Relief from Grief: Summer Camp Offers Refuge from Terrorism's Effects

July 7, 2008 - 8:12 PM

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - As Israelis grapple with ways to handle their fear and grief from nearly two years of terrorist attacks, some 200 young people affected by those attacks are finding mutual support at a unique summer camp.

Camp Koby and Yosef brings together about 200 Israeli children and teenagers who have lost close relatives in terror attacks during the last 22 months.

The camp was the brainchild of Seth and Sherri Mandell, dual American-Israeli citizens, whose own 13-year-old son Koby and his friend Yosef Ish-Ran were bludgeoned to death by Palestinians as they hiked in the hills surrounding their home in Tekoa last year. The murder was particularly brutal and motivated by hatred of Jews.

Seth Mandell, a rabbi and the former head of Hillel, a Jewish movement on American university campuses, said that during the seven-day mourning period, he realized he had to do something to keep his son's memory alive.

Mandell and his wife started the Koby Mandell Foundation, to reach out and comfort others who have suffered the loss of relatives in terror attacks as they have. The camp was part of that vision.

Mandell realized that his own children needed a support system to cope with the loss of their brother. Daniel, who was 12 at the time of his brother Koby's murder, confided one day that when he daydreamed at school, he was thinking about his brother, rather than lunch or recess.

Koby's sister, Eliana, who was 10 at the time of Koby's murder, argued with a friend shortly after the attack. When she apologized and said she was still upset about her brother, her friend replied, "You can't use that as an excuse, I'm upset about Koby, too."

"They don't have a support system," Mandell said. "They have had an experience that's so unusual...they can't turn to [their] friend[s]."

But far from being an extended therapy session, the teens and children who attend Camp Koby and Yosef are treated to a number of fun and challenging activities, all of which set the stage for friendships and understanding between them.

Rappelling, hang-gliding, horseback riding, a movie-making seminar, and swimming in the pool are some of the activities the teens enjoy, while the younger children have activities ranging from a basketball clinic given by a local professional team to arts and crafts and music sessions. The camp offers six different sessions in several different locations.

Yitzhak Sokoloff, director of the teen program of Camp Koby and Yosef, and General Director of Keshet, Center for Educational Tourism in Israel, which is running the program, said the camp seems to be doing the job it was intended to do.

"We're not trying to solve problems psychologically," Sokoloff said. "These are kids who in their daily lives are not ordinary kids [but at the camp]...they've become the norm," he said. "A certain amount of subliminal tension...goes away."

It's a "very quick bonding experience" between the children, he said, with many of the girls engaging in "really deep heart-to-heart talks."

One of the topics brought up in a session for religious girls was when was it OK for them to enjoy themselves again. "It's a dilemma for them," Sokoloff said.

Another issue they deal with is the fact that for a few weeks or months following the loss of their relatives, they had "celebrity status," but then it goes away. Some are comforted by media attention, while others don't like the publicity and some were "burned" by the foreign press, he added.

CNSNews.com recently visited one of the camps on Mt. Carmel near Haifa in northern Israel and spoke to some of the 15 teenagers who came to the camp for the first 10-day session. This was a co-ed group of teens aged 13 to 17.

Reuven Carter, 15, is grieving the death of his mother's boyfriend, Roni, who was like a stepfather to him, he said. Roni, a singer in a band, was performing at a party in a banquet hall in Hadera when a terrorist opened fire on the crowd with an automatic weapon, killing Roni and several others in the hall.

Reuven, the oldest of six children, said his life has not been easy but the camp has helped him to make new friends.

"I felt like a big part of me was gone. I loved him so much, he was like my father... Still today it hurts when I think about it," Reuven said.

"It's been hard. It's been real different," he added. "I have to help my mother and I'm the oldest one in the family. Roni was there always... The responsibility is on me [now] to take care of the family. It's hard but I get through it."

Reuven, who wants to be a professional basketball player, described the camp as "a great opportunity to meet people who know what I feel and know what I'm going through from day to day."

Lior Kabezah's grandparents were killed in the suicide bomb attack at the Park Hotel on the eve of Passover in March. The youngest of three children, Lior, 13, said, she and her parents don't speak much about the loss of her mother's mom and dad. The camp has allowed her the opportunity to express herself more freely.

"[The camp is good because] my friends [here] know my situation and I can speak with them. I can't speak about this with my parents. Also for them it's hard," she said.

"Its easier for me to speak to the girls here because they know what it is [to lose someone dear in a terror attack]," Lior said. "My friends [at home] are always saying, 'relax, relax' because they don't understand anything. They don't know what this is...

"When my friends speak about their grandfather and grandmother, I ask them not to speak about it, at least not around me," she added.

It is clear that the girls are developing close relationship. Natalie Phachima, 14, lost her father in a terror attack about four months ago. She spoke about it and when she had finished, she was encouraged by a few of her newfound girlfriends, who lined up to give her hugs.

Natalie, who has a 10-year-old sister and 2-1/2-year old-brother, brought her cousin Tal to the camp with her. All the participants were encouraged to do so if they wanted to. When asked if she was managing, she replied, "I have good friends."

Ayala Pikholz, 14, lost her 20-year-old brother Yaron, a soldier, in a drive-by shooting attack last November. She said she went through a hard time in the beginning and then returned to the routine of life.

But here at the camp, she and her friends can share each evening and cry together. "It's impossible to forget but we are trying to forget the pain," she said.

Social worker and camp counselor, Maya Inbar, said the camp provides an escape for the children from an often heavy atmosphere at home.

"Camp Koby [and Yosef] is an alternative framework. It's not a treatment [center]," said Inbar.

"We're giving these kids the chance of a change of atmosphere... Most of these kids don't speak about their problems at home. They don't speak to their parents about their feelings. Most of them [don't] have a very light atmosphere at home. Here they can have a chance to run away from all these things and have some fun," she said.

E-mail a news tip to Julie Stahl.

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