiryat Arba due to demand in those areas.
Ben-Yishai says that the foundation’s regular activities “allow me to breathe.”
She says that although terrorism victims receive help from the state, it is nothing like what they receive through the Koby Mandell Foundation.
“Here you are not a number,” she says.
The state provides certain services based on the Benefits for Victims of Hostilities Law (1970) and the Invalids (Compensation and Rehabilitation) Law (1959). These include regular monthly payments, as well as psychological therapy, medical treatments, and many other benefits (such as occasional financial support to purchase a car).
Ben-Yishai mentions the singing event the evening before that was organized as part of the retreat, saying that it was a rare occasion where she found herself singing and enjoying herself.
“Five years have passed,” she explains, “but I still can’t go to weddings, and I ask myself, ‘How come I can sing and be happy here, and I can’t do the same at regular family celebrations?’” She says that her day-to-day behavior was not harmed by what happened, but “the lighter side of life – that is a different story.”
SHIRA AVRAHAM’S firstborn daughter, seven-month-old Shaked, was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist 12 years ago in the settlement of Negohot.
Avraham was 26 years old at the time, and her husband was wounded in the shooting attack.
Avraham says that she realized that in order to be a good “normal” mother to her children, she needs this connection with other women who have experienced similar ordeals. To break out of the circle, she needs to constantly maintain a connection within that circle.
She also attends regular activities provided by the foundation. Once a week she goes to one of the groups that offer dancing lessons, yoga and mosaic classes.
Sara Don is a recent widow and mother of four. Her husband was murdered in a terrorist attack last November near the settlement of Alon Shvut, where the family lives.
“Sherri came to the shiva and gave me her book [The Blessing of a Broken Heart, which was translated into Hebrew].”
After the shiva, Don started reading it and found that it helped her immensely.
It is not only women who suffered trauma as a result of terrorism who are at the retreat. Hadassah Amar, who works for the foundation, lost her husband in a work accident three years ago. She says that the fact that the foundation accepts people who have suffered all kinds of trauma is what makes this place so unique and that sharing the pain with others who have experienced a similar loss, under whatever circumstances, means a lot to her. There are also women who have lost their husbands or children in car accidents or following an illness.
“Grief is grief,” one woman says. “There is no difference here, and there is no distinction; it’s the same pain.”
And yet, despite all the sorrow embedded in this place, one can feel a sense of hope. Life must go on, especially for a mother, a grandmother or a child.
In her book, where Mandell tells of her experiences since the murder of her firstborn, she writes, “I could have stayed in bed the rest of my life mourning him. I could have remained broken, resenting my life, my lot. But there is something in me that refuses to be broken, no matter how intense the pain, something that moves toward the light.”
This, of course, is not an easy task. But the Mandells, through their foundation, carry on the light with what may seem like unnatural willpower and determination.
Indeed, there is nothing natural about young parents having to experience their son’s death the way they have.
But they decided not to give in to their pain and to create a whole new world of good, day in and day out. 
For more information, visit http://www.kobymandell.org