The website of The Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com) is featuring a 6 week series of articles entitled "This week at Camp Koby". The articles are being written by North American teenagers participating in Camp Koby as counselors and reflect on their encounters with children who have lost parents or siblings to terror.
Take a moment and read a bit about life at Camp Koby:
Camp Koby, an American style 10-day summer camp for children and teens who have lost parents or siblings in terror attacks, has welcomed 28 high school students from North America who will be participating this summer in a six-week intensive Humanitarian Israel Advocacy Training mission.
The goal of the program is to connect the American students with Israeli families and give them a better understanding of Israeli society. It shows them how those who have been struck by terror react and adjust in their post-traumatic phase of having lost a loved one.
"Connecting American teenagers to children of Camp Koby will deepen their relationships to the Jewish people and teach them the realities of being Jewish in today's world," said Rabbi Seth Mandell, father to Koby Mandell and founder of The Koby Mandell Foundation.
Camp Koby is sponsored by The Koby Mandell Foundation, which aims to provide individuals and families with the tools to transmit their pain and suffering of their terror tragedy into an experience of positive personal growth, deeper interpersonal relationships, and active community leadership. Within the program participants receive emotional and psychological support through formal and informal interactions and discussions.
The camp was named for Koby Mandell and Yosef Ish-ran, two teenage boys who were brutally murdered four years ago in a cave in Wadi Tekoa, south of Jerusalem. Campers learn how to relax and have fun with their peers while at the same time are provided with the opportunity to express the grief and anxiety they may have in common. The program includes seminars and trauma therapy, designed to teach participants new types of therapy, such as writing, extreme sports, holistic and art/dance therapy.
The Israel Advocacy program offer tours to key places in Israel as well as seminars on subjects such as security. Visits to Jerusalem and a custom designed training program with Upstart Activist (a professional Israel Hasbara Company) are aimed at providing the North American participants both the background and skills necessary for representing Israel, as well as planning community events upon returning to their hometowns.
Jul. 19, 2005 21:29 | Updated Jul. 27, 2005 12:38
By Rocky Lipsky, New Jersey
"Keren Koby caan vcaan Ha balagan." This cacophonous cry is impossible to translate, yet it roughly means "Camp Koby has arrived, let the craziness begin," which can be heard throughout the grounds of Camp Koby in Kibbutz Gevulot, Israel.
As eager campers and enthused counselors shout excitedly, I, Rocky Lipsky, a senior at the Frisch School in New Jersey, know that I have arrived. I am one of the 28 American high school students spending the summer as counselors at Camp Koby, a summer camp for children who have lost parents or siblings in terror attacks. The members of the American contingent at Camp Koby represent over 10 different high schools in North America. Over the next six weeks, Orlee Yahalom, a senior from Ramaz High School in New York, Michael Brandwein, a senior at HAFTR High School on Long Island, and I will be sharing our experiences at camp with JPost.com readers.
When I informed my friends of my summer they had mixed reactions. Some were concerned with my safety during the 12-hour trip to Israel. Others were intrigued by the concept of working hands-on with terror victims. However, most of my friends were simply confused as to why I would ever willingly register for such an emotionally draining program.
But the skeptics just cannot understand. Unlike most of my peers, I did not decide to spend time in Israel in order to have a typical summer experience. Although I have been in Israel less than a week, I can already sense that this summer will be one of personal growth, self-improvement and self-development. For the past week, my group of 14 Americans has visited various therapeutic centers throughout Israel. (The other half are serving as counselors at Camp Koby and we will switch for the second session). We have learned, not only how to utilize movement, drama, and art therapy to help heal the emotional wounds of our campers, but also how to heal ourselves.
The internal development that will take place over the course of the summer, I am looking forward to finally "giving something back" to the Jewish community at large. After much discussion, Orlee, Michael and I have concluded that the majority of the American counselors chose to participate in Camp Koby in order to actively display their solidarity with Israel in a meaningful way. After spending the entire school year hearing of countless terrorist attacks in Israel it became clear that our desire to volunteer would be most appreciated in Israel. No longer content with merely raising funds for organizations, we decided to take our responsibility to Israel one step further.
We truly have a unique opportunity. I am excited to connect with my campers and to be part of their lives even if only for one summer. While I am nervous that they will have trouble relating to my American outlook, I realize that giving hugs is a universally nurturing gesture, understood internationally. Despite my petty concerns, I am truly looking forward to forging meaningful relationships with my campers and the other staff members at camp - relationships that I think could last for a long time to come.
