How can one fathom the depths of a mother’s pain upon the brutal loss of her child? Sherri Mandell’s first-born son was viciously murdered near their home on May 8, 2001. How does a mother cope with the news that her spirited thirteen-year-old, while hiking in the neighborhood, was bludgeoned to death by rock-yielding Arabs?
The Blessing of a Broken Heart is the title of Sherri Mandell’s amazing book in which she depicts the process of her coping, of her determination to choose hope and faith over despair and hate. In it Sherri reveals how she struggled to embark on a journey of faith, identifying her agony in the context of 3,000 years of Jewish suffering.
Tekoa, in the Judean Hills, where the Mandell family lives, is 2,177 feet above sea level on a ridge surrounded on three sides by a deep canyon studded by caves. It was one of these caves that Koby and his friend Yosef Ishran went to explore. And it was this cave that became the scene of devastating evil.
Sherri and her husband, Rabbi Seth Mandell, confronted their heartbreak with a conscious decision to transform cruelty into kindness. They created the Koby Mandell Foundation which provides healing programs for families struck by terrorism, allowing them to overcome the isolation that keeps them from returning to life. Participants are helped to find meaning in their loss, so that families become stronger from their traumas. In this way, they keep Koby’s spirit alive.
A New Yorker, with an M.A. in creative writing from Colorado State University, Sherri Lederman visited Israel for the first time in 1984. In Jerusalem she met Seth Mandell, a personable, intelligent yeshiva student. The two were married a year later and made their home in the Holy City where Sherri taught English and creative writing at the Michlalah College.
In 1996, after a short stint in the United States, Sherri and her rabbi husband returned to Israel, the land they loved deeply, with Judaism in the center of their family’s lives. Besides The Blessing of Broken Heart, she authored Writers of the Holocaust, (Facts on File, 2000) and has written for numerous magazines and journals, including The Washington Post, Denver Post and The Jerusalem Post. In addition, she is now director of The Koby Mandell Foundation’s numerous projects, among them the Women’s Healing Retreats for Bereaved Mothers and Widows. The expanse of this column does not accommodate the entire list of offerings of the foundation. I wish merely to mention a unique all-expenses-paid sleepover camp for more than 400 children who have lost loved ones.
One camper explains: “One of the amazing things about Camp Koby is that you are together with other kids who have similar stories. It doesn’t only give us a safe place to be together, but it also gives us a chance to grow outside of camp.”
Camp Koby Sleepaway Camps are fun-filled, six-week summer experiences, an intense and meaningful opportunity for recovery and healing process. In the camps kids have a great time and feel free to express their feelings – both to other children who experienced a similar loss and to Israeli and American counselors who are trained to really understand. In addition to regular activities, therapeutic programs are offered to help the campers cope with the trauma and other emotional issues associated with their tragedy. In addition to Israeli children who are campers, teens from around North America participate as counselors. “I wasn’t looking for a regular summer in Israel; I was looking to give back,” said a15-year-old from Woodmere, New York. “These amazing campers taught me that even if something terrible happens, it is still possible to move on and be happy. I became so connected with them – it changed me as a person.”
I must admit, it changed me, as well. I gained insight into the management of grief through Sherri Mandell’s example and by choosing to participate in the mitzvah. You, too, can share in the mitzvah of transforming cruelty into kindness.
Make check payable to “The Koby Mandell Foundation” and send to: The Koby Mandell Foundation, 366 Pearsall Avenue, Suite #1, Cedarhurst, NY, 11516