Broken Hearts, Bereavement and getting better: Israeli couple honor murdered son by helping others

Sherri Mandell and her husband, Rabbi Seth Mandell, were about half way through a visit to the Oklahoma City Memorial when they stepped into a small side room to sit and talk with a reporter.

They discussed their experiences, over the past decade, organizing camps for children (and, more recently, parents) who have lost loved ones to terrorism.

They came to the cause after their son Koby, at the age of 13, was murdered (stoned to death) near their home in Efrat, Israel.

The rabbi remembered, “Even during the first week after our son’s murder, I knew I wanted to do something to remember him and help people understand what had happened. It was on the front page of newspapers in the U.S. and elsewhere. 
“I had never dreamed of this kind of work. … One year later, we had our first women’s program and it has grown from there. 

We have a camp with 400 children every summer. Twenty days each summer; all of those who attend have lost family members to terror. Just this past summer we began to include children who had lost family members to other traumatic events.”

He continued, “We engage in therapeutic activities, creative arts therapy. We bring them to a environment where they can talk about their experiences, knowing everyone else there has experienced the same kind of loss.”
Sherri said the first few years after Koby’s death were hardest on her three other children, all younger than Koby. She recalls, 
“They were devastated but they were trying to take care of us.” 

The first year the Mandells had a camp that drew 100 children, then the number grew to 200, and then to 500. Ultimately, she said, “They came from all over Israel, from the north to the south.”

She said, “It’s a camp for bereaved children, but not a bereavement camp. It’s revealed from the first what kind of camp they are coming to.” 

The rabbi observed that siblings of children killed by terrorists as Koby was are “different” from others; they carry inside things difficult to describe to others who do not share similar experience. At the Foundation’s camps, however, “Before long, the children understand they are just like everyone else,” with similar experiences, even if different stories. 

Asked to share what she’s learned in the eight years or so since it became clear the Foundation would last, Sherri paused a moment before answering, “You can get better. The camp works. We work with psychologists. We rely on evidence of what works. I’ve learned that you need ongoing support. 
“I work every week now with mothers who have experienced the same things as me. … It was hard for me to learn that I have a role outside of my family.” 

She recounts, “I didn’t understand how the mind works, that a loss like this permeates everything.”
Seth reflects, “I remember a friend telling me after quite awhile that I needed to ‘move on.’ He said, ‘I’ll give you another year.’ I had to explain why I don’t get over it.”

Encouraged to reflect on how their own faith effects their work in a nation like Israel, where the variations of Judaism are so diverse, the rabbi reflected, “We are careful, but we do engage a faith component, primarily through modeling. Because my faith has developed, I consider it a privilege to share it; to express the faith that some day my son and I will be reunited. You see, everything we do is connected with his name. I believe that gives me a real connection to Koby’s soul, and that his soul is in Heaven.“I don’t want to say this is or was a revelation, rather that it was a development for me.”

Asked what important lesson she has gleaned in just the past year of her work, Sherri reflected, “Knowing my limits. I have become better at self-care. I have learned to stop trying to be the one who does everything. I’m trying, a little at a time, to pass on the bereavement work with families to others.”
She continues, “We’ve also learned from children who come from other forms of bereavement. These new kids were accepted as fellow travelers from the very beginning of their time with us.”

As the years have passed, the couple’s work to honor the memory of their son has branched out to touch people outside of Judaism. Sherri said the expansion of focus has come naturally: “There is some kind of spirituality in Israel, something special that happens there.” 

The Mandells’ visit to Oklahoma City was sponsored by the Chabad Community Center (3000 West Hefner Road in Oklahoma City) and Rabbi Ovadia Goldman. The center hosted an evening with the Israeli couple on Thursday (February 23). Focus of the gathering was “Terror to Triumph: One Israel couple’s story of Hope and Healing.”

Seth is former Hillel director at Penn State University and the University of Maryland. Sherri is the author of “The Blessing of a Broken Heart,” and winner of at National Jewish Book Award. The Mandells won a “Partners in Peace Prize” from the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

The Mandells are co-founders of the Koby Mandell Foundation, created after their son was murdered in 2001.
The foundation mission includes these words: “to provide emotional support for families in Israel whose loved ones were murdered by terrorists.” 

In the past decade, terrorism has claimed 1,300 lives in Israel and left 6,000 wounded, many severely. The number of family members of victims is approximately 12,000. Further, around 50,000 Israelis have experienced a terrorist bombing.

Host committee for the Mandell event included the community center, OU Hillel, Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City, Jew Crew, Oklahoma National Memorial & Museum, Temple B’nai Israel and Zions Gate International, an organization of American Christians supportive of Israel.