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By Robbie Handelman

October 14, 2005 -- Is it right to condemn someone’s vengeful feelings about the murder of someone they held dear?

After all, a common response to loss or sorrow is anger and hatred.

But that can’t be said about the children at Israel’s Camp Koby, who have all lost either a parent or sibling to terror. Despite those losses, however, the camp is filled with unconditional love and kindness, rather than thoughts of hatred and revenge.

This is one of the many miracles of Camp Koby, and of the Koby Mandell Foundation, founded by Sherri and Rabbi Seth Mandell in honour of their eldest child Koby. The 13-year-old boy and his friend were bludgeoned to death while hiking near their homes in the Gush Etzion community of Tekoa in 2001. Their murderer has not been found.

As a Canadian working with foreign children, I had many fears and anxieties about my summer plans. I was most fearful of not being able to reach out to the children and of not being able to make a difference in their lives. But my training for camp prepared me for depression, anger and the worst reactions to terror, so I was confident that I could warm the hearts of the campers.

I couldn’t wait to get to Israel.

When I arrived at camp on a blazing hot Wednesday, I was shocked by the welcome sight of smiling and laughing children exiting the bus. I realized then that there would be no need to warm the campers’ hearts, since they were already larger and warmer than I could ever have imagined.

Camp Koby is one of the happiest places on earth. Not once in my 10-day experience did I encounter a temper tantrum or a feud between campers. There was an enormous amount of compassion and love flooding through the camp when I was there.

Appreciation and acknowledgement induce a sense of happiness in people, so it’s no surprise that Camp Koby is such a happy place. The campers showed a mature sense of gratitude for both their friends and their counsellors. I experienced this first-hand when I received an overwhelming hug and “thank you” for simply accompanying a camper back to his bunk. He was afraid of being alone after his father was murdered, and my seemingly ordinary act of common courtesy made all the difference to him.

The fact that all the kids at Camp Koby have lost a loved one to terror allows each of them to express their emotions without fear of judgment by their peers. In normal society, these campers would not openly express how they feel, for fear of being judged. But at Camp Koby, their common experiences not only created a unique sense of comfort and closeness between them, it also led to the creation of strong friendships. The kids long for this aspect of camp during the rest of the year, and it adds to their anticipation before they get there, and to their joy when they arrive.

The need for Camp Koby became evident to me once I had completed my term as a counsellor there. Camp Koby allows the kids to deal with their losses and experience a community where they feel truly at home. The campers made me feel part of their special family, and they’ll remain in my heart forever.

Robbie Handelman lives in Toronto.