Before Camp Koby began, I was not really sure what to expect. We were taught and prepared to cope with a crying child, or one that perhaps was too depressed to talk to other people. As a result, I pictured the camp as one with a sullen atmosphere, with the counselors prepared to provide support around the clock.
I could not have been more wrong. Camp Koby is the happiest camp in the world. Chanichim, (Campers) as well as madrichim (counselors) spend 10 days with smiles on their faces. There is no better place in the world.
There are too many stories racing through my head, and too little room to write them all down. A 12-year-old boy learned how to swim in camp. Many others went on a roller coaster for the first time in their lives. Some felt better than they had ever before while singing during karaoke night. And yet, lost ones can never truly be forgotten.
When a family loses a loved one unexpectedly in a terrorist attack, the joy that once filled their house vanishes instantly. Days that were often the cause of celebration, such as Shabbat, are transformed into bitter reminders of their lost ones. Twelve-year-old boys recite Kiddush Friday night in place of their fathers. Their lives never return to normal.
This summer, the healing began as the buses pulled up to the camp on Wednesday morning, July 6, when children exuberantly rushed to greet their former counselors and meet their new ones. Over the next 10 days, the children had the time of their lives engaging in exciting activities such as swimming, trips to Superland, a bowling alley, a water park, a night hike and several other activities.
The campers made new friends and rekindled friendships from past camps. They were able to be themselves, because all campers in Camp Koby share the same loss. There is no awkward silence when one says "I lost my father," as there is if they were to go to any other camp. Campers feel free to express themselves in ways they would not had they gone to just any other camp. Their happiness is contagious; not only did they have the time of their lives, I did too.
While playing with a seven-year-old child in the pool, I was told of the many feelings he has had since his father was taken from him. When the camp rabbi asked another of my campers what he would do if he saw the same Arab who had killed his best friend, the camper replied he would turn him over to the authorities, but not before taking something from the terrorist. He explained that the Arab had taken a part away from him, and it was his duty to return the deed. These sporadic moments served as the only real reminder of the true reason for Camp Koby.
I don't know what to feel. Being a counselor was both uplifting and somewhat disheartening. While the cheerful aspects definitely outweigh the more sullen ones, one thing remains evident: They have not succeeded. Hamas, Fatah, Hizbullah, the Aksa Brigades and many other terrorist organizations have labored tirelessly over the last four years trying to remove every ounce of security and delight from the Israeli people. After spending the beginning weeks of my summer at Camp Koby, it is apparent that only have they not succeeded, they have failed miserably.
When my group of campers, the beynaim (Middle School) went kayaking on a day trip, the girl who I went in a kayak with insisted that our boat be the first one to reach the end of the river. At first, based on my experience, I thought that my camper wanted to do this simply because she wanted to compete with her friends and prove her ability to be good at boating. This would not be such a big deal to me, since everyone confronts strong achievers at some point in life. However, I soon knew that this wasn't the case. At Camp Koby, people simply didn't think on those terms, and competing with your friends just doesn't exist. Although paddling the kayak at the fastest speed possible would be physically straining, we made it our goal.
Along the way of our mission to reach the end first, I suggested that we take a break and stop paddling, in order to rest our arms. But my camper refused, and said that I could rest if I wanted to, but she wanted to continue paddling. When I asked her why she wanted to reach the end of the river first, my camper explained that being the first one there is the most fun, as it adds so much more excitement to the activity. As she had hoped, we reached the end long before anyone else had, and our quick paddling and perseverance paid off. When we reached the end and poked the ground with our ores, it was clear that she was satisfied and that her day had been made.
However, what was even more clear was that her desire to be the first boat there wasn't a matter of competition. When we reached the end, no other boats were even there to see how quickly we made it. It wasn't a matter of proving herself to her friends, since they didn't even see that we were the first boat to reach the end. My camper's goal to reach the end was to please nobody but herself, as she wanted our kayaking experience to be as worthwhile as possible.
I have found that because of the intensity of the loss these kids have experienced, they are prepared to experience other feelings to a very intense degree. Since they know what pain on a very deep level feels like, they can feel happiness to that depth as well. This idea becomes clear whenever the kids are in activities, and their smiles have never been bigger. No matter what the activity is - arts and crafts, swimming, or tai-chi - they are having the times of their lives. The appreciation they display for the world around them has no boundaries. When we climbed Masada, they embraced each sight we saw with open arms, no matter how hot it was or how tired we all were. When they got up to sing and dance, they would pull all their energy into it, no matter how exhausting it was or how silly we looked.
