'Hope and inspiration': Camp Koby allows kids to heal

“Camp Koby takes that one thing that no one else can understand and no one else knows how to deal with and makes that the common thing between the campers."

A group of campers spending time at the lookout in Yechiam, July 26, 2018. (photo credit: TALIA TZOUR AVNER)
A group of campers spending time at the lookout in Yechiam, July 26, 2018.
(photo credit: TALIA TZOUR AVNER)
Some campers say Camp Koby is their battery. It’s the one week during the summer that gives them strength for the rest of the year.
Originally for children who had lost a parent or sibling to terrorism, the camp – started by Koby Mandell’s family after he and his friend Yosef Ishran were killed by terrorists in 2001, now sees about 400 kids each summer. The camp offers two sessions, the second of which ends July 30 and is open to kids in 1st through 12th grades.
Through the Koby Mandell Foundation, the Mandell family decided to create a camp because they wanted to do something Koby would have liked, his mother, Sherri, said.
“We saw that adults get a lot of support after a tragedy, but oftentimes the children are the silent victims,” Mandell said. “The children protect the parents often [because] they don’t want to cause more disturbance.”
Camp Koby, located in Yehiam, provides campers with resources to help them overcome their loss that the typical camp doesn’t. There’s a daily workshop with a therapist, head counselor and former camper Eliana Mandell said, and the therapist stays with the same group the entire time they’re at camp, even eating and swimming with the kids, allowing them to form a special bond.
“It’s like a big support group and no words need to be said,” camper Lachan Levi said. “The difficulty makes us stronger when we’re together.”
The camp has a different theme every year. This year is “achrayut,” or responsibility, and one letter of the word was added each day.
On the first day of camp, the worded started off with just the letter alef, which is also the first letter in “ani,” which means “I.” This day was about getting to know each other.
The second day added the letter het, making the word “ach,” meaning brother. The activity wasn’t necessarily meant to talk about the person each camper had lost, but rather the campers’ new roles in their families.
“Usually what happens is when you say ‘family,’ the first thing that these kids think about is the person who’s gone and our goal was to make them think about specifically ‘my place now in the family that we still have,’ to look at the positive side of it,” said Eliana Mandell, who is Koby’s sister and Sherri Mandell’s daughter.
The fifth day was “acharav,” meaning “after him” or “who I am, what I am after the person that passed away is gone,” she said.
And finally, achrayut, refers with the responsibility campers have for themselves and their families as well as the responsibility to do good for others.
“The campers leave with a sense of normalization,” the camp’s director Ami Haziza wrote in an email. “Their fear, their pain and their feelings are validated and that is the greatest gift we can afford them. While we can’t return their loss, we can give them the coping tools to deal with their bereavement and find strength in their daily lives.”
After Eliana Mandell came home from camp, she said she got a text from the mother of a first-time camper saying, “She came home and for the first time, she started asking about her sister who passed away from cancer.”
Counselors also stay in touch with their campers throughout the year so that they have a constant support system.
Because of this, “There’s an adult that understands me and can help me and listen and would do anything so that I’ll enjoy myself and have a good time,” Levi said.
The camp also offers regular activities – allowing the kids to let loose and have fun – like kayaking and outdoor training, as well as a volunteer component.
On Fridays, the whole camp visits an old age home for Kabbalat Shabbat. “As for the campers who get and get and get and camp is for free... [they] finally have the opportunity to give,” said Eliana Mandell. “Because we know that sometimes to be the person who gives is what gives strength.”
Haziza saw many of his friends and fellow soldiers traumatized during his army service, which was during the Intifada. He said he kept thinking about how he could help families cope with their loss and when he heard about Camp Koby, he immediately wanted to get involved. He started as a counselor almost 12 years ago.
“I witnessed the hope and inspiration that each child was given at camp and knew this was my calling and my way of adding a little good to my people,” Haziza wrote in an email.
Arianna Kaufman went on a summer program in 2011 that allowed her to volunteer as a counselor at Camp Koby. She shared Haziza’s sentiment.
“My closest friends today are from that summer because you’re not only visiting the land, your hearts are bonding over impacting the lives of Israeli children,” she said, adding that it was especially powerful as an American. The experience made her want to become a social worker.
One of the most powerful moments for her was speaking to a six-year-old girl during a Friday night service. She said she remembers the girl had curly hair and was sitting there with a siddur or prayerbook.
None of the girl’s friends were praying because the kids weren’t religious.
“I went over to sit with her she said, ‘Every time that I daven [pray], I feel like I’m really speaking to my dad [who had passed away],’” Kaufman said.
She said she still gets chills thinking of that story years later.
“Camp Koby takes that one thing that no one else can understand and no one else knows how to deal with and makes that the common thing between them, and that’s what makes it so amazing, that they’re not different and strange anymore,” Eliana Mandell said, “because when you’re a bereaved child, you’re always different.”