A decade of pain

The Koby Mandell Foundation, which has just marked a decade of providing support to bereaved families, is as relevant today as ever.

Shrri and Seth Mandell at the Koby Mandell Foundation 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shrri and Seth Mandell at the Koby Mandell Foundation 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Living in Israel, they are all around us, passing by unbeknownst to us in the street each and every day: our fellow countrymen from all walks of life who have lost loved ones – a mother, a father, a sister, a brother or a child to Arab terrorism. According to Rabbi Seth Mandell, whose son Koby was brutally murdered at the age of 13 along with his 14-year-old friend, Yosef Ish-Ran, while they hiking near their Tekoa homes at the height of the second intifada in 2001, “On the outside, you wouldn’t know that there is anything different about these people [who have suffered a loss], but on the inside, there is a sense of isolation from ordinary society.”
It is because of that sense of isolation that Mandell and his wife, Sherri, established the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs year-round therapeutic programs for suffering families, in their son’s memory. According to Sherri, the foundation, which has just marked a decade of providing support to bereaved families, is as relevant today as ever because “while a long time may pass since a family suffers a loss, you are never whole again. There is always a sense of brokenness.”
With their bags packed to go on vacation to the North after another successful summer of running the organization’s flagship program, “Camp Koby,” an American-style sleep-away summer camp for children between the ages of seven and 18 who have lost a family member to terrorism, the Mandells sit down with The Jerusalem Post in their Tekoa dining room to reflect on their pain more than a decade later and to discuss how their organization has been successful in synthesizing people with shared tragic experiences to help each other deal with the never-ending grief.
“Just this week,” says Sherri, while fighting back tears, “we attended the wedding of one of Koby’s friends. It’s at a moment like that when you realize the pain doesn’t go away, especially when you see what you’re missing – the day-to-day life of not having this child in our lives, the grandchildren that we could have had from him. It’s something that continues to hurt.”
Seth concurs that while on one hand it was joyous to attend the celebration, on the other it was very difficult. “At that wedding, what struck me,” he says with a lump in his throat, “when I looked over and saw Koby’s shevet [group of friends] hugging and kissing each other, that’s when it hit me – that something in my life is missing.”
Sherri adds, “This pain and sense of loss could be lethal, and we see from the kids in Camp Koby that parents don’t always know how to let surviving siblings express themselves and talk about their feelings.
Sometimes parents shut down, or only focus on that child [whom they lost], which is dangerous to the other children. That’s why the camp is so important.”
THE MANDELLS have three surviving children: Daniel, 23, who is completing his army service, Eliana, 21, who is studying at Ariel University Center, and Gavi, 17, a senior in high school. The Mandell children have been very involved in the camp over the years, as both campers and counselors, alongside other children who have experienced similar tragedies.
According to Seth Mandell, Camp Koby is a unique environment “where kids can express their emotions and feelings to their friends and counselors about their grief and feel free to be themselves – to laugh and cry without anyone giving them looks, since they are in a place where they feel like everybody else.” In fact, one camper recently told Seth that he felt Camp Koby was “the happiest place on earth.”
Sherri finds that sentiment believable, saying that “Camp Koby is not just meant to serve as a distraction so that when the kids go home they’ll be in the same frame of mind, but it’s a place where our goal is to show them that they can take this pain and transform themselves into leaders in society and that they are not just miskenim [pitiful].”
The camp, which attracts almost 500 children every summer, is broken down into four 10-day sessions and is divided into three divisions based on age. The counselors, high-school students from both Israel and abroad, are trained not only on how to talk to children who are dealing with grief, but even more importantly, says Seth, “how to listen.” The camp offers daily group therapy sessions run by professionals from a wide range of disciplines including art, music, sports and drama. There is also a psychologist on staff who is in contact with the campers throughout the year to assist with the many issues they may face in school, at home and in relation to their upcoming army service.
Over the past several years, children who have lost a parent or a sibling in a non-terror- related tragedy such as a car or work accident have also been invited to attend the fully subsidized 10-day camp experience.
But even with all of the therapy sessions and counselor support, Seth says that the real focus of the camp is on “recreational activities and just having fun, since we found that it is difficult for this population simply to have a good time.” He adds that an important aspect of camp is the “social integration, where the kids establish relationships and social networks with other kids and their counselors and are in contact throughout the year. In other words, they know they have a place to go.”
In addition to Camp Koby, the foundation runs a slew of other programming for surviving family members, including a weekly women’s program for bereaved mothers, which includes sessions in yoga, drama, psychodrama and belly dancing; a separate women’s support group, which meets every other week; and a therapy program for widows. These programs are made possible through private donations and through the foundation’s year-round major fund-raising events.
The most well-known event is the biannual Comedy for Koby fund-raiser, held in communities with significant Anglo populations throughout Israel in June and in December, in which some of the most upand- coming professional stand-up comedians from the US fly to Israel to perform a series of shows. Seth says that “in addition to helping raise funds, the program is a great hasbara [public diplomacy] tool, as the comedians go back home and are able to provide a sense of what is really happening in Israel.”
Another major fund-raiser is the annual “Kilometers for Koby” event, in which friends and family sponsor participants from Israel and abroad who hike on the Israel Trail for either a full five days or for a shortened three-day or one-day route.
During the intermediate days of Succot, a special two-day “Kilometers” hike will be held for young professionals.
Both Seth and Sherri are sought-after speakers in Israel and abroad. “We see ourselves as hasbara representatives,” says Sherri, “being able to present the human side of Israel. And, of course, we are always available for people who are grieving or experiencing bereavement.”
Sherri’s book The Blessing of a Broken Heart is used as a resource in her talks and was recently made into a one-woman play in the US. She says that her second book, which deals with the Jewish view on resilience, should be finished by November.
Seth says that he speaks between 25 and 30 times a year, mainly to synagogue groups and students, not only to share his story but to try to serve as a source of inspiration for the human spirit.
His greatest pride, he says, is when he receives letters from the parents of the children who attended Camp Koby thanking him for the experience and acknowledging encouraging changes in their children despite their horrific circumstances.
“The parents see their children come out of camp different [than before], which not only affects them, but has a great impact on the entire community. It’s amazing for them to see something positive come out of the world of terror.”