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Victims themselves, couple offer retreat to victimized Israeli youngsters.

by Michael Matza, Inquirer Staff Writer

Aug. 18, 2003, KIBBUTZ SDE YOAV, Israel - "People have cellular phones. They'll hear," said Jackie Goldman, creative-arts director at Camp Koby and Yosef, a unique summer experience for some uniquely challenged Israeli youngsters.

So the decision was made Tuesday to tell the young people, 50 campers between 9 and 19, all of whom bear permanent scars from terror attacks, about the two Palestinian suicide bombers who struck Israel that morning, killing two.

Seth Mandell, 53, founder of the camp that commemorates his son Koby, 13, and friend Yosef Ish-Ran, 14, killed by suspected Palestinian attackers in a West Bank cave in 2001, knew campers would want the news.

"They're not like little kids," Mandell said. "They are wiser and older than most adults."

"After what they've been through," added Goldman, formerly of Bala Cynwyd, "the youthful feeling of being invincible goes right out the window."

Counselor Efrat Gnatek approached a group gathered in the shade of a tree for a therapeutic game using Middle Eastern drums.

She broke the news.

"I thought there was a hudna," said Shlomi Ohana, 17, using the Arabic word for truce.

"There is a hudna," Gnatek said, shrugging.

As the news sank in, quiet settled over the group and some campers stared into the distance. Then one began beating a rhythm on a narrow-bodied drum. Others followed, imitating the beat. In Hebrew they sang: "We believe in our God."

Afterward, Ohana, a hipster with blond streaks and a pierced eyebrow, said: "Between me and Arabs there will never be peace. I hate Arabs in my blood."

A suicide bombing two years ago shattered both of Ohana's legs and riddled them with shrapnel. His shin is cratered with a hole the size of a golf ball. He spent a year using a wheelchair, a walker and crutches. He started walking again in 11th grade. Next month, he starts his last year of high school.

Many campers were in critical condition after surviving attacks. Some were in comas. One was given up for dead. Some carry shards of metal inside their bodies, too deeply embedded to be safely removed. All share a horrible history - and some luck, too, because they lived.

"Just bringing them together, they can touch 'it' with each other," said Sherri Mandell, Seth's wife. "It's like with us. People don't know what to say to us."

Seth, a rabbi and former Hillel director at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Maryland, and Sherri, 47, a writer who was raised in New York, moved to Israel with their four children seven years ago. They lived in Tekoa, a West Bank Jewish settlement south of Jerusalem that has 300 families.

After Koby, their oldest child, was killed, they were devastated. They grieved. Then they created a foundation in his name. Several times a year, it holds healing retreats for parents and children who have lost immediate family members in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also sponsors security-patrolled sleep-away camps designed to provide a safe, fun, therapeutic environment.

"After you lose someone, you see that so much of life is meaningless," Sherri said. "Everything seems trivial, and you want to do something that has purpose. [Koby's] body is dead, but we are just not going to let his spirit die."

The $1.5 million foundation raises funds, primarily in North America. The Philadelphia area is its largest contributor, followed by Palm Beach, Fla., and Toronto.

About 600 bereaved children and those whose parents were injured are among those attending camp this summer. The cost of sending them to camp is $500,000; participants pay nothing.

Three of the 10-day sessions are for Orthodox Jewish children who prefer gender-segregated camps. Three are coeducational. Last week's session at Kibbutz Sde Yoav, amid farm fields and a cactus garden between the Mediterranean and the Negev Desert, was for children who have themselves been injured.

Palestinians are quick to point out the extent of their own injuries. More than 2,600 have been killed and 36,000 wounded in 34 months of fighting, they say.

Some were killed or injured while attacking Israelis, Israel says. But others, Palestinians say, are victims of an aggressive Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

At least 15 campers were wounded in the December 2001 attack in a caf? district of Jerusalem by two suicide bombers and a car bomb that left a combined 11 people dead and 188 wounded.

Twins Eran and Avi Mizrahi were celebrating their 16th birthday with friends on the pedestrian mall that night. Seven pieces of shrapnel tore into Eran's head. He was in a coma. Three times, doctors told his parents to stop praying because there was no hope.

"Eran was next to me in the hospital," said Tanya Glassman, 19, a counselor who was injured in a car accident two years ago and coincidentally found herself in the same hospital ward as many of the children she now works with at the camp.

"He was in a coma. He was out of it," recalled Glassman, seated on a plastic chair near the kibbutz pool. "To see him now, dancing and laughing and singing, really proves that without darkness there is no light."

Suddenly, a boy in a bathing suit dashed by, giving a glimpse of his injury - a twisted scar where a large part of his upper arm used to be.

"Until they take off their shirt, or pick up their sleeve, you can't see that something has happened to them," Glassman said.

Omer Eliav, 17, was at the party for the Mizrahi twins. The bomber's blast that night caused severe internal injuries. For two weeks, he was unconscious, connected to a breathing machine. He carries a jagged scar from sternum to navel where doctors opened his chest to save his life.

After all he has been through, his view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never changed.

"Look, the end will be when the Arabs understand that with violence they will get nothing," Eliav said. "And the world needs to support us with this thing."

Many campers said they enjoyed swimming the most. Some just enjoyed being out of the city, with time to sleep and kick back.

Waxing wise beyond his years on a shaded porch, Aviv Peretz, 17, spoke of survivor's guilt because he was injured in the Jerusalem attack, while a close friend, Adam Weinstein, died.

"After a time, you understand it's not your fault," Peretz said.

Then, ducking graciously out of the interview, Peretz said he wanted to catch the latest episode of his favorite TV show: an Israeli soap opera, The Game of Life.