Young Lives Scarred by Loss Find Balm at a Summer Camp
The New York Times, July 21, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

NEGBA, Israel- As the the guests were arriving from synagogue on that night in March 2002, Yotam Hammami was lingering in his hotel room, lingering the way only a 15-year-old boy can. It was Passove, and three flights below him, in the banquet hall of the Park Hotel in Netanya, the Seder was about to commence.Then Yotam felt the whole building shudder and heard a blast. He ran down the stairs to find bodies strewn amid chunks of rubble, and instinctively began helping survivors stagger outside to the ambulances.

When Yotam's mother, Rina, reached the hotel in her car moments later, she asked if he had seen his father, Amiram, the hotel manager. Yotam realized he hadn't. In the maelstrom, mother and son eventually found the body. Nearby was the gun Mr. Hammami had started carrying in case a suicide bomber tried to strike.

Amiram Hammami's death left behind a widow and six children. In the weeks afterward, Yotam had nightmares of the explosion and the screams; he could not erase images of corpses from his brain. His mother found it nearly impossible to get out of bed. The youngest children clutched at her hands when crossing even the quietest street.

Two or three months later, after the formal mourning period, the phone rang in the Hammami home. It was an invitation for Yotam to attend a camp, a special camp for children who had lost parents or siblings in terrorist attacks.

The place was named Camp Koby in memory of another teenager, Koby Mandell, who had been bludgeoned to death by Palestinian attackers in a cave just outside a West Bank settlement. His parents, a rabbi and a writer originally from the United States, had created the camp in part as an answer to their own grief.

It aspired to provide a balance of traditional camp activities, various forms of art therapy, and the comradeship of other children. The goal was not to force counseling on the children but to establish an environment in which it was available, both from trained social workers and fellow campers.

Yotam entered Camp Koby with a bit of reluctance. Having fun somehow felt disloyal to his father's memory.

Still, he spent a week sailing on a catamaran and parachute-jumping off seaside bluffs and competing in swim races. He took some art and drama classes that subtly included therapy. Mostly, though, he talked at night to the other campers, each one being what the theologian Henri Nouwen famously called a ' 'wounded healer.''

''I can talk with them about fear,'' Yotam said in an interview, as he was starting his third summer at Camp Koby. ''Sometimes I am afraid to go to the mall. I can explain that to the campers. I can't explain it to my friends. And the explosion, how I feel about it. How I feel about losing my father. They react normally. The way they look at me, they don't look surprised. It's like they know what I'm saying. It's familiar to them.''

In nearly four years of the Al Aksa intifada, Israel has become exceedingly familiar with death and grief, as nearly a thousand of its citizens have been killed in suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, ambushes, and other terrorist attacks. (Some 3,200 Palestinians also have died in the ongoing violence.) By necessity, Israel has grown nimble at all forms of rapid response--the ultra-Orthodox volunteers who collect body parts for religious burial, the psychiatrists who provide trauma counseling.

Yet it seemed to Koby Mandell's parents, Seth and Sherri, that in the Israeli ethos of ''lehitgab'eer''--overcoming, staying strong--thousands of the bereaved were left untended after the initial crisis passed. These survivors included more than 4,000 Israeli children. With them in mind, the Mandells formed a foundation that developed programs for families, including the camp.

''When you go through something like this, you lose your faith in a benign universe,'' Ms. Mandell said of her own family's experience, which she has chronicled in a harrowing book, ''The Blessing of a Broken Heart.'' ''Because it 's not benign, and you know it's not. So camp is not just a matter of giving them a feeling of safety. It's giving them a sense they can be part of a world that's good.''

Each year Camp Koby admits roughly 500 children ages 8 to 18. While the centerpiece is a 10-day summer session at two kibbutzim near Negba, an agricultural town about 50 miles south of Tel Aviv, the camp convenes in other locations for shorter periods during the school vacations for the holidays of Succot, Hanukkah and Passover.

Camp Koby even operates a separate program for highly religious children, providing daily Talmud study and separate swimming pools by gender. The total cost comes to $750,000 annually, raised by the foundation.

In devising the camp, the Mandells sought a middle ground between the confessional vogue of their native United States and the stoic ideal of their adopted Israel.

Although they solicited the advice of professional psychologists, in the end, Ms. Mandell put it, ''We were our own focus group.''

The Mandells and their staff understand the significance if a camper skips a meal or strays off alone or feels homesick. One year, an art therapist asked a teenage boy to build a model of a tree, representing himself. It had a cardboard trunk and crepe paper leaves and a very unsteady base.

''It's a very special tree,'' the boy explained. ''If you care for it the wrong way, it will die. And if you don't care for it at all, it will die.''

As for Yotam Hammami, after a year as a camper he volunteered to become a counselor.

One night, he brought his group of 10-year-olds to a karaoke contest. When a particular song started to play, a boy ran to the corner of the room and began to cry. Yotam went to him, and the boy said the song reminded him of his brother, killed in an attack.

''I tell him I know what he feels,'' Yotam recalled. ''I tell him, it's O.K. to have fun. Not our fault. I tell him that all the time.''

Next week: A look at how the intifada has affected Palestinian educators committed to peaceful coexistence.

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