Camp Koby: Helping Israelis who have lost family members

Camp Koby, a camp for children of bereaved families, helps its campers learn to hold their grief and have fun together.

 LIFTING THE weight they carry: At Camp Koby.  (photo credit: NOAM ODERBERG)
LIFTING THE weight they carry: At Camp Koby.
(photo credit: NOAM ODERBERG)

Some people can walk into a room and feel immediately at home. There are no worries about what to say or do, even in a room full of strangers.

But for people who​ have lost a family member, walking into a room full of new people ​feels like they are entering an entirely new territory every time. What do they say when asked about their family? Do they say that they have a mom, dad, brother or sister? Do they say they don’t? Do they say that they did but they died?

For the kids at Camp Koby, their everyday lives are filled with these questions. Losing a family member to a terrorist attack, accidents, sickness, and more changes their lives. But for one week, while they attend camp, they don’t have to worry about how people will react when they find out they are from a bereaved family. They’re surrounded by kids who understand what it’s like.

Camp Koby, a camp for children of bereaved families, helps its campers learn to hold their grief and have fun together.

 LIFTING THE weight they carry: At Camp Koby. (credit: NOAM ODERBERG) LIFTING THE weight they carry: At Camp Koby. (credit: NOAM ODERBERG)

Helping cope with the loss of family

Eliana Mandell, sister of Koby Mandell, who died in a terrorist attack in 2001, was appointed director of the Koby Mandell Foundation about a year ago.

When she speaks to the campers at Camp Koby, she always tells them about her experience. “When I was in seventh grade, I moved to a new school. And I didn’t tell anybody in my new school that my brother was murdered. Because I didn’t want anybody look at me and just feel bad for me or pity me. And I didn’t want to be different or strange. And when I tell the kids the story, they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, me too,’” Mandell said. 

This isn’t an occurrence that can happen in other places, Mandell noted. At school, extracurricular activities, or other summer camps, the introductory conversations would be very different than the ones that take place at Camp Koby. From the outset, conversations at Camp Koby begin with children asking their peers why they’re at that camp. Often, Mandell said, she witnesses children explaining that they’re at Camp Koby because their family member died. And rather than being met with any other plethora of responses, the common reply is “Me too.”​

“They immediately form a bond. The thing that makes them different and strange, and people feel sorry for them in the outside world, all of a sudden becomes a positive thing that connects them,” Mandell said.

Established 20 years ago under the auspices of the Koby Mandell Foundation, Camp Koby’s initial purpose was to provide support in a camp setting for children who had lost a family member in terrorist attacks. However, in the last 10 years, the foundation noticed that the need for support extended beyond just families who had lost a loved one to terrorism; that children who had lost a family member for any number of reasons were still able to make that same bond through the shared experience of loss

The sleep-away camp runs two different sessions but four camps. There are both secular and religious camps that mix boys and girls, as well as a separate girls’ and separate boys’ camp. Kids from as young as six attend the camp, and campers often return as counselors once they have graduated high school.

A camp with an environment tailored for healing

WHAT MAKES Camp Koby so special is that its environment is tailored for healing. Therapy is not a taboo subject that no one talks about, with campers having sessions two to three times a day. 

Neta Sheinbrum, a social worker, is the director of therapy and counseling at Camp Koby. She differentiated how camp, and the therapy they provide at Camp Koby, is very different from traditional modes. 

At Camp Koby, therapy is part of the programming. Therapists are with the campers from the time they wake up until bedtime, and they go with them to activities such as swimming, parks and games. In past years, Mandell said that therapy was often disguised as other activities. For example, arts and crafts sessions were really art therapy; music and singing activities were music therapy. But in the past eight years, Camp Koby has fully embraced that therapy is an important tool that the campers can utilize, and there’s nothing shameful about it.

“One of the tools that the therapists choose is to be close to the campers and spend time with them. And that’s how it was one of the ways that they gain trust with the children. It’s just being there with them, and being a meaningful adult in their lives.”

Neta Sheinbaum

“One of the tools that the therapists choose is to be close to the campers and spend time with them. And that’s how it was one of the ways that they gain trust with the children. It’s just being there with them, and being a meaningful adult in their lives,” Sheinbrum said. By accompanying the children as often as possible, they are able to build a different level of trust, which has been ultimately useful in creating the most productive environment for the children to grieve. 

