‘Right then, I chose not to be a victim’

Grieving mother Sherri Mandell helps others learn the true meaning of resilience.

Sherri Mandell (photo credit: DEBBI COOPER)
Sherri Mandell
(photo credit: DEBBI COOPER)
When asked if we could sit for an interview on a Thursday in early March, Sherri Mandell emails me that she doesn’t have time. “I am pretty busy on Thursday making a sheva brachot [a traditional celebration for a newlywed Jewish couple on the days following the wedding],” she says.
But Mandell, whose eldest child, her son Koby, was brutally murdered by Arab terrorists in 2001, when he was 13 years old, along with his friend Yosef Ish-Ran in a cave near their Tekoa home, later reveals that the party she was making in her home wasn’t for her immediate family or other relatives but for family friends.
“The sheva brachot were at my house. We are the happy house, not the house people are afraid to go to,” she says.
Those comments reflect the resilience demonstrated by Mandell, despite “the hell” she and her family experienced on Koby’s death.
She admits though that her ability to demonstrate resilience wasn’t “natural to me”; it was something that was learned, in great part due to the process she went through becoming a certified pastoral counselor to assist other bereaved families who have suffered great tragedy.
Mandell shares what she learned during her fieldwork in Israeli hospitals with the families of cancer patients and those with children in a persistent vegetative state, in her new book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration.
The book is a guide to navigate the spiritual stages of resilience through what she calls the “seven Cs.” Between Chaos and Celebration, Mandell describes the stages of Community, Choice, Creativity, Commemoration and Consecration. “I came up with the seven ‘Cs’ because I needed a framework to pass on [what I learned],” she says.
Mandell, along with her husband, Seth, founded the Koby Mandell Foundation in memory of their son. Its signature program is Camp Koby, a therapeutic sleepaway camp for hundreds of bereaved children.
She says that the overall message she is trying to convey in the book is that the concept of resilience is misunderstood.
“People say [that resilience is about] going back to who you were,” says Mandell. But she disagrees, explaining in the book – which throughout draws from a plethora of Jewish biblical, rabbinical, spiritual and other relevant sources – that “resilience isn’t bouncing back to a new normal. It’s a heightened feeling of life, a sense of greater engagement and enlargement, an awareness and realization of the extraordinary.”
That awareness first manifests itself through chaos following a tragedy, she says. “It’s like a black hole that sucks you in. But while people are terrified of chaos, you have to go into [the hole] in order to get out.”
Perhaps the most empowering “C” for Mandell when Koby was murdered, she says, was the love she felt from her surrounding community.
“I felt that the pain would kill me,” she says, adding that “what distinguishes the Jewish people [from other groups] is that the world Jewish community feels responsible for those who are suffering.”
In her case, “We got so much love and support,” says Mandell. “When you get love, you are not depleted.”
On the day when Koby was killed and Mandell was preparing for the funeral, she made a conscious choice of which color beret she was going to wear for the ceremony. Initially, she felt disgusted and vain for taking the time to care about appearance, but later she realized how important her color consideration of the hat was.
“Right then and there, I chose not to be a victim,” she says, explaining how bereaved individuals can either choose to fight their whole lives what happened to them or surrender to it and instead, as she says in the book, make the choice to “extend our desire toward that for which we were not aiming.”
Mandell says that if this is done, “then the events of our lives can be seen as a form of divine providence: Where we are is somehow where we need to be.”
An additional way to shape the chaos, says Mandell, is to create coherence through creativity. “Creativity allows us to start taking ownership of what happened, allowing for a metamorphosis.”
Mandell says her creative mind had her trapped in a closed cave, with imagery of the dark cave where her son was murdered. However, she was able to utilize narrative therapy to escape the trapping cave and envision a nurturing bird’s nest as a place of light and protection, providing a sense of harmony amid the pain.
In regard to the commemoration stage toward resilience, Mandell cites a psychological study called the “Do you know scale” from the 1990s, in which it was discovered that the more children knew about their family’s history, the higher their self-esteem and the greater their emotional health and happiness were.
She also stresses the importance of establishing a “living memorial,” an ongoing way of integrating “our loved one’s kindness and good qualities into our lives,” allowing survivors to becoming “living memorials.”
Consecration, Mandell says, involves “recognizing the sacred. You take what has hurt you and create a project to help others through it.”
She mentions those who went through the horrors of the Holocaust, only to become the builders of the State of Israel, as those who were able to “take this hell, to help others and to help themselves.”
Finally comes the celebration phase. Mandell is convinced that the children at Camp Koby, despite experiencing immense tragedy and grief, are in actuality “happier than other kids.” She explains that “when you know what it is to be sad, then you really know what ‘happy’ is.” The kids at camp are able to be authentic [to be themselves], which gives happiness.”
Mandell’s voice then quivers with worry as she describes the immense and “terrible state of chaos” being wrought by the current wave of terrorism, especially in Gush Etzion.
It is for that reason that she and Seth, through the foundation, have recently launched programming including a support group for bereaved mothers in Kiryat Arba as well as a series of narrative therapy sessions for high-school students in Gush Etzion, to help those whose lives were affected by the attacks.
In addition, the foundation is preparing to host a special pre-Passover version of the sleepaway camp for bereaved children.
The foundation has also made it a point to cater to all types of bereaved families – not only victims of terrorism, thus helping many families who have lost loved ones to other tragedies, using the tools gained working with those who experienced terrorism.
Ultimately, the foundation’s activities revolve around understanding the true meaning and utilization of resilience.
For Mandell, her spiritual journey toward resilience can be summarized in a passage from the book’s preface: “But in Jewish thought, resilience isn’t an attitude but a process. It’s not just endurance, or perseverance or stamina, the ability to stand strong and firm. Jewish philosophy teaches us that resilience is not overcoming. It’s becoming. Becoming more, becoming our fullest and deepest selves as a result of adversity…. Moreover, resilience offers us the opportunity to deepen our relationship with the Divine.”
For more information on the Koby Mandell Foundation: www.kobymandell.org