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Wednesday, July 16th, 2003

KIBBUTZ NEGBA, Israel - Laughing boys toss bright-colored inflatable balls at one another in a pool nestled amid lush trees and blooming flowers.

The fun under a searing-hot sun could be a snapshot from any summer camp, except for one big difference - every one of the 150 campers has lost a close relative to terror attacks.

"Usually, it's hard for me to relate to other kids," said Efraim Zana, 16, whose brother was killed by a Palestinian gunman last year. "But it's easier for me here. We all had the same experience, and you can talk to each other about it."

Camp Koby, in its second year, was founded by Seth and Sherri Mandell.

It is named for their son, who was 13 years old when terrorists snatched him and a friend off a hiking trail 15 miles south of Jerusalem and beat them to death in a cave in May 2001.

The Mandells, who immigrated to Israel from the U.S., say running Camp Koby has eased their pain and helped scores of children deal with their unique suffering.

"When Koby was killed, we needed to be around others who had lost a child," said Sherri Mandell, 49, a writer who grew up on Long Island. "These kids are the same. They need to be around other kids who have experienced a loss like them."

Sports and therapy

The camp in southern Israel offers sports and other activities, as at any other camp. But there are also grief therapists and counselors who are trained to deal with loss and anger.

Most of all, the children heal alongside others who know their pain firsthand.

"No one pities you here. We are all equal," said Gidi Biran, 17, whose father was stabbed to death 12 years ago.

The Mandells discovered the need for a place such as Camp Koby when they sent his younger brother, Daniel, to a camp in Pennsylvania a few months after the murder.

Instead of enjoying the idyllic camp, Daniel called them in tears.

"He said, 'I'm watching boys Koby's age playing basketball, and I keep thinking how much he would love it here,'" said Seth Mandell, 53, who grew up in Connecticut.

The former college administrator admitted that the camp's success is bittersweet.
"There is a great sense of satisfaction to create an environment where these kids can be themselves," he said. "But there is a constant undertone of the reason we are doing this: Our son was killed."