Merriam-Webster defines resilience as an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. It could safely add: a valuable skill to cultivate.
Sherri Mandell, author of the forthcoming book The Road to Resilience, knows her subject well. Not as a researcher or as a clinician, but as a brave Jewish mother who has had to dig deep to find a crystal of hope amid devastating loss, and to hold onto that precious gem amid crashing waves of grief.
On May 8, 2001, Sherri’s 13-year-old son, Koby, and his friend Yosef Ish-Ran skipped school to go hiking in caves near their home in Tekoa, Israel. The boys’ bodies were found the next day: they had been brutally stoned to death by Arab terrorists.
How can a mother, a family, continue living after such a tragic event?
During the early phase of her mourning, Sherri penned a painful and moving book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart, which won the National Jewish Book Award. In this volume, Sherri chronicles her honest struggle to slowly and courageously pull herself out of the abyss of grief. It is clear how Sherri’s experience gives her a unique ability to speak about choosing life and light even when the darkness seems unending, the pain searing. There are no easy platitudes here.
Sherri and her husband, Seth, a former Hillel director, had every reason to marinate in anger or despair. But they have chosen to look upwards and outwards, to focus on growth and healing, for themselves and for others. In response to the tragedy they have created the Koby Mandell Foundation, perpetuating the generosity of Koby’s effusive spirit by providing support for families of terror victims.
What started with a few women getting together to experience healing through mutual support has grown into a multifaceted program, with retreats, drama, art and other expressive therapies. There is also a summer camp for 400 kids from families affected by terror and other tragedies. “It’s a big zechut [merit],” Sherri says, “to give back the happiness that’s been stolen from these kids.”
Sherri has seen many children grow from the camp experience, including a former camper who is now coming back as a counselor. The young girl says that Camp Koby saved her life and gave her back joy. Sherri believes that these kids, who have had such difficult experiences, need a place where they are understood, without even having to say a word.
“It’s not just the trauma and pain. These kids have a different depth and wisdom than the average kid. It’s like they have a hidden identity that other kids, and even teachers, can’t really relate to. When they’re with other people like them, the burden they carry alone lifts from them. There’s a kind of freedom.”
And once that burden is shared and lifted, the smiles grow bigger. “These kids, who have experienced profound loss, have also experienced the whole range of emotions intensively, which means they can really feel and relish happiness,” Sherri says.
Sherri says she wasn’t very spiritual in her early days of observant life. Koby’s murder was the beginning of a profound change, which she describes sensitively in her first book. In the arduous and cyclical passage of hours, days, months and, gradually, years after this cataclysmic event, Sherri experienced personal signs, a sense of meaning and a soulful yearning that this world could not satisfy.
“The Torah and the learning is a language I’m more attracted to now. I need things that have a kind of purity and depth. When you’re struck with loss and trauma, you just want to know where to find depth and meaning.”
But Sherri is not glossing over her loss, or her questions. “Having faith doesn’t mean that I don’t have questions; it doesn’t mean it’s not hard. Faith is a craft, a work in progress. People tend to think that faith is just given to you, but it’s something we continually struggle with.”
Sherri’s life has taken a path she could never have envisioned. Her training and career as a writer has helped her express and share her healing work and hard-earned perspectives with people worldwide. “I also trained to become a pastoral counselor during these past 14 years,” she says.
Recently, the women’s groups have moved organically towards political action. The bereaved mothers formed a group called “Imahot L’Netzach,” or “Eternal Mothers.” Their political activity grew out of the therapeutic psychodrama workshops the women did together.
“Like the Jewish slaves in Egypt, we cried out from our anguish,” Sherri says. “We prayed together at Rachel’s tomb and spoke at the Knesset to protest the release of terrorists,” an experience she describes as being very empowering.
In addition to her writing and work with the foundation, Sherri travels, sharing insights, comfort and perspective with Chabad Houses, the Jewish Learning Institute Retreat, and hospice and bereavement communities. She met with a few families of the Sandy Hook victims some short months after that tragedy. As someone intimately familiar with the arduous road to healing that these families had to travel, Sherri told them, “It doesn’t have to destroy you. You think it’s going to kill you, you even want it to kill you, but it won’t.”
Sherri notes that as Jews we have invaluable assets and tools that have helped her cope. One tool is community. “People think that we are individuals with special strength. But it’s our incredible community that gave us the strength to handle the trauma. They are there for us in ways that no professional could be. We had to learn to be able to receive, to be soft like the reed that’s used for writing the Torah, to bend. It’s important for communities to learn how to best nurture and be there for each other, because their support can be truly invaluable,” she says.
Another source of support for Sherri has been Shabbat. “It’s wonderful to have Shabbat—a time to slow down and reconnect with our families and G‑d.”
The Jewish concept of memory is especially meaningful for Sherri. “We Jews don’t try to forget and move on from the past. We are coming out of a very painful time of year for me, but I know I am not alone; we are part of Jewish history. Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron and Koby’s yahrtzeit all fall within weeks of each other. I think the idea of ‘moving forward’ and closing the door doesn’t work. Instead, with every forward motion, we bring memory with us. Judaism allows us to exist in more than one cycle of time.”
Both community and spirituality figure prominently in The Road to Resilience. Rather than emphasizing psychological tools for resilience, Sherri focuses on a spiritual path. “Resilience is really the story of the Jewish people. Through our long and tortuous history, we continue to bounce back, to move forward. But resilience doesn’t just mean bouncing back; it means growing greater.”
Sherri quotes recent research that found that children who know their family story and ethos experience greater resilience and success. In times of challenge, they might think, “Great-Grandpa came to this country with 10 cents in his pocket. In our family, we know how to weather problems and enjoy celebrations.” The Jewish family story is an inspiring example that each Jew can draw on, knowing that he or she is part of a people that doesn’t just endure, but also continually builds and celebrates.
Some 14 years after that awful day in 2001, Sherri finds that a “new, extraordinary, beyond normal” reality has emerged, one that this courageous woman and her family have grown into together. “We are a happy family. We have lots of guests; my kids’ friends enjoy hanging out at our home. While my children have experienced intense loss and pain—and maybe even because of that—they also appreciate and experience intense joy.”
During the early days of her loss, Sherri could not even envision feeling resilient or joyful again, let alone writing about these feelings. And yet, Sherri has given the world insights that can be applied both to our everyday challenges and stresses as well as to life’s inevitable larger losses. Sherri helps illuminate the personal, painful, yet intensely beautiful way that she has discovered the blessing that has come from her broken heart—the blessing of a heightened sensitivity to life’s joys and mysteries, in all their fullness.
For more information, contact Sherri or Camp Koby.