Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Reaching for Comfort: What I Saw, What I Learned, & How I Blew it Training as a Pastoral Counselor, is the third of three books by Sherri Mandell on dealing with the loss of her son Koby Mandell, to terror. But know that Mandell is a writer by profession, and not by circumstance. She writes because that’s her gift: it’s what she does. The fact that she can not only write but has a heartbreaking story to tell, makes it all the more poignant to read her story, and hear her “voice.”

It’s difficult—even gut-wrenching—to read these works, but some would say, necessary. This is a human rights issue. Jews, like all other people, should have the right to live productive lives in peace, in particular in their indigenous territory. Jewish children, like all other children, should have the right to grow up unmolested by terror, no matter where they live.

In this new book, in which Mandell speaks of her experiences training as a pastoral counselor, we hear the voice of a mother who longs for comfort, who is seeking something to give her relief or at least a small respite from the feelings she goes to bed with at night, and wakes up to every morning. It is obvious to all who witness this sort of pain, even from the outside looking in: the pain of losing a child to terror never, ever leaves you. This book helps us see what this might be like, God forbid, even if only to the smallest degree (may we never need to understand it fully).

Mandell takes us along as she begins to visit hospitalized patients as part of her training. This takes place at a time when pastoral counseling is new to the scene of Israeli patient care. Many of the patients fail to understand the purpose of her visits and are reluctant to avail themselves of what she attempts to offer them. One understands that Mandell thought she'd be good at pastoral counseling by dint of her experiences as the mother of a terror victim. Her efforts at comforting patients and their families, on the other hand, tend not to have the desired effect.

Interspersed with Mandell's visits to patients (whom she describes as "fictional composites, drawn broadly from real stories") are her training sessions and meetings with Michael, her mentor and co-teacher of the pastoral counseling course. Michael leads the group through prayers and exercises, during which Mandell always seems to fall short in comparison with her classmates. Mandell's self-described inadequacies as a pastoral counselor are as puzzling to the reader as they are to Mandell. Her descriptions of her visits to patients, meanwhile, are compelling, and we know something they do not: that she is Sherri Mandell, mother of Koby Mandell, who was murdered in a brutal attack when he was only 13.  

An Added Dimension

For this writer, there is an added dimension to this story of an effort to comfort others in the midst of grief. Having lived in Gush Etzion for a long time, through both intifadas, I remember when Koby Mandell and Yosef Ishran were murdered. There was a media blackout at first, but we understood that children had been murdered in Tekoa, a settlement in our area. And of course, the Gush was a much smaller community in those days than it is now, and everyone knew everyone in the Gush.

We wanted to know what had happened, so we began making calls to people we knew in Tekoa. We wanted to be there for the parents, to mourn alongside them. We wanted to learn from what happened in order to understand what measures we needed to take in our attempts to protect our own children going forward. It took only two phone calls to learn the identity of the two boys who had been murdered, and the terrible details of the attack. It was, in fact, a child who told me—the child of a friend—what had happened and to whom.

It was Sherri and Seth Mandell’s story. It was Koby’s story, and it was Yosef’s story. And yet, in a sense, it was everyone’s story, in that it affected us all, as residents of the Gush, as Jews. The knowledge of what happened turned me into a hyper-vigilant mother. I told the daycare workers that under no circumstances were they allowed to let my children walk home alone, though it was a very short walk from the daycare center to our caravan. And yet, years later, reading Sherri Mandell’s books, you realize it’s not your story, but her story, and hers alone to tell.

Our responsibility, it seems, is to read every word of her elegant prose.

Koby Mandell (H"YD) with his parents Seth and Sherri, at his bar mitzvah, the last birthday he lived to see.

I spoke with Sherri to learn more about her new book:

Varda Epstein: Your first book, “The Blessings of a Broken Heart,” was the story of what happened to your son and the blessings you recognized in the face of tragedy. Your second book, “The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration” was about how to find a way forward after tragedy. This third book you’ve “birthed” is more difficult to define. How would you summarize “Reaching for Comfort?”

