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(photo credit: Courtesy)
The parade of pets this morning at the summer camp in Dimona included a funny-looking insect called a stick mantis, yellow cockatoos, a bright green iguana, a duo of snakes and a bucket of bunnies. One of the middle-school lads in the group of campers shakes his head and moves away as the mantis is passed around. No one calls him a sissy. Ever so inconspicuously, one of the camp counselors sits down beside him.
The black and white rodents called "panda bear hamsters" are less intimidating. One of the hamsters has given birth to a litter of cubs, tiny bald, pink creatures with closed eyes. Z, nine years old, gently strokes one, no larger than his thumb. The cub wriggles in his palm. "Look, the babies are the cutest," he says to no one in particular.
The minuscule animals are nearly transparent. T can feel the minute hearts beating in his hand. These cubs are among the smallest living beings that can be caressed. They're so tiny and vulnerable, yet fully alive. The connection between kids and this pulsing animal life is therapeutic, say proponents of pet therapy. Interaction with animals for traumatized children is reputed to promote physical and emotional well-being. It boosts self-esteem by allowing children to master their fear. Animals are unpredictable and captivate their attention, encouraging them to open up and talk.
Talking and reaching out for help are hard for Z, who has become withdrawn in the little more than a year since his 16-year-old brother was murdered by a terrorist in Jerusalem. All 120 boys in the camp have also lost a sister or brother, mother or father. Theirs is a fraternity of sorrow.
WELCOME TO Camp Koby - Koby Mandell was murdered in May 2001. On a Jewish version of a Tom Sawyer adventure, Koby, 13, and his friend Yosef Ish-Ran, 14, cut eighth grade class one spring day to explore the wadi, the dry river bed in their village of Tekoa. When they didn't come home at sunset, their parents began to worry. Search teams were dispatched. The dreaded news of every loving parent's worst nightmare came after sunrise. The boys' bodies had been found. Terrorists had bludgeoned them to death.
To perpetuate Koby's memory and to prevent their grief from ripping them apart, Koby's parents established a foundation in his name. Wrote Koby's mother Sherri Mandell in her celebrated, poignant memoir, The Blessing of a Broken Heart, "Koby has made us holy beggars, people who are begging to give, begging to create love. This is his gift to us."
Camp Koby is dedicated to the healing of bereaved children. The thousands of children whose loved ones were stolen from them by the nihilistic violence of the second intifada: bus bombings, drive-by shootings and restaurant explosions. In The Blessings of a Broken Heart, Mandell describes how their daughter Eliana made friends with Shir, whose teenage brother was lured to his death by a terrorist he'd met over the Internet. "Shir can tell Eliana her story because Eliana has a matching atrocity. They can share and understand. They can be happy together because they know that they're in the same situation. They don't feel guilty when they're happy."
The camp's main campus is situated off the beaten path in a hotel in the desert development town of Dimona. It has terrific facilities. Camp Koby offers three 10-day sessions - one for boys, one for girls and one mixed. (There are other branches of Camp Koby that bring volunteers from the US to work with Ethiopian immigrants, evacuees from Gush Katif and economically-challenged children in Dimona.) Counselors - one for every four campers - are all volunteers, from Israel and abroad. Seth Mandell has learned that there are numerous bereaved children in Dimona, victims of terror and children or siblings of fallen soldiers. They have been invited to join the camp program, too.
If you happened into the camp, you wouldn't guess it was a therapeutic setting. There are kids playing basketball, a swimming pool, karate classes and sleepy teenagers waking after a camp version of night maneuvers.
D and his friend M, both 14, live in different cities, but they've become close friends in the five years they've attended Koby Camp. Both survived terror attacks and lost family members. "Sometimes in our room we talk about the terror attacks, but mostly it's just fun," says D.
Few Israeli camps have sleep-away options, so getting away is a treat for the campers. It's also different because the usual sabra gruffness of speech, borrowed from the military, is absent. Instead of arts and crafts, there's art therapy. Music therapy replaces camp songs, and the animals aren't just part of a nature corner but part of the empowerment program.
A YALE University undergraduate is following the kids around, making notes. He's working on a study about the impact of the camp. "It's hard to quantify," admits Koby's father Seth Mandell. Seth's a rabbi and former Hillel director in the US, a believer in American-style summer camps as a place for self-expression and personal growth. "We have so many anecdotal reports of positive experiences. Our favorite measure is when kids who have been coming say that they don't think of themselves as terror victims anymore."
Says the Camp Koby Web site: The terrorists will not win; a network of love and sharing is created in the wake of the terrorists' attempts to destroy the people of Israel.
The Mandells have broadened the definition of bereavement for possible attendees. Children who have lost parents and siblings to car accidents and disease can now attend Camp Koby. "Loss is loss," Seth says.
It's time for the pet therapist to gather the animals. Nine-year old Z gives the hamster cub a final caress and reluctantly returns it to the cage for today.
Here's something you might not know about hamsters. Panda bear hamsters are really called "Syrian hamsters." In 1930, pre-state Israeli zoologist Israel Aharoni went out looking for hamsters and located a mother and cubs in the wild of Aleppo, Syria. He carried them back to his lab at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, nursing them along the way. At the lab, some managed to burrow out and populated the rocky hills. Others were exported. Nearly all pet hamsters in the world are descended from them.
Like those hamsters, the network of love and sharing from a single Israeli camp just might fan out and change the world.