Grieving Mothers Come Together to Beat Back Effects of Violence
Israeli Sherri Mandell and Philadelphian Dorothy Johnson-Speight live light years away from one another.
The color of their skins is different, they follow different religions, they speak different languages.
But on Friday afternoon, as participants in Safe Night Philadelphia, these two women shared a long embrace and a deep understanding: Their sons were both killed in brutal, senseless acts of violence.
Speaking to students, parents, and educators at Philadelphia school-district headquarters in Center City, Mandell, whose 13-year-old son Koby was stoned to death by terrorists in Israel, empathized with the pain voiced by fellow participants. That same year, in 2001, Johnson-Speight's son was shot over a parking spot.
She listened attentively as one woman described the shooting of her 5-year-old niece -- Casha'e Rivers -- in Strawberry Mansion this past October. When another teary-eyed mother complained of recurring nightmares and pangs of guilt, Mandell gently rubbed her arm.
"How old was he?" asked Mandell. "What was his name?"
At other points, Mandell offered more words of inspiration than sympathy, urging her peers to "turn pain into power."
"When something like this happens, all the meaning in life falls away," said Mandell. "But if you find something that matters, there's a lot you can do."
Above all, she stressed commonalities of grieving parents.
"There are two types of people in this world," she said at the beginning of her talk. "And it's not black or white, or Jewish and Christian. It's those who have suffered the loss of a child -- and those who haven't."
The program came together after Victoria Yancey, the school district's student funeral and bereavement coordinator, traveled to Israel in January on an interfaith trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Yancey met Mandell, and said she was at once taken with her story.
"She talked about terrorism, and I started thinking, in a way, that's exactly what we're going through here in Philadelphia -- a form of terrorism," said Yancey, referring to a city homicide rate of 169 since the start of 2007.
So Yancey invited Mandell -- who was born in the United States and made aliyah with her husband, Rabbi Seth Mandell, and their four children in 1996 -- to come here and participate in "Safe Night Philadelphia," a school-district initiative that promotes safe student events.
The program, now in its third year, encourages organizations, businesses and public institutions to hold entertaining and educational parties for young people. Friday's Safe Night, for example, featured the rap stylings of motivational artist Sterlen Barr, and a presentation by Women and Children Against Handguns. But the event's main speaker was Mandell.
A journalist who has written for The Washington Post and The Jerusalem Post, among other publications, Mandell and her husband now run a foundation that bears their son's name.
The Koby Mandell Foundation, with offices in Israel and in Bethesda, Md., which is near the Silver Spring area the Mandells hail from, runs spiritual healing groups, learning classes, women's retreats and a camp for children, among other programs.
In her book The Blessings of a Broken Heart, Mandell wrote: "I could have stayed in bed the rest of my life mourning him. I could have remained broken, resenting my life, my lot.
"But there is something in me that refuses to be broken, no matter how intense the pain -- something that moves toward the light.