One on One: 'You want to die, but you don't'

Sherri Mandell, whose son was killed by terrorists, talks about a mother's worst nightmare.

sherri mandel 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
sherri mandel 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Adjusting her hat with one hand, while taking a sip of coffee with the other, Sherri Mandell smiles as she recounts an anecdote from a trip she has just taken. Though Mandell does a lot of traveling inside and out of the country - lecturing, participating in seminars and hosting retreats for bereaved families - this particular excursion was not her usual fare. It was, rather, a two-day nature hike with a group of sixth graders, her 12-year-old son's classmates and teachers. Mandell was there as an accompanying adult. "I wondered how many other parents would have come along had they imagined it would be the last class trip they'd ever be able to take with their kids," says Mandell matter-of-factly. "I now realize that this time with our children is it, and that I have to - and want to - be with mine as much as possible." To say that Mandell came by this realization the hard way would be to engage in exaggerated understatement. But words ring hollow when invoked to highlight horror. Indeed, Mandell recounts, "I couldn't bear to hear or even speak ordinary language immediately after the tragedy... It couldn't contain my experience." The experience Mandell is referring to is the sadistic slaying six years ago of her son, Koby, who was a few weeks shy of his 14th birthday. On the morning of Tuesday, May 8, 2001, Koby and his friend, Yosef Ish-Ran, cut school to go on a picnic not far from their homes in Tekoa, a Judean settlement 20 minutes outside Jerusalem. That day, there was a demonstration in front of the prime minister's residence against the government's poor response to the deteriorating security situation, otherwise known as the "second intifada" or the "Oslo war." When the two young teenagers didn't return home after school, it was assumed that they, like many of their peers, had gone to take part in the protest. When they didn't return well after nightfall, a search party was sent out. Their bludgeoned bodies were found inside a cave in the wadi Tekoa residents call their "backyard." The blood of the boys had been smeared on the walls of the cave by the Palestinian terrorists who had stoned them to death for being Jews. Which makes Mandell's 1996 aliya from the United States with her husband and (then) four children all the more poignant - and her path subsequent to the tragedy so significant. Mandell, 51, who says that, initially, she "wasn't ready to be alive," emerged gradually from her grief first through writing and then through the Koby Mandell Foundation (, which she established with her husband, Seth, a rabbi and former University of Maryland Hillel director. Following months of being able to "do nothing," the creative writing teacher, columnist and author of Writers of the Holocaust began to tell the story - hers and Koby's. The year she spent at the computer "writing and crying, crying and writing" resulted in The Blessing of a Broken Heart, which won the 2004 National Jewish Book Award. "Once you take ownership of a story and tell it, others then hear it; this changes you and them and ultimately the story itself transforms," Mandell explains. She says she encounters this, too, in her work as head of the Women's Healing Retreat for Bereaved Mothers and Widows, as well as spiritual healing groups which are run by a psychologist and a spiritual leader, in conjunction with the Israel Center for the Prevention of Psychotrauma and funded by the Jewish Federation of New York, and other of the foundation's programs, such as camps for kids who lost siblings or parents to terrorism. As our hour-long interview comes to a close, Mandell looks at her watch. Standard Friday-morning errands aside, today is also her son Daniel's 18th birthday. And he's due to pick her up any minute in the car. "He just got his driver's license," Mandell sighs, mother-to-mother. "What can you do?" It is exactly six years since Koby's murder. Does dealing with it over time get harder, easier - or something else? When it happened, other bereaved parents told me that it gets harder with time. I said, "You have to be crazy. How could it get harder than this?" The only way it could get harder, I thought, was if I were to die - though that might actually have been easier. How has it been for me? I don't want to say that it's gotten easier; I've learned to live with it. But when the yahrzeit [death anniversary] comes, it's hell. It's like being plunged right back into the event. And in our case, there's the additional complexity of the relationship between the private and the public. When a tragedy is private, you don't have expectations of other people. But when it becomes public, you do. Thank God, people have done more for me than they had to, which makes me feel good. But then, there's also the commemorative aspect. After all, there's a certain amount of kavod [honor] to give to Koby - the little boy who lived in Tekoa. This returns us to the realm of the private within our