Instead of focusing on the hardships that came along with what we were doing, they indulged in the positive side of everything. From our chessed work, we learned how brave these Israeli children are, continuing to enjoy life and recognizing all it has to offer, no many how many bad sides of life they have seen. What is so special about witnessing the strength these kids have is that we can learn to do the same. Along with the kids, we learn to appreciate every daily activity we indulge in, whether it is at a summer camp in Israel or during our daily life in the United States. We not only learn how amazing these kids are, but they also show us how to strive to look at life the way they do. All in all, the 10 days I spent at Camp Koby, with the most positive and glowing kids I have ever met, were the best and most influential days of my life.
Finally, after months of anticipation, my chance to work at Camp Koby arrived.
Until now my half of the group participated in a series of seminars and tours on understanding trauma and the current situation in Israel, but now we would become counselors and receive our own campers.
The night before the campers came; I sat nervously on my bed, pondering the possible issues that would inevitably arise during the next ten days. I hoped desperately that the language barrier would not be too difficult to handle. I prayed that my campers would view me as part of the Camp Koby staff, regardless of my less-than-perfect Hebrew accent and American origin.
But most concerning to me was the religious element of the camp. I wondered whether it would be possible for my campers who were for the most part non-observant to relate to me, a sheltered Orthodox high school senior from New Jersey.
As soon as my campers stepped off the bus, my fears melted instantly. I, an American counselor and a complete stranger, was greeted with warm smile and big bear hugs.
It immediately became clear that the language barrier would not serve as a major hindrance in forming relationships with my campers. As the week progressed and my bonds with my campers were strengthened, my fears about the camp were mitigated. However, I continued to dread Friday afternoon when my campers and I would be naturally separated because of Shabbat.
Once again, my paranoia proved to be for naught. I was amazed when my campers, who had never revealed any sort of religious conviction until this point, arrived at synagogue with a prayer book in hand to welcome the Shabbat. They welcomed the "Shabbat Queen" enthusiastically with their singing of Lecha Dodi and during the Friday night meal, I was amazed by the Shabbat atmosphere that the campers created. They sang Shabbat songs in torn jeans and tank tops, a sight that is rarely seen in West Orange, New Jersey. I was truly inspired.
My experience at camp this past Shabbat showed me the extent of Camp Koby's uniqueness. Here, hundreds of children, in camp together because they lost a mother, father, sister or brother to terror, created a genuinely uplifting Shabbat. The holy presence of Shabbat was tangible, able to be felt by all in the dining hall.
I am devastated that my summer at Camp Koby is coming to a close, but I have made incredible memories, such as this memorable Shabbat. I am so thankful for the opportunity to have such a deep and rewarding summer.
A wise man once said: "Life is like a game of poker; you are dealt your cards, and the outcome relies solely upon how you play them." This summer, our group of 28 North American teenagers was dealt a royal flush - the best possible hand in poker - and no other player can stand in our way as we play at our unrivaled hand.
Israel is no longer an American-style hotel and a shopping trip down Ben Yehudah Street. The disengagement is no longer a story that carries with it minimal curiosity. Israeli teenagers are no longer tough, impolite adolescents. Therapy is no longer a trip to a doctor's office with a session on the couch. Ra'anana and Efrat are no longer just names on a map. And most importantly, terrorist victims are no longer just faces on a poster.
Israel is now a place with its own unique culture, where five million Jews form the backbone of a very diverse state. The disengagement has faces; whether it is the face of the camper who lives in Gush Katif or the madrich (counselor) who will carry out orders in less than one week's time. Israeli teenagers are devoted to giving; whether it is volunteering at Magen David Adom or at Camp Koby and Yosef. Therapy now includes yoga, dance, sailing, drama, writing, sports, horseback riding and dog training. Ra'anana and Efrat are two loving communities that graciously opened up their houses for us over Shabbat and sought to discover what it was that we could teach them. And terror victims can lead happy lives.
They live happy lives.
While the past four articles have depicted the ecstasy and love flowing freely in Camp Koby and Yosef, I feel that the message has not, and cannot be properly portrayed. I still find myself in utter disbelief as to the attitude of my campers when I speak to them each week. Rabbi Seth and Sherri Mandell, along with their incredible staff, have created something truly remarkable.
Finally, there are two more things that cannot go unsaid in this article. The next week will bring with it both the saddest day of the Jewish calendar and possibly the most challenging of the year. It is important to remember that the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) was destroyed because of sinat chinam (baseless hatred). Regardless of how events play out in these troubling times, we must take with us the lessons of Tisha B'Av and truly remain one people with one heart. G-d has dealt us a troubling hand – we must work together and play the cards right.