She noted that adults who deal with bereavement have more coping skills that can help them. Children, she said, experience “spiritual bereavement” and face many questions about God and how He is connected to what happened to them. 

“As opposed to standard therapy sessions or when an adult experiences bereavement, children don’t always have the opportunity to express those feelings and those questions,” Sheinbrum said. 

Mandell agreed. “If you’re in the religious camp, you’ll hear more about God. When you talk about why this happens, there’s more purpose and meaning behind it. But even in the secular group, you hear the same thing.”

Sheinbrum added: “What I see around me is a constant presence of love; love that’s being exuded from the staff toward the campers, from the campers to one another. They are constantly in an environment with people who, alongside pain and bereavement and tragedy, are also spreading love, and a lot of it. I found that that’s something really [powerful], which I’ve taken home with me.”

DANIELA SUEKE’S children have been attending the camp for years. Her eldest, 15-year-old Yonatan, has three years of camp under his belt; and her second youngest, Eliya, attended the camp for the first time this summer. 

“You bring to camp a weight on you [that you’ve carried] for the whole year and the pain of people not understanding, and then they take they take some of that weight off,” said Yonatan, explaining why he loves the camp. 

The therapy sessions, and having the therapists with them, provide tools and the understanding that campers might not get at school – and certainly not from their peers. 

“At Camp Koby, everyone understands everyone else. No one judges if someone wants to stay in their bed and just doesn’t want to be with anyone. So we just leave them, and then afterward we’ll speak with them. I just love [the approach],” Yonatan said.

Eliya summed up why she finds group therapy so useful: “Some girls will talk about how somebody died in their family, then I say to them ‘You’re like me.’”

It’s not all therapy, though. Eliya’s favorite activity took place on the first day of camp. A game of musical chairs, which she said she was terrible at, was a great way to break the ice. 

When Daniela’s husband passed away seven years ago, she found that as a single mother, she didn’t know what to do. She said one of the main reasons she decided to make aliyah was that she thought there might be more kids like her children going through a similar experience.

“I’m actually happy that that’s not really the case. My children go to school, and they’re pretty much the only kids who’ve had a loss – having someone in their immediate family passed away. But it was really Camp Koby that gave me that sense of community and acceptance,” she said. “It’s not just a camp, it’s a community. It’s understanding, it’s professionals. So your kids are actually being taught how to hold their grief at the same time as holding joy.”

She also has been able to watch her own kids pass that support along. This past summer, her 15-year-old son helped a little boy who had lost his mother suddenly, just six weeks before the camp started. He was in the earliest stages of grief. “My son went to him and spent a lot of time with him because he understood,” she said.

She saw a marked change when her daughter Eliya came home from camp. “It was like a new version of herself that even I hadn’t seen. She was so happy. And she was trying so many different things in her life. Before, I would have called her an introvert,” Daniela said. “Now she’s just so social and reaching out to friends whom she hadn’t before, and is planning things in her life. It was as if her eyes were open to the fact that there’s actually life and she can be happy in it.” 

Daniela also noted that by sending her kids to the religious section of the camp, she is building a community that goes beyond the week that they are there. Her family is modern Orthodox, and she feels confident that she can let her kids go to the homes of their camp friends without worrying about whether it’s a kosher home or not. But more importantly, the kids are dealing with the same crisis of faith as her own. 

“You know that this has happened and it’s okay, and you can still be religious and have these questions. They see that people can integrate that into their life and continue to observe their faith,” she said. 

While Daniela misses her kids very much when they are at the week-long camp, she knows they are gaining something that she can’t give them on her own. 

“They get something from Camp Koby that, as hard as I try, I just can’t give them in their normal life. And that is unlimited joy,” she said. “I think one of the best things that I do as a parent is send them to the camp. It’s exactly what they need.

“I would never want anyone to go through a loss like this without Camp Koby,” Daniela added. The team of professionals, other parents struggling with the same issues, and other kids who understand her children make this a community for the Sueke family. WhatsApp group chats, psychologists, and community support have made all the difference for Daniela. “There are parents who’ve been there even longer and teach me things. It’s an integral part [of the experience].”

Not only did she drop her kids off at camp this summer, but two other kids who were nearby needed help getting to the camp. The WhatsApp group enabled the parents to coordinate a carpool.

Adina, another Sueke child, summed it up this way: “Camp Koby is like a family. Everyone always welcomes you with a smile. And I’m not just saying that – it actually is just that nice there.” ■