community. Speaking of which, over the years since Koby's death, you have established and cultivated the Koby Mandell Foundation. You go on speaking tours. You even had a law passed in Congress. All of this contributes to your personal tragedy's having become a public symbol. Is it difficult dealing with and reconciling this dichotomy? Well, we're aware of the fact that Koby, in a way, has become larger than life. Just recently, while talking to a woman who works at the foundation about her having represented us at a conference, I was struck by this inadvertently. I asked her: "Did they know that Koby Mandell was there?" Suddenly I thought: "What am I saying here?" It's as if I had recreated the spirit of Koby in the foundation. So, yes, it is hard to balance, because at the end of the day, we're still faced with the loss - and it's one that can't be filled by the foundation. You mean, it doesn't get you over the personal loss. Right. You never get over it. I have learned to live with it, though, partly because of all the great work we do helping people. In addition, the projects we do are so interesting that they keep my focus away from the pain, which is always there - waiting. There's no way really to escape it. How do your children handle the fact that this boy, who was their brother, has become a "larger-than-life" legend? Do they feel as though they're in his shadow? It's hard and confusing for them. But our home life is very different and separate from our public life, and living in a small, close-knit community provides a kind of protection. People in Tekoa know that we have a foundation, but they don't really understand the extent of it. Furthermore, I think that because the kids take part in some of the foundation's programs, they reap some benefit from it. As for feeling they're in his shadow somehow: There is an element of that that my husband and I are aware of. All families who have gone through similar tragedies have this problem to some degree. But, for example, I just went on a two-day class trip with my youngest son precisely because now I know how important such shared activities are for me and for them. Is that knowledge something you acquired after or as a result of Koby's death? Oh yes. I never would have gone on a class trip before. I would have been afraid of spending two days with a group of Israeli kids, and having to speak Hebrew the whole time. And you know, during this trip, I wondered how many other parents would have come along had they imagined it would be the last class trip they'd ever be able to take with their kids. In other words, I now realize that this time with our children is it, and that I have to - and want to - be with mine as much as possible. How do the other children you've encountered through the foundation respond to bereavement? Children often feel left out of the bereavement process. It's as if there's nobody who can help them. What kind of help did you, Seth and your children receive initially? I have a friend, Shira Chernobyl, who's a grief counsellor. She came to me every single day, and it was tremendously helpful, because she told me that it was okay to cry in front of the children, for example, and that everything I was feeling was legitimate. Knowing, every day, that she was coming over enabled me to contain my pain somehow. It's a pain so excruciating that it feels like it's going to kill you. You don't know what to do with it. And you want to die, but you don't. Though some people do. Not right away. But there are lots of cases where people get heart attacks or cancer, or just get sick with some illness or other. Which is why you need someone to help you. So, Shira would talk to me and the kids - or the kids would just listen in. You are an Orthodox Jew. What role did Judaism play in your healing process, if at all, and how did your tragedy affect your faith? I'm a ba'al tshuva [a Jew who becomes religious]. I grew up without any religious background or training. I became religious when I got married [in 1985 ], but it was more practice-based than anything else. I also liked the learning. But I didn't have feelings for God; I didn't have faith; nor did I have feelings for prayer. But once Koby was killed, I needed the words of the prayer book. And tehilim [Psalms], as well. I had never been one of those tehilim people. But an Israeli from my community - whom I hadn't been friendly with beforehand - came every day to learn tehilim with me. And when I read them, I felt like, "This is my story! It's all written here!" I couldn't bear to hear or even speak ordinary language immediately after the tragedy. Because it was part of regular life - and how could regular life go on? The things people talked about seemed horrifying, because mere words couldn't contain my experience. I remember somebody at the shiva [the week of mourning following the funeral] talking about going to the dentist, and I was appalled. That was the first night. After that, we put up a sign saying, "You can only talk about Torah or Koby in here." What about your husband, who is a rabbi? Did the tragedy affect his Judaism, or did he lean on Judaism to help him through it? I think he felt that it