By TALYA HALKIN
November 7, 2005
While Rabbi Seth and Sherri Mandell were sitting shiva for their 13-year-old son, Koby - who was brutally murdered by Palestinian terrorists on May 8, 2001 - they asked his eighth-grade friends, who came to pay their condolences, to tell them stories about their son.
"At the door, one big kid grabbed the littlest kid in the group and sat him down next to us, saying he had something to tell us. The little kid was reluctant to talk, but the big kid pushed him ahead," Seth Mandell recalls, as we chat in his office at the Koby Mandell Foundation in Jerusalem. The foundation, which he and his wife founded shortly after their son's death, runs therapeutic healing programs for the families of other terror victims.
What the boy told the Mandells was that during a recent volleyball game during gym class, Koby had chosen him to be his partner.
"I'm not so good at volleyball," the boy confessed, "but he picked me anyway." Then he began to cry.
When the Mandells and their four children - Koby, Daniel, Eliana and Gavi - immigrated to Israel from the US in 1996, they lived in Efrat for three years before moving to the settlement of Tekoa.
"Koby was the best athlete in his class," Seth explains. "Sports were part of his identity, and sports were how he integrated here. He didn't speak Hebrew at first, and he used to tell me that if he hadn't played sports, he would have been the biggest freier [patsy]. He had been outside the culture, and sports allowed him to enter it. But being a new immigrant, he also understood what it was like to be in the position of someone weak."
Koby, who had been an ardent baseball fan back in his home state, Maryland, continued to play on a Little League team in Efrat. He insisted on wearing a uniform with the number eight - the number of [now retired] Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken, Jr., his favorite player.
"He had a poster of Cal hanging on his bedroom wall," says Seth, providing an interpretation: "He represented the kind of perseverance Koby felt he needed to make it in Israeli society."
Today, Tuesday, the entire Mandell family will be in North Bethesda, Maryland, to attend a ceremony presenting Ripken the Koby Mandell Foundation's first Humanitarian Award.
The family's direct connection with Ripken, began while Seth was speaking at a synagogue in Baltimore just a few months after his son's death.
"The place was packed, and I said that I remembered sitting in Baltimore with Koby watching TV on the night that Cal broke Lou Gehrig's record for the most consecutive games played," Seth describes. "Koby, who was eight years old at the time, stayed up past midnight watching the game and refused to go to sleep until he had sat through the entire 22-minute standing ovation Ripken received from the people in the stands."
Following Seth's speech, an article appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times with a headline about Ripken having been Koby's hero. Ripken's lawyer at the time called his attention to the article, and he said he wanted to do something in Koby's memory.
Ripken will receive the award in Koby's name for his philanthropic work on behalf of disadvantaged children and their families.
The award was created by the Mandells to exemplify the value that was closest to their son's heart - helping less fortunate kids and adults feel better about themselves.
One of the reasons the Mandells moved to Tekoa was because they wanted to feel close to nature, and imagined taking family walks through the nearby ravine on Shabbat. It was in a cave in this very ravine where Koby and his friend, Yosef Ish Ran, were were cornered and stoned to death by terrorists.
The Mandells spent the night after their son's disappearance with the police and army forces that were searching for the two boys. When they learned of Koby's death the following morning, Sherri collapsed in the garden.
"I remember her asking me how we were going to get through this," Seth says. "I told her that we had three other kids, and that we couldn't let the murderers murder them, too."
Seth elaborates by explaining that they could not allow Koby's death to cut them off from the world or from their family. For both Seth and Sherri, this meant infusing their lives with new meaning - learning how to experience their grief and pain, while believing in the possibility that they could still experience life and joy. Maintaining a connection with their dead son and keeping him in the world, they realized, was the only way he could continue being present in their lives and in the lives of their other children. At the same time, Seth says, they understood that being fully alive was the only way they could truly perpetuate their son's memory.
IN Blessing of a Broken Heart, the spiritually and emotionally powerful book Sherri Mandell wrote during the year following the tragedy, she recounts her struggle to make sense of her son's murder within the context of religious faith, and of the history of the land that her family chose to make their home.
It was this struggle, says Seth, that made him and Sherri realize how important it was for others who had suffered similar losses to be able to share their feelings.
The foundation they created is meant to help other bereaved families cope, heal and use tragedy as a catalyst for living deeper and more meaningful lives.
Programs include a series of yearly meetings at Camp Koby for children and adolescents who have lost immediate family members to terror, which focus on recreation, community building, and art or other creative therapies.
