Funding solace

The Koby Mandell Foundation offers unconventional support for bereaved Israeli women, many of whom lost loved ones in terror attacks.

Seth and Sherri Mandell 521 (photo credit: Linda Gradstein)
Seth and Sherri Mandell 521
(photo credit: Linda Gradstein)
Two dozen women sit in a ragged circle, each holding an object they have taken off the coffee table in front of them.
“I chose a key because, for years after my son died, I kept expecting to hear his key in the door late at night, but I never did,” said one older woman.
“I chose a leaf because I’m trying to swing with the wind and accept what life brings instead of fighting it,” said another.
“I chose this ceramic bowl because even though it looks transparent, it really isn’t and that’s how I’m feeling these days.”
Some of these women know each other well, others are meeting for the first time time.
They’re all here, in a Jerusalem mansion with an indoor swimming pool, for a Day of Fun and Beauty, sponsored by the Koby Mandell Foundation. Everyone here has lost a close relative, many of them children, and many in terror attacks. They have come for a day of pampering – haircuts, manicures, and massages – all donated by the practitioners. The lunch, served on a rooftop patio, is provided by the Foundation.
Some of the stories of these women seem too cruel for anyone to bear. In 2003, Shira Avraham, 34, was a young newlywed living in the West Bank settlement of Negohot. On the first night of Rosh Hashana nine years ago, she, her husband and her 7-month-old daughter Shaked were enjoying the festive meal at a neighbor’s home. Her host, Eyal Yaberbaum, was holding Shaked when there was a knock on the door. As he opened the door, a terrorist from the Islamic Jihad opened fire, killing Shaked and Eyal.
Soon afterwards, says Avraham, someone from the Koby Mandell Foundation called and invited her to join a support group. It met for a whole day once a week and included yoga, dance and psychodrama.
“It was so good for me to come every week to a place where I was loved unconditionally and nobody judged me,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. “It made me feel that I wasn’t alone and all of the groups and the therapy strengthened me.”
Today, Avraham has four young children between the ages of 8 and 18 months and is studying art therapy. She and her husband left Negohot soon after the attack and tried several communities before settling in Jerusalem.
The women welcome her warmly, and tell her how much they’ve missed her this year when her studies have prevented her from coming.
Overwhelming pain
Other women, like Zahava Gilmore, have lost adult children. Her son, Esh Kodesh, was a guard at the Ministry of the Interior in East Jerusalem in October 2000, when a terrorist opened fire and killed him. He was 25, married, and the father of an 18-month-old girl.
Gilmore says the women’s group has been a lifesaver.
“It’s a framework where I see that life continues with joy, care, love and understanding,” she says. “I am so thankful to have these friends and we do so much laughing together.”
The Koby Mandell Foundation was established by Sherri and Seth Mandell, after their oldest son Koby and his friend Yosef Ishran were killed in May 2001. Koby was 13 at the time, and Yosef, 14. They had skipped school in the settlement of Tekoa to go hiking. Their bodies were discovered in a cave the following day with their heads bashed in; their killers have still not been found.
Sherri Mandell says the pain was overwhelming, but that friends and strangers surrounded her with support. An anonymous donor paid for massages for her, a friend took her to the pool. She began to visit other women, who had lost children to the conflict.
“I had these unbelievable people in my life, who were taking care of me,” she says.
“After Koby was killed, I went to shivas and I saw what these women were getting and how they were responding, and I felt like we could help.”
Seth Mandell is a former director of Hillel at the University of Maryland, Sherri is a writer and editor. Within months of Koby’s death, they had established the foundation that bears his name. The first women’s retreat was held a year later, and the first summer camp for siblings took place that summer as well. The Foundation’s budget is currently $1.7 million annually, in part from donations and in part from “eventrelated support,” says Seth Mandell. This summer, the Foundation is running three programs for American teens to come to Israel to tour and volunteer at the camp.
Sherri says bereaved women should spend time with other bereaved women, and children should be with other children who have had a similar experience.
“We live in our communities as if we’re ‘normal’, and we are, but we also have this place where we are so separate,” she says.
“The loss is with us 24/7, you don’t escape it. It is so good to be around other people who are like you.”
Sherri says it is also important for women who have undergone trauma to do physical activity.
“People don’t understand that trauma resides in your body when you have that kind of shock,” she says. “Your whole body stops. It’s very unhealthy and damaging, so the massage helps you let go of some of that stress. Women find they can let go and cry.”
When these women get together, there is also a lot of laughter. Part of the recent Day of Fun and Beauty was a play, written by the women, called Besorot Tovot, or Good Tidings. The play centers around the upcoming wedding of a young woman, Ma’ayan, played by Sherri Mandell, who had previously lost a brother. Before the wedding, the two mothers-in-law meet, and the groom’s mother asks the bride’s mother not to spoil the young couple’s happiness by mentioning her late son.
At the wedding, the bride’s mother seems sunk in her grief.
“I’m a bride!” Mandell pleads with her mother. “I’m Ma’ayan, your daughter. Look at me! Be happy with me! Be with me!” At the ceremony, the groom forgets the ring, and then injures himself when he steps on the glass. During the dancing afterward, the bride’s mother, Ruti, is unable to join the celebration.
“I can’t dance, I’m too heavy,” she says to a friend. “Remember how light we all were? I used to dance like a little girl at weddings. I didn’t know then. Now I have weights on my legs and an even heavier weight on my heart.
How do you dance? How do you dance?” The play ends with an enthusiastic bellydancing number, in which Ma’ayan and Ruti do learn how to dance.
Enthusiastically applau ding in the audience is Tali Ben Yishai, 58. Her daughter Ruth Fogel and her husband and three of their six children were brutally murdered in an attack at their home on the settlement of Itamar in March 2011. The three surviving children, aged 13, 9 and 4, are now living in Jerusalem with Ben Yishai and her husband Yehuda, a rabbi.
Ben Yishai says the Foundation has helped her deal with her own grief and the challenge of raising the children.
“I know how to raise children,” says Ben Yishai, a mother of nine. “But I’m learning how to raise children with pain. Sometimes I feel like I’m on a different planet than anyone else. But in these groups, the pain is part of everything and they give me strength.”