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by Netty Gross

A summer camp for kids touched by terror brings fun -- and support -- to a community of bereaved

Yotam Hamami, a 7-year-old camper at Camp Koby and Yosef, sits in mid-July under a thatched hut at Ashkelon’s Nitzanim beach. His bunkmates are taking turns driving mini-jeeps at a nearby track; counselors offer sliced sponge cake and cold water to those waiting their turn. Hamami’s tight black corkscrew curls are streaked with sand. He’s already had a turn jeep-driving and can take time out to talk. Camp, he says, is "great, I give it a 10." But the cell phone in his palm, allowing him instant contact with his mother, suggests other issues at play.

Indeed this is not a regular camp and Hamami is not a regular camper. Now in its second year, Camp Koby and Yosef is a 10-day, tuition-free American-style sleep-away camp for many of the hundreds of children, ages nine through 17, who have lost parents or siblings to terror or war, whose parents have been injured, or who have been hurt themselves in the conflict. Hamami’s father, Amiram, 44, was general manager of the Park Hotel in Netanyah and died of his wounds two days after the March 27, 2002, suicide attack at the hotel that claimed the lives of 30 attending a Passover Seder. "My dad tried to hang on. He was stubborn," says his son with a quiet pride, digging a toe into the sand.

Yotam is here with three younger brothers. The youngest, Netanel, aged 9, who was wounded in the attack (with shrapnel in his leg), gleefully waves as a counselor ferries him on his shoulders.

Though it functions like any other camp, with activities and pranks, "we have unique issues," says director Roy Angstreich.

For example, most of the children have sat shivah and said, or are saying, mourner’s Kaddish.

Among the campers are those who lost relatives in suicide attacks at Jerusalem’s Sbarro’s pizza parlor and Moment café, and the pre-military academy in Atzmonah in the Gaza Strip, and in bus bombings in the West Bank settlement of Emanuel and at the French Hill junction in Jerusalem. Cousins from the Nehmad-Ilan families, which lost eight members in a suicide attack on their March 2, 2002, bar-mitzvah party in Jerusalem’s Beit Yisrael neighborhood, are enrolled, as is Shir, the younger sister of Ofir Rachum, 16, who was lured via an Internet chat room by a Palestinian woman to Ramallah, where he was slain on January 17, 2001.

Some of the counselors are also bereaved. Shai Odesser, 21, is the son of Mordechai and nephew of Shlomo who were shot to death last July 30, when their truck came under fire near the West Bank village of Jama’in, near Ariel.

Staffers politely ask visiting reporters not to question campers directly about their loss, but some kids are open. Two bar mitzvah-age brothers tell me up front that their father was shot to death 10 years ago in a drive-by terror attack and that their stepfather, with whom their mother had a daughter, subsequently committed suicide. "We didn’t like him anyway," the older brother says.

Most, however, make no mention of their ordeals. Sitting alone atop a fence, a colorful knitted yarmulke on his head and staring silently at the racing jeeps, is 9-year-old Evyatar. His father, Rabbi Elimelech Shapira, head of the hesder yeshivah at Peduel on the West Bank, died in a shooting attack at the settlement of Alei Zahav near Ariel last July 25. Evyatar avoids mention of his father when asked about himself; he talks about the fun he is having. "They took us bowling and to Superland [a theme park]. The food is great. We go swimming each day."

And Kobi, 12, sitting alongside Evyatar, doesn’t mention his brother, an army first lieutenant, who was killed by sniper fire in Nablus. But he rates the camp a "9½," because "nothing in life is whole."

Like the bios of its campers, the camp’s origins are tinged by tragedy. It was established by a foundation that bears the name of Koby Mandell, 13, who was bludgeoned to death in May 2001 in a cave near the West Bank settlement of Tekoa with his 14-year-old friend Yosef Ish-Ran, by Palestinian attackers who are still at large.

Created by Koby’s grieving parents, Sherri and Seth Mandell, American immigrants who moved to Tekoa in 1998 and have three other children, the foundation has raised some $1.5 million. (Seth makes monthly fundraising trips to the U.S.) The money goes to services, not personal cash grants: retreats for war and terror widows and bereaved mothers; holiday get-togethers for kids; and summer camps.

Why camps? "Koby loved camp," says Seth, a 53-year-old rabbi, former freelance business writer and Hillel director who, voice quivering, says he visited his son’s grave just after camp started, "to share the moment with him." But more importantly, he goes on, he and Sherri wanted to create a "safe" environment where bereaved kids "can feel normal and have fun."

