A retreat for widows hosted by the Koby Mandell Foundation provides a magical fix of fun.

Women share their experiences at the retreat organized by the Koby Mandell Foundation on Moshav Yishi (photo credit: COURTESY SHERRI MANDELL)
Women share their experiences at the retreat organized by the Koby Mandell Foundation on Moshav Yishi
SOMETIMES, ONE is lucky enough (and I use this word hesitantly) to experience something truly awesome and life-changing.
I was invited to join a retreat for a group of widows hosted by the Koby Mandell Foundation at Yishi Country on Moshav Yishi in June.
Cocooned in the Judean hills, the guest house is the handiwork of Menachem and Dina Mendlowitz, who have created a Shangri- La of glass, wood and stone and filled it with love, gentleness and generosity of spirit. From the moment that one steps into the high-ceilinged, book-lined family room, one is overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the physicality of the place, and then the unqualified hesed (kindness) the entire family oozes: their giving is so effortlessly and knows no boundaries.
The two-day workshop is the brainchild of Sherri Mandell, whose name has become synonymous with healing following the tragic loss of her 13-year-old son, Koby, in a terrorist attack near the Mandell family home in Tekoa on May 8, 2001. Koby and his friend Yosef Ish Ran were beaten to death with rocks.
Mandell and her husband Seth understood that, in order to heal, bereaved families like theirs needed emotional support and established the Koby Mandell Foundation in 2002. The foundation runs summer camps for bereaved children ‒ this is the 16th season of Camp Koby and Yosef ‒ as well as healing programs for bereaved families. At first, the programs were only for victims of terrorism, but they now reach out to victims of other tragedies, as well. The foundation has helped thousands of people.
Mandell, together with her assistant Hadassah Amar and their staff ‒ a host of amazing angels ‒ pampered, empowered and indulged the 30 women at the retreat.
From Kiryat Arba to Ra'anana, women of all ages, from varying backgrounds, speaking different languages, came together for two days. Their point of commonality – their widowhood.
Although not the oldest one there chronologically speaking, I felt as though I was, having lost my husband 13 years ago in contrast to the raw fresh pain I witnessed in many around me. I recognized the glazed look and then the tears as if from nowhere. I wanted to reach out and say something profound to ease their anguish. But time actually does not heal this wound; it anesthetizes the pain, maybe, but it’s always there beneath the surface. After all, the original plan was to grow old together... build a bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael (a faithful home in Israel)! WITH THE insightful and gentle guidance of facilitator Tzippi Cedar, we experienced a glimpse into the world of psychodrama; the group of separate women found their voices and reached out to each other as only women can do. We explored the many faces of motherhood and were surprised, encouraged and inspired by each other’s experiences.
Liba Rappaport, an incredible contrast of loud combustible energy and quiet inner strength, provided a welcome relief from the heat with her water aerobics and exercise class.
Colorful and creative Tanya Neppe artfully encouraged the talented ‒ and not so talented ‒ to get in touch with their artistic side with some surprising results (gifts to take home and show off Mom’s dormant talents) and a collage depicting the impressions gained from the intense 30-hour experience.
Mindful of the fact that while we have lost our spouses, we are still women and need to celebrate that, we enjoyed a styling session with Metal Hubara. Although few of us would dare to hover in her gorgeous but precarious heels, we appreciated her knowledge of body types, makeup and color. She encouraged us to armor ourselves with makeup first thing in the morning, before facing our kids and the world. Most of us did not agree with that advice, but it may translate as “putting on a brave face” for the world and ourselves.
The final session was a movement and dance class ‒ probably the event that was most out of my comfort zone. The instructor was a young, vibrant woman named Shira Yifati who instantly managed to make even the most uncoordinated klutz (aka me) feel OK. Through rhythm and music, she helped us connect with our bodies and each other creating, inexplicably, a dance we choreographed and performed ourselves. The 30 separate women somehow came together, in just one day, and magically became this powerful unit with a force of its own.
Between these workshops, we were treated to either a massage from Shira Chernoble or a reflexology treatment from Yael Amiel. Both of these special women have healing hands. I had a soothing, but therapeutic massage during which Shira used the special oils she has blended to facilitate her healing. I was struck by her sensitivity and kindness because here we were literally exposing ourselves to her ‒ she could read our loss and pain as they manifest themselves in the tightness of our shoulders or back and we emerged calm and relaxed.
Of course, Jews and food are inexorably connected. Effortlessly (at least that’s how it appeared), we were provided with three delicious, fresh and plentiful meals a day, as well as a seemingly endless supply of chilled watermelon and fruits, dates, nuts and confectionary delights. Dinner (a barbecue skillfully prepared by son Hillel that consisted of beef sausages, burgers, pargiot (pullets), chicken wings and an array of colorful fresh salads) was served in the beautiful, high-ceilinged main room, the tables decorated with fresh flowers, leaves and herbs. Dessert was a picturesque pink strawberry parfait, both tart and refreshing, effortlessly “just thrown together” by Dina Mendlowitz, her proud husband told me.
SINCE BIBLICAL times, women have always rejoiced with song and it was no wonder that the evening ended with singing and an outburst of frenetic dancing by some of the more energetic ladies. I am so envious of those who were born and bred in Israel, and know the words and melodies of all the songs pertaining to the history and Land of Israel, and even more so of those who can melodically pluck at a guitar or breathe life into an instrument ‒ be it their voices or the other kind. There is something so satisfying and uplifting when many different voices come together in such a spontaneous and harmonious way.
With this backdrop and program, it is no wonder that we felt safe and loved. Then the other magic happened. Women started connecting, reaching out, telling their stories.
And what incredible stories these were – stories of bravery and courage, tales of fortitude and woe, heart-breaking stories of tragedy and loss, sudden illness and death of someone so young and full of dreams, husbands and fathers snatched away from loving wives and innocent children, families torn asunder.
Words can’t quite capture the anguish, the pain of discovery, the exhaustion and the challenges of each day, as well as the prayers and hope for a brighter future.
We talked a lot ‒ some more than others, but we listened more. We listened wholeheartedly, shared openly and cried occasionally. But most of all, we laughed – laughed loudly and unabashedly! These women are the champions of peace, of Judaism and of Israel. They are powerful, sensitive and proactive. They are educators, healers and providers. They pray, give counsel, forgive and love unconditionally.
They play, cook, clean, bathe, clothe, taxi, iron, launder, repair, build, pay and shop.
They are mothers. And fathers.
This was not, as I had feared, a depressing meeting of darkness and despair. These women, despite their circumstances, stood tall and erect. There was no wallowing in self-pity and misery, there was no anger at the world or questioning Divine retribution.
Yes, there was introspection and sadness that come with the telling of one’s story, but more important was the outstretched arm to help each other and the offer to facilitate change if need be.
The light of the Mendlowitz home penetrated our inner core, and with Sherri’s inspiring presence and the Koby Mandell Foundation’s staff of beautiful angels, we all emerged stronger, more energized, refueled emotionally, physically and spiritually.
On behalf of all those who were present, I think I can safely say that our sense of gratitude and appreciation for the opportunity to be part of this experience is overwhelming and resounding. The detailed organization and financial investment of such an endeavor is not taken for granted. Thank you to each and every one of you who played a part in creating this poignant and powerful retreat.
Debbie Sandler is a mother of four and grandmother of two who lives in Ra’anana grandmother of two who lives in Ra’anana