Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror
JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy.
Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is chaos.
“People think it is either or,” Mandell tells JNS.org on a windy afternoon in Jerusalem. “Either you are stable or you are in chaos. You are happy or sad. The real celebration is when you can contain both.”
Koby Mandell and his friend, Yosef Ishran, had skipped school to go hiking in a cave near their home when terrorists stoned them to death in 2001. The murders were attributed to Palestinian terrorists, but the terrorists have never been caught nor identified.
Sherri Mandell’s new book, a Jewish self-help guide blended with philosophical and psychological advice, walks readers through the seven steps of reclaiming one’s life after a tragedy — not just the loss of a loved one, as is the case for Mandell, but in situations like a divorce or another traumatic event.
Step one is chaos, the moment when everything you know about your place in the world is taken from you. “You have to reconstitute yourself,” says Mandell. “It is really hard, because you are not who you were — you have to become enlarged. You are not enough to contain what has happened.”
From there, a person transitions to community — the recognition that he or she cannot heal alone. Healing, says Mandell, is receiving.
The next step is choice.
“The first day after it happened, I had to get dressed,” Mandell recalls. “I went to pick out my barrette and I thought to myself, ‘You are so disgusting to think about the color of your barrette.’ And then I said to myself, ‘You know, this is going to save you.’”
The fourth step is creativity, what Mandell calls “the hub” — the turning point where one takes the chaos and transfers it to something else. That “something else” is different for everybody. One of Mandell’s friends, for instance, coped with tragedy by baking lemon pies.
“Pain is energy,” and the energy needs to be channeled, Mandell explains.
What follows is commemoration, which Mandell contends can be a uniquely Jewish concept. The word “remember” is mentioned in the Torah 169 times. It is also a way to build strength and resilience, she says.
Mandell refers to studies conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s by Marshall Duke of Emory University, which found that the more children know about their families, the better they tend to do when facing challenges.
Working with Dr. Robyn Fivush, Duke in 2001 asked dozens of families questions about how much they knew about their families’ pasts, such as where their grandparents grew up or if anything terrible had ever happened. Children who knew more about their family’s history had a stronger sense of control over their lives, higher self-esteem, and a strong belief that their families functioned successfully.
The sixth step is consecration — making something holy. For the Mandell family, this came through the establishment of the Koby Mandell Foundation, which today runs the “Camp Koby” overnight camps for Israeli children who have lost a parent or sibling to terror or tragedy. The five-week experience aims to play a significant role in the recovery and healing process for its campers.
Finally, there’s celebration.
“Celebration is when you have a deeper sense of what is true in this world,” says Mandell. “You are no longer innocent…You have faced real limits, connected more to the unlimited. You know what down is, so you know what up is….Most people think the world to come is the next world. But people who have real trauma and suffering, they know the world to come is also here.”
When one completes these seven steps — and they can overlap — one has built resilience, Mandell argues. But she does not define “resilience” like the Merriam-Webster dictionary — an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. Rather, she frames resilience as “reformation” or “transformation.”
“I am a different person now,” says Mandell. “Resilience is when you become greater in whatever what you are going to become greater in.”
Todd Salovey, associate artistic director of the San Diego Repertory Theatre, recently wrote and produced a play (through the Los Angeles Jewish Women’s Theatre) that is based on Mandell’s first book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart (Toby Press, 2003). He says the one-woman show (Mandell is played by actress Lisa Robins), which ended its first run on March 20 but will likely be shown in other theaters outside of California, depicts Sherri Mandell’s gentleness and warmth.
Salovey — who says he has read everything Mandell has written since she was 12 years old, including her latest book — praises the author’s use of language and describes his relationship with her as “life-changing.”
“Sherri taught me that you have to take things that are not happy in life and make meaning. That is part of what saved Sherri and Seth (her husband),” says Salovey.
Mandell adds, “In this book, I am giving people the chance to build resilience.”