Families mourn loves, not heroes, on Israeli retreat
Malki and Michal were best friends. Though they went to different schools and came from different families one religious and one more secular the teenage girls had other things in common.Skip to next paragraph
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They were neighbors. They were counselors in the same youth group. They even shared the same initials. And they were heading to a meeting for their volunteer work when they stopped off to get a slice of pizza in downtown Jerusalem. There, a year ago Aug. 9, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a Sbarro restaurant, killing both of them and 13 others.
Now, it is the families of Malki Roth and Michal Raziel who have something in common an unbearable loss that they feel few around them understand. More than 600 Israelis and 1,900 Palestinians a growing number of them children have been killed in the two years since a spiral of Israeli-Palestinian violence usurped the Middle East peace process. Families of these victims are often encouraged to see them as war heroes or martyrs.
But for many families, there is little consolation in viewing their grief as part of a national struggle when what they see is an empty chair at the dinner table.
It was with this expanding list of families in mind that Seth and Sherri Mandell came up with the idea of bringing together Israelis who have recently lost someone close a child, sibling, or parent to a terrorist attack. Last month, while schools and offices were closed for the week-long Jewish holiday of Succot, the Mandells helped to bring 15 such families to this rustic resort and field school, nestled on a hillside near the Sea of Galilee, for an unusual three-day retreat. The pilot program, which combines group therapy with outdoor activities like hiking and kayaking, represents a new approach to healing the most personal of wounds inflicted by a war that is often relayed to the world in political terms.
"We're left with a very big hole in our lives," says Arnold Roth, who was the father of seven until 15-year-old Malki a pillar of a middle child and a classical flautist was killed 14 months ago.
"In my family, no one wants to bring it up because it's liable to trigger responses that we don't want to deal with," he says as his intense, hazel-eyed daughter, Pesi, 10, slips into the chair next to him and wraps small fingers around his hand. "The loneliness of it is offset by talking to other families, because what we're hearing is [that] the same issues keep coming up again and again."
The Mandells would know. In May of last year, their 13-year-old son, Koby, was bludgeoned to death near their home in Tekoa, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Koby and his friend Yosef Ishran, 14, skipped school one day so they could explore the striking desert gorge nearby. The boys' bodies were discovered in a cave the following day, their skulls crushed by stones.
The grisly nature of the boys' murders and the fact that the Mandells were American immigrants who came to Israel from Silver Spring, Md. in 1996 attracted a flood of media attention. The outpouring of shock and sympathy was also tinged with censure from Palestinians and even left-leaning Jews who blamed them for putting their children's lives at risk by moving to the controversial West Bank settlements.
But in the Mandells' drive not to let their son's death pass as another meaningless tragedy, they established the Koby Mandell Foundation, whose programs steer clear of politics and stick to helping people cope with loss. Last month's Family Healing Retreat was devoid of ideological content and focused only on bringing families together for an uncommon hybrid program of therapy and recreation outdoorsy stuff Koby, a star baseball player, would have loved.
"They say you have to move on, but I also feel that you have to feel grief and give it expression, because it's there and it's not going away," says Sherri Mandell, as she begins to weave her way down the cliffs of Arbel, a place through which someday, according to Hebrew Scriptures, the Messiah will come. Some families' losses only grow harder over time: Daniel, now the Mandells' oldest son, cannot believe he's the same age as his big brother Koby, who will forever be 13.