"If you look at the narrative of people's lives, families in this situation usually get stuck - they can't get past the moment when tragedy struck," Seth says. "I met one kid whose mother cried every time she saw him, because he reminded her of his dead brother. You need the narrative of life to move on. Camp allows kids to laugh, to have joyful experiences, to feel positive emotion."
Camp counselors remain in contact with kids throughout the year and create a support network for them. Additional activities for kids wounded in terror attacks and for those who have lost close friends to terror, healing retreats for mothers and families, and retreats for young adults are also offered by the foundation.
When sitting shiva for his son, Seth understood what he had to do. As a former Hillel director on US college campuses, he had a lot of fundraising experience and first-hand knowledge of the American Jewish community.
Five months later, he was already working to get the foundation started.
"The work comes from our own intuition, with support from psychologists," he says. "The thing that I learned is that no professional or friend can really understand what it's like to lose a child. We consider ourselves to be grief experts."
In her book, Sherri describes how children at the camp are able not only to share their feelings with one another, but also to be happy together without feeling guilty, because everyone around them is in the same situation. She also describes attending the first retreat for bereaved mothers that the foundation organized, and the sensation of feeling "normal" among other people who are "abnormal" in the same way.
Seth discusses the motivation behind his speaking tours in the US. "People in America feel disconnected from what's going on here," he says. "By speaking to them about our work, I am able to bring them into the world of loss, to overcome the feeling of being distanced from what is going on here. The guys who killed Koby did it so that Jews would be separated from Israel. They wanted my brother in America to be afraid of coming here, because that would make him feel more Jewish. We are using our tragedy to make people feel differently about being Jewish. If we didn't do that, our son's murder would have been a waste. It was my job to give it meaning. Nothing has meaning in and of itself. It's the privilege of every individual to choose meaning. People should realize that even if they chose not to give something meaning, that is also a choice."
FOR SETH, who became an observant Jew prior to meeting and marrying his wife - and who was ordained as an orthodox rabbi - maintaining his relationship with his dead son has been essential to maintaining his belief in God.
"When I relate to God, I have to have Koby with me," he says. "It's part of my relationship with God. I'm a ba'al teshuva [newly religious]. I worked at believing in God for 25 years, and still thought I could have taken if off like a coat. After Koby's death, I had a reason to believe - I had to keep believing so I could feel that eventually we will be reunited."
Seth says he is not entirely a fatalist.
"The Talmud says when you change your place, you change your life. Had we lived in a different place, maybe this wouldn't have happened. But on a theological level, I have to make this meaningful. I don't know what God's plan is, but as a human being I have to deal with whatever God throws at me."
Nor, he says, does he ever get angry at God. "Maybe I'm just not angry. Maybe this is fatalism. Or maybe I haven't figured out how to be angry at myself yet."
Still, his son's death has given him a much bleaker view of the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I am more pessimistic about the will of the Arabs to compromise and to accept us here; and I want less to compromise, because I see it as a weakness," he says.
Regarding Palestinian casualties and grief, Seth says that while on an individual level he feels sympathy for all parents who have lost their children in the conflict - and is moved by Palestinians who have lost children and yet are ready to reach out to achieve peace - he is not interested in what he calls a "left-wing political agenda."
He is also distressed, he says, by the growing schism between Israeli Jews.
He says he "was struck in very bad way" by the fact that, on the day the graves from Gush Katif were transferred to the cemetery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, virtually the only people who came to express their solidarity with the mourners were from the national-religious sector.
While he would like to be able to use the shared trauma of losing loved ones to terror to draw together Israelis of different political persuasions, Seth says he has encountered a disheartening lack of interest in doing so - even among the younger generation.
Last summer, Camp Koby - which runs separate activities for religious and non-religious kids so that both groups can feel comfortable with the camp environment - invited volunteers from both groups to meet for a series of joint activities. The camp got no responses.
"I would like to use the foundation to bring kids together, but I can't force it," he shrugs.
The walls of the Koby Mandell Foundation are lined with quilts crafted by mothers and children participating in the foundation's different programs, and featuring the portraits of the family members they lost to terror.
One quilt includes a section created by orthodox therapist Hezi Goldberg - with a rainbow, a sun and a ladder leading up to heaven, and the inscription: "Dreams never die."
Last year, Goldberg was killed in a suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus.
In The Blessing of a Broken Heart, Sherri speaks about Israel being a society that has suffered from grief since its birth, yet has not had the time or the luxury to deal with the pain.
"But it needs to," she writes.
Asked how he views the Israeli culture of mourning and the ways in which it might change, Seth says something similar.
"In some ways, this society doesn't allow people to feel like normal human beings and to feel their emotions," he claims. "And for people to feel, they have to honor the pain."