Kibbutz Negba, Israel - The lunch is actually better than it looks: bland, chewy couscous, stiffening potato bourekas and sugary bug juice.
The cafeteria ruckus more than drowns out the culinary letdown, as pre-adolescent boys drum in unison on lunch tables while bellowing group chants. Out in the courtyard of Kibbutz Negba, near Ashkelon, a camp director in shorts, sneakers and white tube socks converses with far-flung staff via his mobile phone turned walkie-talkie.
By all appearances, Camp Koby seems in line with what you'd expect from the sleepaway camp experience. But there is no homesickness at this camp. Every week, a handful of campers get permission to go home to observe memorials for family members killed in recent years.
"Their homes are really sad. It's a relief for them to be here," said Reuven (Roy) Angstreich, the camp director. "Every kid here has had to say Kaddish in the last two years. That's what's mind boggling."
The kids at Camp Koby are seeking more here than a simple tonic from the summertime blues. Whether Sephardic or Ashkenazic, religious or secular, they come from all over Israel to the free 10-day camp to share the trauma of a common tragedy. All of them have had their childhood marred by the loss of parents and siblings in terrorist attacks.
Here, the personal nightmares of loss become a meeting point for the campers rather than a terrible secret to be concealed. A typical day on a southern Israel kibbutz may include swimming and hiking, in addition to a session of art therapy, allowing the campers to express their grief through drawings.
As the nearly three-year intifada grinds on, the children here are part of a growing subset of Israelis who must figure out how to continue on after family members become the victims of terrorism. Like any untimely loss, the weight of the grief can be an overwhelming, isolating experience for the surviving relatives.
But in a country where terror victims become symbols of national suffering, there is sometimes little empathy in helping the survivors adjust to the new reality.
"In Israel, the people continue but the grief is covered up," said Sherri Mandell, who helped her husband, Seth, found the camp as a memorial to their eldest son, Koby, after he was murdered in a terrorist attack two years ago. "It's not a country that's expressive about feelings because they're not used to stopping.
"It's not like you want people to make you feel better, but you want people to feel with you. Here kids are not alone, and that's very liberating."
The Mandells' nightmare began May 8, 2001, when Koby, 13, went missing along with a friend in the hillside near the Mandells' home in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa. The couple were told the next day that their son had been stoned to death and beaten beyond recognition. Hearing the news, Sherri collapsed.
"Sherri looked at me and said, 'How are we going to go on?' " recalled Seth Mandell, a former Hillel director at Penn State University and the University of Maryland before the family moved to Israel in 1996. "I said that we are going to get through this because we have three other kids. That was the life raft that we held on to."
Even as friends and relatives consoled him at the shiva, Seth Mandell was mulling the creation of a memorial foundation for Koby. That way, the Mandells could keep their son's memory alive and beat back the depression from the loss.
From their grief came the realization that by creating communities of survivors, they could help others grapple with the demons of mourning. Ensuring that relatives of terror victims do not remain isolated became the foundation's mission.
So last summer, the Mandells inaugurated Camp Koby's summer session with 200 participants. The foundation's activities continued with midyear retreats for children and adult women survivors. To date the foundation has raised $1.8 million.
Now in its second year, the summer camp, which attracted 500 kids, is holding three sessions for relatives of terror victims aged 7 to 17 - two for religious boys and girls, and a third coed session for children from secular families. The foundation also runs camps for children with relatives seriously injured in terrorist attacks.
Yotam Hamami, a 17-year-old with his hair in dreadlocks, was one of Camp Koby's inaugural campers last year, attending just a few months after his father was killed in the Passover eve bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya. He arrived at the camp after having sworn off going to parties, a ban he extended beyond the traditional period of mourning because he didn't think it was appropriate.
Meeting his fellow campers, Yotam was surprised.
"I saw that other people like me function normally, and behave normally," said Yotam, who now attends parties hosted by friends. "I realized that, yes, it interrupts your everyday life, but you keep on anyway."
Racheli Zagury, 17, whose brother was killed in an attack on his tank last year, said the camp gives the kids freedom to decide when they want to talk about their loss. This year she met the sister of another member of her brother's crew. Zagury recognized her, but had never actually talked to the girl, two years her junior.
"At first, we didn't talk about brothers. It was about nothing serious, stuff like what we were doing for vacation," she said. "Only afterward did we start to talk about it. Now I'm going to sit and write a song together."
The camp has one counselor for every four campers, much higher than the 1-to-10 ratio in regular sleepaway camps. The counselors are given two days of training seminars before camp starts to prepare them to handle the special group of campers.
Tomer Meron, a counselor for high school boys, said that for such a diverse mix of kids, his campers have an unusually high degree of group camaraderie. Still, he approaches the children like any other group of adolescent campers, with understanding that these kids may need a little extra leeway to express their frustrations.
"Like all other high schoolers, they're in a stage of maturation. But their reactions may come from anger over their loss," he said. "They're in a stage of anger in life. They're mad at God, mad at the world, and mad at their parents."
The Mandells say they plan to expand Camp Koby, and one day hope to find land where they can build their own camp complex. For even if the spate of terrorist attacks should one day stop, there will still be a need for healing. They know well that mourning family members is a daily task that takes on new meaning for surviving relatives as the years wear on. That will provide them with ample work for the future.
"Every parent wants to do something for their children, and this
is what we can do for our son who was killed," Seth Mandell said.
"We can try to raise up his soul in heaven with acts of kindness
for people who have lost loves ones."