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Jewish Journal

Kibbutz Camp Offers Hope to Survivors

The camp gives them freedom to be kids.

by Eric Silver

October 16, 2003 | 8:00 pm

In Kibbutz Negba, a dozen Israeli teenagers attending a summer camp in the guesthouses of this Negev kibbutz were asked to model small trees, and then decorate them with photographs of themselves.

One sculpted a tree that had been struck by lightning and died. Another molded a three-pronged cactus; one branch had been cut short.

A third boy made a tree from modeling clay and paper; it refused to stand up. "If you give it too much attention," he explained, "it falls down. If you don't give it enough attention, it falls down."

In another class, younger campers were asked to stick pictures of themselves in a setting of their choice. Most drew a house; one drew a coffin.

These are no ordinary children and this is no ordinary camp. All of this week's 150 campers have lost parents, brothers, sisters or other relatives in terrorist attacks. The art classes are taught by therapists.

"We give them a chance to express themselves," said Vinnie Ofri, one of the therapists. "I get them to work on themselves, to imagine places they would like to be. But I'm careful not to open things I won't be able to develop in the time I'm with them."

The camp is named after Koby Mandell, one of two 14-year-old truants bludgeoned to death while hiking in the Judean wilderness near their West Bank home two years ago. His parents, Seth and Sherri, who made aliyah from the United States in 1996, channeled their grief by launching the Koby Mandell Foundation, which provides "healing" activities for more than 350 bereaved families.

Camp Koby is their biggest project -- a series of three 10-day camps for a total of 500 youngsters from 55 towns and villages all over Israel and the West Bank and Gaza settlements. To bridge the religious-secular divide, they have separate all-boys, all-girls and mixed camps. One family sent six children. This week they welcomed their first five from the Druze minority.

The other morning, the site was buzzing with art and drama groups. Teenage boys were practicing karate on a shaded lawn; girls were pounding on finger drums in a clubhouse.

"The camp gives them the freedom to be kids," explained Sherri Mandell, a slim 47-year-old writer with three other children. "They don't have to feel guilty at being alive. Everybody is the same. Kids are often silent victims because they don't want to bother their parents. Here they get a lot of attention. The camp becomes an extended family."

As well as a professional director, a psychologist, a resident rabbi, therapists and coordinators, the camp has a team of young madrichim who live and work with the children, two such counselors for every five youngsters.

Their job is not just to play with their charges, but also to listen to them and comfort them. During our visit, a withdrawn 8-year-old boy on the brink of tears refused to join the others. No one forced him. A madrich quietly took him aside, then offered him a mobile phone to call home. He preferred to play video games on it.

The camp seems to work. In an art class for 8- and 9-year-olds in a converted henhouse, Nadav Littenberg was painstakingly coloring a frame around his picture with crayons. His cousin was killed on the West Bank a year ago. Nadav came to the camp with the dead boy's brother.

"It's lots of fun here," he enthused. "It helps you to forget, though you don't really forget somebody you lost. It helps you to get better. Everybody tells his story about who they lost and how. It's easier with people you didn't know before. I couldn't do it with my class at school."

The foundation is run by Seth Mandell, 53, an extrovert Orthodox rabbi in shorts and biblical sandals who used to work for Hillel on American campuses. His budget for the coming year has grown to $1.5 million, most of it contributed by well-wishers in the United States.

In addition to Camp Koby, the Mandells arrange healing retreats for bereaved mothers, two-day getaways for widows and mothers. Sometimes whole families come along, including fathers. They hold shorter children's camps at Sukkot, Chanukah and Pesach.

"The emphasis is on a combination of fun and healing," Sherri Mandell said. "If not fun, at least relaxation and some element of release." She calls it "therapy lite."

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