Sherri Mandell: “Reaching for Comfort” is the story of a year training to be a pastoral counselor, being taught how to be present in the face of suffering.

Varda Epstein: When did you first hear about the pastoral counseling course? What did you imagine you would get out of your training?

Sherri Mandell: A friend told me about the course. I thought that I would learn to be comfortable with prayer and become a more serene, centered person. I thought that I would also confront death and illness and see how people coped. I think my main goal was to find a lamed vavnik [one of the 36 righteous people in every generation who wander among us in secret. V.E.] who would tell me the secret of suffering. Of course, I also wanted to be able to have the therapeutic skills to lead the foundation where we worked with so many bereaved children and families.  

Varda Epstein: Your book is about pastoral counseling for those with serious or terminal illness and their families. You’ve lost family in the natural way, to age and illness, and you’ve lost a child to terror. How are these experiences different and how are they the same?

Sherri Mandell: Loss is a common denominator for all people, because everybody dies. But there is a difference when somebody is murdered by terrorists, because the family is left with a need to seek justice. Also trauma leaves scars that the loss of a parent in old age does not.   

Koby at his bar mitzvah with his father, Rabbi Seth Mandell

Varda Epstein: What would you like people to understand about what it is like to lose a child to terror?

Sherri Mandell: That the pain never goes away.

Varda Epstein: In “Reaching for Comfort” you offer a vivid description of your grief as a sort of underworld: “Even though you have the ability to exit the underworld, you are not sure you want to. In fact, you no longer no which world you belong in or which world you prefer. The ordinary world is no longer hospitable in some ways: it’s too light, too trivial. The underworld has the gravity, the shock, the darkness, the weight of being you crave.”

Do you think your children feel the same way? Have you tried to keep them out of this “underworld?” Tried to give them normalcy? How do you find the balance between giving them a normal childhood, and letting them grieve?

Sherri Mandell: I think that all children who experience tragedy touch the underworld and are changed by the experience.

Koby, laughing with his younger siblings, long before the brutal murder that robbed them of their big brother.

Varda Epstein: Arnold Roth, father of Malki Roth, murdered in the Sbarro massacre, related that people crossed the street to avoid him and his wife after the tragedy. Did you experience anything like this? Do you sometimes feel like you’re wearing a sign?  

Sherri Mandell: No, I did not feel that at all. I think because I live in a Yishuv [settlement, V.E.], everybody was involved and everybody cared. I had a feeling of being cocooned by my neighbors and also supported.

Varda Epstein: The website for Koby Mandell Foundation speaks of healing and rebuilding. Is it really possible to heal and rebuild after losing a family member to a terror attack? How would you define healing and rebuilding in this context?

Sherri Mandell: One must rebuild after a tragedy. I realized that when you undergo a tragedy it’s like your vessel is broken. The way you looked at the world, the way you thought, the things you did. They’re no longer sufficient to keep you afloat. You need to build a new vessel somehow, you need to recreate yourself in the light of what you have suffered.

Like most boys born in the U.S., Koby loved baseball. 

Varda Epstein: Pastoral counseling may not have been the right path for you, but what is the right path for us to take in order to comfort the family members of terror victims? Is there anything we can say or do that can help?

Sherri Mandell: Pastoral counseling was the right path for me at the time. I think that anytime anyone remembers Koby, it is a good feeling. I think that others can try to be there at important times like the azkara [annual memorial service, V.E.], for example. Or just leave a message that you’re thinking about the person and you remember and you care. The best is when somebody does something to memorialize Koby.

Varda Epstein: What will you write about next?

Sherri Mandell: Good question. I’m working on a novel!


Sherri Mandell won the 2004 National Jewish Book Award for The Blessings of a Broken Heart. Her newest book, Reaching for Comfort, is available at the Ben Yehuda Press and on Amazon

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