helped him, on the one hand, and made him work harder on it, on the other. For example, he has been learning the mishnayot [recorded oral law] in memory of Koby. So, I wouldn't say that the tragedy made us believers - because we struggle with it - but it gave us a framework. Also, having to sit down for Shabbat right after it happened forced us... well, that first Shabbat was just horrendous. Koby was killed on Tuesday, and the funeral was on Wednesday. So we sat shiva on Thursday, and then we had to get up on Friday. But Ruthie Gillis [the widow of Hadassah-University Hospital oncologist Shmuel Gillis, who was murdered by Palestinian gunmen a few months earlier] came to our house and told us that her husband had been killed on a Thursday night, and that his funeral was held Friday morning, which meant that the family went right into Shabbat. She said that it was the biggest, most monumental Shabbat. Her telling me that sort of gave me permission to try to have shabbes. Since then, I have told other bereaved families the same thing, and many have said that it was helpful. In your experience with your own and other bereaved families, do you find that mourning causes marital rifts? Men and women are so different in any case - does this not magnify that difference? Is divorce common among such couples? I've read that the studies claiming that such marriages break up more often than they survive aren't true. But I really don't know. What I've seen among the couples we've worked with is that bereavement hasn't led so much to divorce as it has to illness. We just had a healing retreat for a group of 20 mothers from the North who had lost children through terrorism, and then went through last summer's war, so they've really had a lot of trauma to deal with. One participant's husband had a stroke after their tragedy, and isn't speaking. In a previous retreat, a woman whose husband got cancer after their tragedy kept getting weepy phone calls from him. Another woman told us that when her grandchildren come to visit, her husband simply doesn't relate to them. He just disappears into his room by himself. So, it is hard on these marriages, but they're not breaking up. In fact, one woman at this recent retreat told of how at first she and her husband were really separate, but now they've come back together. What about you and Seth? It seems that quite early on, you and he began to engage in the joint project of getting a message to the world, while helping other families. Was that food for you as a couple? Seth was asked to speak in Florida about five weeks after Koby was killed. And he went. That was the beginning of his being out there. But for the first six months, I couldn't do anything. I stayed home, and people brought or sent me Shabbat meals. I wasn't ready to be alive. But Seth was very active - he needed to be. And I think this also had to do with the fact that he had been a Hillel director and he knew a lot of people who, as the intifada began to rage, wanted to do something - to help in some way. And we wanted to do something for Koby. Did Seth try to push or pull you out of your state of mind? No, not at all. He didn't feel that I had to do anything. He never pressured me. He never said, "You have to get better; you have to get out of the house." He gave me the space. The reason that I could let him go [to Florida to give a talk] - in spite of needing him so badly - was that we had people in the community who slept at my house every night. I could not have been alone then. Being alone just made the pain double. Didn't you take any medication to help ease the pain? No. I knew I had to feel that pain. How did you know that? I think from my childbirth experiences. I had natural childbirth with all but one of my children. The one time I had an epidural, I didn't like it. If you don't feel a strong experience, you miss it. I was in pain. That was it. And my pain was my connection with Koby. A nurse came to me the morning after the murder to give me a sedative, and I refused to take it. I had this complete clarity about everything then. I knew what I needed, and I knew what I didn't need. All the layers peeled away. I wasn't trying to cover myself. I was who I was. No defenses. Is this common among the bereaved mothers you work with? A lot of them do have defenses. They're guarded even then. They're already trying to be okay. They're already trying to recover before they've despaired. Most people don't have the permission to break apart. And yet you have to break apart. You can't get better until you've broken apart. I felt like I had died and been reborn. I was a different person. When were you able to start writing The Blessing of a Broken Heart? Well, this, too, was a function of the supportive people around me. My friends told me I should start writing, because throughout the shiva, I kept telling these stories about Koby. But, he was killed in May and I started writing around September. Then I wrote all year. That's what I was doing when I was home - writing. I would just cry and write, cry and write. You could actually write under those circumstances? I needed to. I needed to tell the story. But also, I felt like I was