A World Burning With Divinity: An Interview with Mrs. Sherri Mandell

Sherri Mandell is the author of the book The Blessing of a Broken Heart and co-director of the Koby Mandell foundation, which supports families bereaved through terror and other tragedies. She undertook both of these endeavors after the tragic murder of her son Koby and his friend Yosef Ishran in the week of lag ba-Omer, 2001.

CK: This time of year is a very crowded one, in the Jewish calendar, and especially in the Israeli calendar. For the Jewish calendar, traditionally, Pesach is a celebration of redemption and then the Omer period is a period of mourning. And for the Israeli calendar, there are also the national celebrations of Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim and days of mourning like Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron. For you, it’s also the time in which you lost Koby, How has Koby’s death changed your experience of this time of year and all that happens in it?

SM: So it is very personal. Right after Pesach, once we start counting the sefirat ha-Omer, I don’t count sefirat ha-Omer. Because I feel like we are counting towards lag ba-Omer, and the entirety of the Omer. I can’t. I just feel like it brings us, our family, connecting to the national history and the personal history, which is so painful that I just don’t like to count towards that day. We have, like you said, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hashoah, so the whole period is filled with a lot of pain.

CK: In your book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart, there are two different chapters which bring stories of R. Shimon b. Yohai, who is of course the hero of lag ba-Omer. You illustrate how the stories from his life helped you in your spiritual journey with Koby, and also I think vice versa, that your experience losing a son helped you understand R. Shimon b. Yohai. So, what is the central theme of lag ba-Omer for you?

SM: First of all, Koby was killed in a cave. He was killed there with Yosef Ishran. And where we live, it is just the most beautiful landscape, and there is nothing on the other side of us. There is no habitation really, we can walk from here to the Dead Sea, and we have done that for Koby’s yahrtzeit. In fact, the kids did it this year. It is a ten hour hike overnight. And it just gives you this feeling of infinity and vastness, and I feel that when Shimon b. Yohai and his son went into the cave and they learned kabbalah that there was also this connection with the infinite and with another language. And mourning and grief sometimes also offer you a way out of the ordinary world.

When Koby was killed I felt like I had touched the world to come, that I was not in this world anymore. And the language of this world did not suffice, and it was very very painful because ordinary language did not have enough to console us. And that is what I felt Shimon b. Yohai felt when he came out of the cave. I feel what he wanted to say to the people around him was look at Hashem look at a bigger world, the world is basically burning around us with divinity. And I think that is where the middah k’neged middah occurred. He looked into their eyes I think and burned them up. I think he was just so aware of this burning world around us, and when you are faced with trauma like we were, I should speak only about myself, but I was living in that burning world and people around us were not. So I felt like I couldn’t relate to them, I couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand me.

But I had a sense of something much greater. I also had a sense of how limited this world was, and that there had to be another world. There had to be another world and there had to be a world that included God because this was so beyond my comprehension. And nobody can understand it, nobody has ever told us anything that could unlock this for us because it’s not something that’s comprehensible. I mean, the Palestinians, when people say the killing is senseless, I don’t agree with that because for the Palestinians it is very sensible. They want to kill Jews. But why Koby, and why this way, why Yosef and why our family, why Hashem could allow such cruelty to happen, that I cannot understand and nobody has been able to give us an answer. There are no answers, and I think that is the other part of it, that Shimon b. Yohai understood that.

CK: That actually leads to my next question, which may be a very sensitive one, so you can tell me if you would rather not answer it.  Do you ever wish that Koby and Yosef’s killers would see camp Koby or read your book or your articles?

SM: No. No I don’t wish that, no. I don’t want to know anything about them, and I don’t think they would understand it. To me, they are not humans, so they would not have the sensitivity to appreciate campKoby or to read the book. No.

CK. Ok. My last question for you is about your work in general, and I think that is probably more on your mind now. What’s new at the Koby Mandell foundation? Has the direction of the organization changed as the horrible years of the second intifada, the worst years are going further and further into the past? 

SM: Yes, our camp now is for bereaved children, not just from terror, but from other tragedies.  So we are now becoming a bereavement camp from all types of tragedies. And unfortunately there is still terror, though as you pointed out, Thank God, much less. So we are really, I think, the premier camp in Israel dealing with bereavement for children, and also with the idea of post-traumatic growth, that we are not there for the kids just to give them a good time. We do that, but I think our family serves as a model for this idea of post-traumatic growth. Which is really the Jewish idea for how to deal with tragedy, finding meaning in it and you find a way to help others. I think my husband said this at the dvar torah yesterday at our Shabbos table, that what does God want? He wants you to praise Him in the moments of our greatest despair.  And I think that the work we do sends a message that we are still blessing God and being blessed by God, even in the middle of all this tragedy, and that is the Jewish way. And that is the State of Israel. The State of Israel is testimony to that. And I think each person is testimony to that desire to praise God and you can see that Passover moves from that shame to praise. I think that is really our message for everybody.