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This article was written by Camp Koby Summer in Israel participant Simone Vais. It appeared in the "Fresh Ink" section of the Jewish Press newspaper.

 

I'm so excited to speak to her. Months have passed since those incredible ten days,  and we have so much to catch up on. I update her on my life – I tell her about school, finals, my friends – just about everything that’s on my mind. And then, when I’m done, I ask her about what’s going on in her life. She takes her time answering, as if she’s hesitating whether or not to say what she’s thinking. Then a new IM pops up. “A war” she responds.

How could I be so insensitive? I knew about the war raging on in Gaza, about the rockets bombarding southern Israel. I diligently checked the news for updates on the situation. Yet I had completely overlooked the personal side of the war. My campers- all of whom had lost family to terror attacks –  how did this affect them? Their brothers had surely been deployed into Gaza, it was their homes that stood within the range of the missiles. This war was no news story, it was their reality. And I now realized that I could never truly understand my campers, for at home I felt secure - a luxury they may never obtain.

This summer, I had the privilege of being a counselor at Camp Koby, a camp founded by Rabbi Seth and Sherri Mandell after their son, Koby, was brutally murdered  by Palestinian terrorists. It is a camp for children who have lost immediate family members to terror attacks.  I walked into camp awaiting 10 days of tears, of loss, and of sorrow. I thought I’d be there to help the children, to comfort them through their mourning. I realized, however, that I was the one with so much to learn, and I was soon taught some of life’s most profound lessons by a group of 7 years old girls.

I learned of what Sherri Mandell calls "the blessing of a broken heart” - that a heart, devastated by loss, can be reborn through the support of those who have experienced what it now suffers from. It can emerge anew, more compassionate and open, able to touch others, a heart that seeks God. I learned this not only through the incredible work of the Mandell's, but even more remarkably, by 2 of my campers, in a most unforeseen setting.

A concert was being held one night in camp, and everyone was having a great time, losing themselves in the moment, forgetting all that had happened, and for a few minutes- just letting go.

Then a song, written in memory of a young boy who had been murdered by terrorists, came on. That boy had two sisters in camp. When that song came on, one might expect the mood to change. Perhaps the memory of their brother would be too hard to cope with; maybe the girls would need to sit this song out. That was not at all the case. The two sisters frantically searched for each other, and when they made eye contact, they ran to meet in the middle of the dance floor. The floor cleared out and everyone made space for them, as the two sisters began to dance and sing with all their hearts. When the song ended, the sisters embraced, and the concert went on as before. It was truly an incredible sight. Two sisters remembering their brother in the most positive way, elevating his neshama through their heartfelt praise of god, allowing his legacy to live on through their own growth and joy. Perhaps the most moving part, however, was how everyone else just understood. Everyone allowed them to have their moment; they stepped back and recognized that this is what the two girls needed, and they gave them the spotlight.

Another experience that I will never forget – one that defines Camp Koby for me, also occurred in a most unexpected setting- a petting zoo that had been brought to camp. As my ten year old campers played with the animals, the owner of the zoo began to teach my bunk about the structures of the animals’ families. One particular species of snake, he said, only had a mother; its father abandoned the family after the children were born. “I only have a dad too” whispered one of the girls. My co – counselors and I froze. What were we going to say? “Really? Me too!” said another little girl. “I have a dad, but not a mom” yelled a third camper. The conversation evolved from there, each girl sharing who they had lost in the most casual atmosphere – each one accepting their reality and feeling comfortable enough to share it with the friends who made them feel at home. We just stood back in shock. It was at this moment that I realized that Koby’s parents had achieved their goal, that Camp Koby had become an indispensable resource for these children, a true oasis.

In our final week in Israel, we visited a memorial for all those who have perished in terrorist attacks. This was the culmination of our summer –tying together everything we had experienced. As we approached the wall, we realized that we were now able to identify nearly all the names we saw, that right here lied the reason Camp Koby existed.  This was no longer a wall of names - it was a wall of mothers and fathers, of younger brothers and older sisters, of heroes, and of role models.

We never anticipated the immense joy that would encompass our days at camp. But Sherri Mandell once taught us that only those who had endured great suffering could experience the highest level of joy. Camp Koby embodied this lesson.

Yet the message of Camp was not only one of joy and laughter. It brought us closer to the land of Israel, and to the people of Israel. Although I won't have the opportunity to return to Camp Koby this summer, I will take it's lessons with me wherever I go. It has shown me the deepest sufferings, and the greatest triumphs, of man.   I have seen what it means to rise from the ashes, to be reborn after loss, and to create something beautiful. I have learned the incredible potential of one human being, but more importantly, I have begun to understand what it truly means to be a part of Klal Yisrael, and to stand by your brother in his time of need.

            As rockets continued to bombard southern Israel this winter, despite the Israeli offensive in Gaza, Camp Koby encompassed my thoughts. How many lives were being changed forever, pierced by the trauma of loss.  How many new campers would there be at Camp Koby this summer? How many new stories would be told? But most importantly, how many people would, like Rabbi Seth and Sherri Mandell, take their story and allow it to inspire us all.