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Jewish Journal

Turning loss into laughter

by Rachel Marder / JointMedia News Service

December 26, 2011 | 12:25 pm

Koby Mandell. Photo from Koby Mandell Foundation.

Koby Mandell. Photo from Koby Mandell Foundation.

Like many 13-year-old boys, Koby Mandell appreciated a good joke.

It’s fitting, then, that the foundation started in his memory has become well known for its biannual comedy show—now in its 7th year—that tours Israel and raises roughly $70,000 for the foundation’s work.

This month’s “Comedy for Koby” shows featured a well-rounded lineup of American comedians with distinct styles of hilarity and material (motherhood, Obama, the Irish, Israeli absurdity), while still keeping the jokes PG-rated. Stops included Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Raanana, Beit Shemesh, Modi’in and Gush Etzion.

In May 2001, Koby and his friend Yosef Ish Ran were stoned to death by Arab terrorists in a cave near the Mandell family’s West Bank home of Tekoa. Out of the immense tragedy, his parents founded the Koby Mandell Foundation to help fellow Israelis cope with the profound grief of losing a loved one to terrorism. The foundation runs a 10-day camp (now in its 9th year) that meets once or twice annually for 7 to 18-year-olds who have lost a loved one; support groups for mothers and widows; and other activities for couples or families like hiking trips and healing workshops.

Koby was a fan of comedy and “liked to laugh,” his father, Rabbi Seth Mandell, tells JointMedia News Service.

“We always try in all of our programs to do it in a way that Koby would have liked,” Mandell says. “That was really the beginning of the camp… We wanted to do something that Koby would have enjoyed doing.”

Mandell and his wife Sherri have three other children—Daniel, 22, who recently finished his army service, Eliana, 20, who just completed her national service as well, and Gavi, 16, an 11th grader. The family made aliyah in 1996 from Maryland, where Mandell served as the University of Maryland’s campus Hillel rabbi from 1991-1996. 

“When you undergo a tragedy like the loss of a child or loss of immediate family member to terror, you can’t remain the same,” says Sherri, author of The Blessing of a Broken Heart. “The question is will you use that crisis to change for the better or will you allow the crisis to make you become less of a person. And we have tried to have the tragedy motivate us to both become better in terms of our personal lives and to make the world a little bit better as well.”

From Dec. 6-13, comedians John Mulroony, Maryellen Hooper, Saleem Muhamad and Avi Liberman took the stage in honor of Koby. The Los Angeles-based Liberman, who teamed up with the Mandells in 2003, estimates that each show draws some 400 attendees.

Liberman, who was born in Nahariya but grew up in Houston, Texas, says the idea to bring his act to Israel stems from a trip he took during the second intifada. He felt a sad mood in the country and decided he could do something about it. He started performing with other American comedians in Israel to benefit charitable causes. Before joining the Mandells, Liberman raised funds for other groups, including the Crossroads Center in Jerusalem, which assists English-speaking youth battling addictions.

“It’s nice to be able to come here and do my job for people who really appreciate it,” Liberman says. “I think it seems like it matters a little bit more [in Israel].”

Liberman says another motive for his comedy tours is for artists to get to know Israel and leave with a positive impression so they “go back and talk about what a great country this is.” Every comedian he has brought has had a wonderful and memorable time, he says.

The Mandells never miss a performance of Comedy for Koby, and they even open the show with a couple of their own jokes. Still, Mandell says he comes to the shows with a heavy heart, sad that his son cannot enjoy the shows with them.

“It is extremely gratifying that people no longer only identity the Koby Mandell Foundation and the Mandell family with tragedy. We are now identified with comedy,” he says.

The money raised supports the foundation’s camp, which used to run four times a year but has had to cut back due to lack of funds. First and foremost, the camp offers the kids a fun experience, Mandell says, and second, provides a creative arts and nature therapy program that helps participants tap into their pain and bond with others going through similar experiences.

“Kids who feel isolated come to Camp Koby and don’t feel alone anymore,” Mandell says. “It creates an environment where the kids know they can speak,” he says.

The foundation’s support groups also benefit from Comedy for Koby. Every Wednesday for the past eight years, Sherri has participated in the support group for bereaved mothers in Jerusalem facilitated by a pastoral counselor and therapist/psychodrama counselor. The tight-knit group has roughly 30 participants.

Sherri recently started a spiritual support group for English speakers incorporating Jewish text and personal prayer, and a Hebrew-speaking group for widows meets in Haifa. She says the groups aim to help women find the tools not only to cope with loss, but also to use loss to become better human beings. Most of all, the group offers a safe and honest space for the women to discuss their pain.

“I think what happens is bereaved families go back to their normal lives, but they’re not normal,” Sherri says.

Time passes, and the families need to talk to people who have gone through the same experience, she adds. “You’re free of your pain in a way because it’s not just yours. It’s shared.”

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