After a Child’s Death, Discovering Signs and Wonders

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 26, 2003, issue of September 26, 2003.
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Two years and an ocean removed from the brutal murder of her 13-year-old son, Sherri Mandell still has problems confronting the question “How are you doing?” with much more than downcast eyes and a sigh.

“The grief stays with you. It’s not something that goes away,” she said before beginning lunch with the Forward last week, while in New York for the release of her new book, “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” (Toby Press).

The book recounts Mandell’s process of grieving and healing since her son Koby and his friend, Yosef Ish-Ran, were stoned to death by Palestinians in May 2001 while hiking in the Judean Hills, a half-mile from their homes in the West Bank town of Tekoa.

This trip back to the United States has not been easy for Mandell. Though she grew up on Long Island, Israel has become her physical and spiritual home in the seven years she has lived there. Her old home now seems foreign.

“Coming to New York, I see how people are wrapped up in the wrong things,” she said. “In Israel I feel whole.”

Mandell says she does not seek a public life. But after finding that her son had become the public face of the suffering wrought by the intifada, she decided to try to provide a public face for the healing that she believes is possible in the wake of such tragedy. In addition to writing the book, she has founded and directed the Koby Mandell Foundation, which offers adult retreats and children’s camps for the families of terrorism victims. She writes with some frequency in the press, both Jewish and non-Jewish, trying to bring home the meaning of her son’s death.

Mandell says she has made a conscious effort to keep anger at a distance. “I am making the choice to not hate every day,” she said. “What I respect in the Jewish community is that there is very little desire for revenge. We say, ‘Let’s cope and move forward.’”

The anger seeps through, though. At one moment in the book, she writes: “I would like the killers to be caught. I wouldn’t mind if the state killed them. But to me, people with the capacity for hate and cruelty are already dead.”

Mandell and her husband Seth, a former Hillel rabbi at Penn State and the University of Maryland, initiated and campaigned for congressional passage of the Koby Mandell Act, which would allow terrorists who kill Americans citizens in other countries to be extradited to the United States, where they can receive the death sentence. The bill was introduced in the Senate last May by Oregon Republican Gordon Smith, and is currently before the Judiciary Committee.

Mandell says the grieving process that she promotes ultimately involves submitting to the whirlpool of contradictory emotions that surface in the wake of tragedy.

“In America there is this rush toward closure,” she said. “You can show anything here, except feelings, and I want to open that up.”

Her life has been a tableau on which the five steps of grieving have played out in grand fashion. The book is in part a plea for other mourners to submit to the panoply of emotions that spring up after an unexpected death.

There are, though, things she would rather banish. Guilt, for one, “would eat me up alive,” she writes, and for guilt she can reserve her hatred. “I hate that which wants to suck us up alive and overwhelm us.”

To those who wonder why she took her family to such a dangerous place in the first place — she asks herself the same question sometimes, she says — she writes: “Nobody had ever been hurt in the [gorges] or in Tekoa. Here in our settlement, I used to feel safe.”

The deaths of Koby and Yosef came just two days after a four-month old Palestinian baby died in a rain of Israeli tank fire. The deaths together came to symbolize the innocence lost in the spiraling violence. But the book does not dwell for long on these raw facts. Instead it moves to the more intimate details of her own mourning and recovery.

But it is more than just a chronicle of this process. The book, the foundation and much of Mandell’s current life are outgrowths of an acknowledged desire to keep some part of Koby alive.

“If I didn’t change or make some meaning out of his death, it would be as if his death didn’t count,” she said.

As part of her project, she refashions Koby’s life through her words into an almost mythical tale. In each memory of her growing son she recalls some small sign of divinity. She recounts how anonymous posters in Jerusalem had predicted the coming of the messiah on Koby’s birthday. Of his end, she writes simply, “Koby’s death is a biblical death.”

Her spare, muscular prose itself has biblical echoes, and the story of her mourning is replete with images from Jewish mysticism — broken vessels as well as broken hearts abound.

Though she is the wife of an Orthodox rabbi, Mandell says the vitality of Judaism’s mystical side came to her only after Koby’s death. During her childhood on Long Island she did not attend synagogue or Hebrew school. Traveling in Europe after graduate school, she went to Israel to visit friends and there she met and fell in love with her husband, a fellow American.

She began studying the Torah, though without any strong spiritual belief, she says. After marriage she adopted her husband’s Orthodox lifestyle. Belief followed only gradually, while they raised four children — Koby was the oldest — and Seth pursued a career as a Hillel rabbi in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 1997, when Koby was in fourth grade, the family moved to the West Bank. Four years later, Koby died.

“Once Koby was killed, all of a sudden it was as if I was living all these signs and wonders,” she says now. “God was revealing himself to me.”

For Mandell the Torah provided a key for these symbols, and suddenly the words she had read before with the eye of an academic became manna for a hungry soul. In a reverse of Job’s story in which disaster engendered spiritual doubts, for Mandell the tragedy actually generated belief, and now in every cricket and oddly shaped rock she sees God and the promise of another world.

“So much emerged from his death that I knew it was a blessing,” she said.

She has come to see the divine everywhere in the world, and she has come to appreciate her family more deeply.

In addition, she and her family have created Camp Koby, to help the siblings and children of other victims of terrorism. But Camp Koby’s growing list of attendees is only a cause for celebration in the most backward of ways.

There seems to be little question that if this is all a blessing, it is a decidedly mixed one. That is the nature of Mandell’s world, though, as she writes in her book: “In this world, pain and beauty coexist.”

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