fighting a war to get better. My friend, Shira, then came to me and said, "Okay, now you need to start walking. You're like a month-old baby who has to learn to walk." So, she would take me for a walk, and then we started going to the pool. This was good physically, too, because I started getting exercise, which helps the pain. The writing did, too. Now I'm reading a book called Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval, by James Pennebaker. He says that if you write about an event and the emotion that accompanied it, it's healing. If you only write about one or the other, it's not. He measured brain waves and saw that the right and left sides of the brain connect when memories of an event and the feeling that accompanied it are brought together. What does this do? Exorcise the devil in some way? It transforms it. Once you take ownership of the story and tell it, others then hear it; this changes you and them and ultimately the story itself transforms. We see evidence of this at the camps for kids. For example, we had one nine-year-old girl named Tali who got up in front of the whole camp and told the story of how her mother was killed in a bus bombing. She was whispering, and everybody kept absolutely quiet so they could hear her tell of how her father went to the hospital, and her grandmother went to the hospital, but how she didn't go to the hospital - and then her mother died. When she finished, all the kids in the camp started cheering, "Tali! Tali! Tali!" And then another little girl leaned over and told me that the same thing had happened to her: Her mother had died and she hadn't gone to the hospital. First of all, the very fact that the kids can tell these stories at the camp is crucial for them. They can't talk about these things anywhere else, certainly not to other kids. Here, this little girl could not only tell the story without fear, but the other children could listen to it without fear. And when she heard her own story being told, it changed things, and even the story somehow changed. Was it guilt she was ridding herself of in telling the story? Were the other children cheering in solidarity because they had similar feelings? Maybe. But maybe also it was because they felt they weren't a part of the bereavement. They felt invisible. These kids are saying, "They didn't think about me." And many of them don't get the chance even to talk about the deaths inside the family, because most families can't talk about the person who was killed. Isn't this a bit like Holocaust-survivor behavior? Well, yes. After all, it's like a personal holocaust. It's hard for families to bring the pain out. The pain is like a wild animal. It can tear you apart. How did your own parents respond to your tragedy? Did you feel you could lean on them? Well, first of all, they never wanted me to live in Israel. My father was dead already, and I felt, "Thank God I don't have to deal with him." My mother, who just died in February, was a big help in her own way. The day before she died, she told me that she had been standing on line at the post office and a stranger asked her how many grandchildren she had. At first, she said that she had six. But then she turned to him and said, "No, you know what? I have seven, but my grandson, Koby, was murdered in Israel." I feel like she was able to take the pain and sort of own it. You know, in a lot of extended families, the child just disappears! In fact, one woman told me that a family wedding is being scheduled on her dead child's birthday, and she's very upset about it. What is the upshot of the Koby Mandell Act? Unfortunately, as far as I'm concerned, the whole thing has been buried. It was a bill initiated by the Zionist Organization of America [as part of the 2005 Omnibus Bill] that passed both houses of Congress in December 2004. The idea, according to ZOA, was to create a new office in the US Justice Department whose job would be to capture all foreign nationals - including Palestinians - who killed or harmed American citizens abroad. To help in this, there is a Web site where "rewards for justice" are offered for information leading to the capture of terrorists. But it's been well over a year since this got started, and the reward offers aren't even translated into Arabic - and they're impossible to find unless you already know what you're looking for. The US government was supposed to be more proactive after the passage of this law, and that hasn't happened. I know that they work slowly, but still, there should have been much more contact between them and us. So far, nothing has come of it. Isn't that odd - considering the 9/11 wake-up call the Americans got? After all, Koby was murdered just a few months before the World Trade Center bombings. Isn't there any retrospective realization in the US that terrorism in Israel is part of global jihad against West? No, there is no such realization. If anything, they tried to separate the two - to see our problem with terrorism as an Israeli problem, and theirs as something separate. You asked me about my mother. Well, the events of 9/11 to some extent helped me with her. She saw that terrorism could happen anywhere, not just in Israel.