Laughing again

Laughing again

Koby Mandell’s parents turn grief into powerful force for good

Avi Liberman will headline Comedy for Koby in Teaneck.
Avi Liberman will headline Comedy for Koby in Teaneck.

There was a time when Rabbi Seth and Sherri Mandell may have thought that they would never laugh again. But they realized that humor in the right context is a fitting — and a healing — way to remember their son Koby, who always loved a good joke.

Koby, who was 13, and his friend Yosef Ishran, were exploring a cave near their home in Tekoa, a town in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem, when they were stoned to death by Arab terrorists on May 8, 2001.

Later that year, Koby’s parents started the Koby Mandell Foundation to fund programs providing emotional, physical, and spiritual healing for Israeli families in grief. The programs include Camp Koby and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, which provide help for hundreds of children of families struck by terror; healing retreats and support groups for bereaved mothers and wives, and programs for fathers, siblings, and friends of murdered children. Laughter yoga, the Mandells discovered, is among the activities that can bring relief.

In 2008, the Mandells partnered with Avi Liberman, an Israeli-born Los Angeles comedian. Mr. Liberman had organized tours by American standup comics in Israel during the second intifada, September 2000 through early 2005. That was a time when Israelis didn’t have much to laugh about.

The concept was rebranded as Comedy for Koby. Since then, twice-yearly shows across Israel have raised tens of thousands of dollars for the foundation.

“The first year, people were really looking a little askance at it, but the truth is that Koby loved to laugh and he loved jokes,” Rabbi Mandell said. “He had downloaded about 300 jokes from the Internet, and about 100 of them are on our website. So I open each show by talking about Koby and telling one or two of his jokes.

“As a society and as individuals, we need to understand the power of humor to instill a sense of moving forward with life.”

And now, due to the efforts of foundation board members in Englewood, Comedy for Koby is coming to the United States. The initial show is set for November 12 at 9 p.m. at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck.

Mr. Liberman will open the show for a lineup starring Ryan Hamilton (one of Rolling Stone’s “Five Comics to Watch”), late-night standup standout Dan Naturman, and Butch Bradley, a veteran of all the top New York comedy clubs.

Proceeds will go toward Camp Koby scholarships.

“The first time I went to a Comedy for Koby show in Jerusalem at the Hirsch Theater, the energy I felt in the building was astounding,” board member Heshy Feldman of Englewood said. “Seth and Sherri co-emceed and did a little comedy routine. Who on earth would have thought you could laugh wholeheartedly with these amazing people, who can take what happened to them and convert it into something positive and lighthearted? It’s that Jewish quality of finding humor in dark times, and meshing it with charity and spiritual work.”

Eve Feldman added that although the foundation has sponsored local events, such as dinners and barbecues — and even once had Avi Liberman open an event with standup comedy — she and her husband felt that Comedy for Koby would provide a fun night out for a worthy cause.

It didn’t take much effort for the Feldmans to convince Lee Lasher, a vice president of the Koby Mandell Foundation, to agree to organize a Comedy for Koby show in Bergen County.

Mr. Lasher first met the Mandells only a couple of months after Koby’s murder, during a summer solidarity mission from Englewood, where he lives. Their guide, Yitzhak Sokoloff, had been Koby’s Little League coach and offered to take a few of the mission participants to pay a condolence visit to the family. Mr. Lasher went with a friend. He was deeply touched by the encounter.

When he left, Mr. Lasher asked Rabbi Mandell for a picture of Koby holding a baseball glove. That photo still hangs in his office. A few months later, he agreed to be on the board of the newly formed foundation. And in next years, as the intifada continued, Englewood missions to Israel always included informal time with the Mandells and visits to the foundation’s projects.

Eve Feldman recalls meeting with bereaved mothers about 14 years ago, during one of those missions.

“They were working on a quilt project with squares memorializing a loved one,” she said. “One mother told us that on August 9, 2001, she had just bought fabric in downtown Jerusalem with her daughter and then went to get pizza at Sbarro, where her daughter was killed in a terror attack. All she had left was that piece of fabric, and she was using it in the quilt.

“That inspired us to help the foundation in any way we could. My husband has a textile and fabric business and he offered to donate fabric for the project.”

The Feldmans became close with the Mandells and have hosted them in their home during fundraising trips to the United States.

Mr. Feldman said he hopes that the November show will kick off an annual tradition, and not only in North Jersey. “We’re looking forward to this being the first of many Comedy for Koby shows across the United States,” he said.

“The foundation helps thousands of people, so we’re trying to raise awareness and get people to come out to this really first-class show instead of going to a comedy club in New York,” Mr. Lasher said. “I’m proud to be part of the Koby Mandell Foundation and the incredible work they do in their camps and retreats. I hope people will come out to support them.”

Comedy for Koby has “transformed people’s vision of Sherri and me and the foundation from something which was filled almost completely with sorrow to something that is still sad but that has an element of resilience and joy,” Rabbi Mandell said. “It makes a difference in the way people are able to relate to us.”

Mr. Liberman made a documentary, “Comedy Road,” about the shows and their effect on the family, its performers, and their audiences. It will premiere at the Jerusalem Cinemateque on October 20.

“Documentaries are about change and experience for both the comedians and the audience,” he said. “One of the nice things Seth told us is that usually everyone walks on eggshells around them, not knowing what to say, but now the name ‘Koby’ is associated with something light and funny and not tragic.”

What: Comedy for Koby

Where: Congregation Keter Torah, 600 Roemer Avenue, Teaneck.

When: Saturday, November 12, at 9 p.m.

What else: A reception before the show, at 8 p.m., will include a wine tasting hosted by Royal Wines and desserts donated by Five Star Caterers.

How much: General admission tickets are $54, VIP reserved seats are $180, and sponsorships start at $1,000.

Why: Proceeds from the tickets and a raffle will go toward Camp Koby scholarships.

For reservations: Go to

For more information: Email

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