Asked if a special for-bereaved-only children’s camp doesn’t delay the youths’ crucial reimmersion into normal life, Sherri, a soft-spoken woman who wears straw hats over thick blonde hair and has recently published a wrenching book on her ordeal, shakes her head. No. A bereaved person, she says, never feels quite themselves in "normal" society. "People stare discreetly in supermarkets. You feel it." And it’s even harder on kids, she says, who are "given a week off school to sit shivah plus an extra week. That’s it."

She recalls that the summer after Koby’s death, her son, Daniel, then 12, arrived in a camp and broke down: He’d been confronted by the sight of kids Koby’s age playing basketball and sobbingly told his mother by phone, "Koby would d this place." Surviving siblings, she explains, feel guilt. "Here, however, everyone is coming from the same place. The abnormal is normal." Just the other day, she says, she heard one camper casually ask another, "’Why are you here? Who did you lose?’ It’s sad but oddly natural."

Yotam Hamami agrees. He and all his family were at the Park that terrible night (he was playing backgammon with brother Yair on the second floor), and he says he is just healing now from the "nightmares, flashbacks and feelings of depression." And while his family has even managed to revisit the rebuilt hotel, Yotam says, "It’s still hard. My mom’s in a lot of pain. People are compassionate but ultimately no one understands this kind of grief except those who have unfortunately gone through it."

"Here we’re one big grieving family," adds Shai Odesser, "and we try to help the kids and each other." Odesser, who was outraged by reporters who "harassed" him and his family at his dad’s and uncle’s funerals, says he gently intervened when one camper "was listening incessantly to very depressing music. I got him to open up and talk."

Another counselor, Hanan Rein, who has no personal experience with bereavement, says most of the boys in his bunk have lost their fathers. One evening when schnitzel was being served, one camper stopped eating and wept. "First, we just let him cry. Then we let him speak. Turns out his father had always prepared schnitzel for him."

Six hundred bereaved children, or children whose parents have been injured, are attending seven separate 10-day sessions of Camp Koby and Yosef throughout the summer: Three are for Orthodox children who prefer gender-segregated camps; another three are for secular or modern Orthodox campers who seek a co-ed environment; and the seventh ("and most complicated, we never tried this") is for children who have themselves been injured in the conflict. The combined cost is $500,000; participants pay nothing.

Much is invested in staffing -- there’s a counselor for every four campers -- "fun and comfort." For example, this year a decision was made to rent out the pastoral, comfortable vacation village at secular (but strictly kosher for the camp) Kibbutz Negbah, luxurious by most Israeli camping standards. Hosting teenagers, says Seth, is also costly: They require off-campus activities such as jeeping and kayaking, and even though the camp is not for profit and for bereaved kids, "no one gives us a discount."

Many camp policies are shaped by Sherri and Seth’s experience with grief. For example, parents or caregivers can decide whether to enroll children even at the last minute. "After Koby was murdered," says Sherri, "I lost the ability to plan in advance." Bereaved kids may also bring along a friend or cousin. Sherri says traumatic loss of a family member can "parentify" children, who may feel guilt about leaving the grieving parent. She tells of one child who lost his cell phone and fretted that the episode would "put extra pressure on my mom." The camp’s buses also travel across the country picking up participants at home or close to it.

Activities are similarly plotted to alleviate tension and play up the lighter side. Creative arts director Jackie Goldman says that although art and dance therapists were hired, "we do not use the word ‘therapy,’ which implies a process that starts and finishes. We want the kids to feel safe to express their thoughts freely" -- safe from fear of encountering a potentially painful situation. Goldman tells of a bereaved child who found herself in tears in art class at school because the assignment was to draw a picture of one’s family. Here, she says, the summer’s art project is "trees." Campers are asked to use materials -- clay, papier-mâché -- and design his or her own tree with an eye toward creating a "community forest." "Some trees," says Goldman, "were strong, others were fragile." One, she says, was struck by lightning, another had fallen branches.

Sherri confirms that her son’s memorial foundation, and by extension, the camp -- where many of the campers are wearing T-shirts, caps and pins emblazoned with the Camp Koby and Yosef logo -- "keeps Koby’s name and memory -- and us -- alive."

"Every parent wants to do as much as possible for their child," adds Seth. "This is what I am doing for Koby’s soul. Helping other people. Every act of grace lights the darkness."

Doesn’t the enormous preoccupation with their son prevent them from letting Koby go? And isn’t letting go of the dead a step in recovery? Seth says he knows bereaved people, "who have chosen to consciously put it all behind them. Right now I can’t imagine doing that."

And Sherri adds that many textbook theories on grief are wrong. "Grief is a lifelong process to integrate the dead loved one, not separate him out. There is a way to create a healthy connection by finding meaning in death. Tragedy has power. Look all around you," she gestures as campers swirl and tumble about. "Koby is doing things."