COMMENTARY: In Oklahoma and Israel, blessings from a broken heart

OKLAHOMA CITY – I felt safe, in crowds or on my own, everywhere I went in Israel.

I feel safe here at home, since returning from my vacation in the Holy Land.

In both cases, the sense of safety may be delusional, given the news of terrorist violence that reaches here from time to time, datelined from Gaza and Jerusalem, and the wadis of the desert — and in light of statistics documenting crime in my home town.

Yaakov Natan Mandell – known to all as Koby — and his friend, Yosef Ish-Ran, likely felt safe when they skipped school one day in May 2001, to hike from their West Bank village of Tekoa to the desert caves in a dry river bed nearby. 

In one of those caves, the boys were beaten to death, in particularly brutal and seemingly personal murders, at a time of tensions between the Jewish people of Tekoa and nearby Arabs. 

I first met Sherri and Seth Mandell, Koby’s parents, in winter 2012, at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, during a visit arranged by Oklahoma City’s Chabad Jewish Community Center.

In our time together at the Memorial, I learned of the work they have done to salve the horrendous wound of those murders, which drew worldwide attention at the time. 

They coordinate camps and seminars for families who have suffered the sort of unimaginable loss they endured. The Koby Mandell Foundation has garnered worldwide support. 

Seth, a rabbi, told me, “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.”

Sherri, once a non-observant Jew, became a passionate believer during her years in Tekoa. Last year, she told me, “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.”

During my recent trip to Israel, I visited the Mandells again at the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding in Efrat, a town on the West Bank. 

Sherri gave me her book, “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” (The Toby Press, London, 237 pages). 

From our interview at the memorial, I thought I “knew” the Mandells, but did not understand them until I absorbed the gripping narrative that is Sherri’s book. She writes that her broken heart “will never be the same,” but she believes God has blessed her with “a new heart.”

And, this: “When you touch broken hearts together, a new heart emerges, one that is more open and compassionate, able to touch others, a heart that seeks God.” 

She compares the death of her eldest child to the worse form of labor, a pain that will never leave. “Death no longer scares me,” she says, yet the weight of her son’s death follows her everywhere, “even into my dreams.” 

Still, she and Seth travel on, giving the gift of silence, companionship and sacrifice.

Then, there is Sherri’s mystical recollections of an ancient-looking man, presumably a rabbi, who attended Toby’s brit  – circumcision – years ago. When the old fellow left, a friend of the Mandells followed the mysterious guest through the streets of town. Hanging back enough to avoid detection, he kept tabs on the old man. Then, just after the dark-robed figure rounded a corner just blocks away from the location of the ceremony, he disappeared.

The Mandells later decided the visitor was Elijah, often described as the unseen guest at family gatherings of observant children of Abraham, the reluctant prophet who heard the voice of God as a gentle, whispering sound.

Zionsgate International arranged for my trip to the Jewish nation, and hosted the Mandells here in Oklahoma 20 months ago. 

For two days of my time in Israel, I made a point to be alone, walking the streets of Jerusalem, primarily in the neighborhood around the American colony, near the former border with Jordan.

The weather was temperate, my pace leisurely, the people friendly. 

I stopped in small shops for postcards and gifts for family. I read regional news reports, and checked on things back in the states. 

News-wise, a professional highlight came at the Knesset on my last day, as I took in meetings involving public officials from Oklahoma and Israel.

I shared a Sabbath meal with Ovadia Goldman — “my” Rabbi from Oklahoma City —  and friends at the David Citadel Hotel.

Across a deep valley in the still of night, we looked toward the ancient walled city and the Temple Mount.

In solitary times and in shared moments of prayer or reflection, memories were forged in fulfillment of a dream to travel there, interrupted by the Arab oil embargo 40 years ago. A story for another time. 

It was a peak experience.

Yet, nothing else from those days compares with ineffable wisdom gained, talking quietly with the couple in Efrat and reading Sherri’s book on the flight home.

Through a gate opened into a tender soul, I glimpsed the torture, the blessing, of a broken heart.

may contact Pat at .