Local teens volunteer at Israeli camps
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Local teens volunteer at Israeli camps

Bonding with the bereaved at Camp Coby

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The entrance to Camp Koby. Dena Wimpfheimer

On the first day of Camp Koby, Melissa Goldsmith’s two campers were quiet and ill at ease. They were at the special Israeli camp because of tragic circumstances – each had lost an immediate family member in a car accident.

By the end of the second day, the girls were having fun and making new friends. On the final night of the 10-day overnight camp, they confided to Melissa, a 16-year-old Teaneck resident, that they did not want the experience to end and were hoping for the same counselors again next summer.

Melissa and her twin sister Amanda were among 50 American teens who paid their own way to Israel for the experience of bonding with campers at Camp Koby, a program of The Koby Mandell Foundation for bereaved children ages 9 to 13 (there’s also a camp for ages 14 to 17).

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Amanda Goldsmith was one of five volunteer counselors from Bergen County at Camp Koby.

Over the course of the summer, the foundation has been hosting about 400 campers in two sessions, this year at Kibbutz Yechiam near the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Partnership 2000 city, Nahariya. Professional therapists lead art, drama, music, and other forms of play to give the children the opportunity to express their emotions and anxieties in a safe environment.

The visiting counselors – this year, including five from Bergen County – are there to make sure the kids are having a great time in between formal activities. They receive a brief orientation before pairing up with co-counselors to care for participants in an almost one-to-one staff-camper ratio.

“The entire thing was amazing,” said Amanda Goldsmith. She and her co-counselor had three campers, one whose uncle was killed in a terrorist attack, one whose brother died in a car crash, and another whose father was murdered by a terrorist. One of the highlights of her time in Camp Koby was karaoke night, when “the kids were all singing, screaming [with appreciation], and smiling, able to put aside personal struggles and have the best time.”

The camp is among many programs created for bereaved Israeli families by Rabbi Seth and Sherri Mandell. In 2002, when Israel was in the grip of the Arab uprising known as the second intifada, their 13-year-old son Koby was stoned to death by terrorists near their home in Tekoa, a small village in the Gush Etzion region south of Jerusalem.

Seth Mandell told The Jewish Standard that from the start, Camp Koby was inundated with requests from American teens wanting to volunteer. “In our third or fourth year, we took a few girls from New Jersey [as counselors] and realized it was a wonderful thing for both sides of the equation and we should expand it.”

For the volunteers, he said, the camp gives them a chance to meet “real” Israeli kids. “Most of them have been to Israel many times for touring, so this brings them a whole new set of connections. On the Israeli side, the campers appreciate that these ‘mythical’ Americans want to help them and that they are important to Jews all over the world.”

The foundation accepts teenagers who have previously volunteered at hospitals or with underprivileged kids, want to connect to Israel, and have some Hebrew fluency. Every candidate is interviewed and must submit an essay and recommendations.

“All of these counselors have studied at Jewish day schools, and some are stronger in Hebrew than others,” Mandell said. “The littlest campers don’t need so much more than the hugs and care these counselors can give them. We pair older campers with one American and one Israeli counselor, so there is always somebody there who can speak Hebrew.”

The other counselors from North Jersey were Jared Atzmon and Jeremy Kaner of Englewood and William Plotnick of Fair Lawn.

Amanda said she and her sister became aware of the foundation in seventh grade, when Sherri Mandell spoke at The Moriah School of Englewood. Melissa read Mandell’s book, “The Blessing of a Broken Heart,” last summer. The twins’ parents, Joy and Michael, supported their daughters’ desire to volunteer at Camp Koby and came to Israel afterward to vacation together with them.

“Going in, I was a little nervous because I didn’t know what to expect,” said Amanda, “but from day one my kids just had the biggest smiles on their faces, and that makes you so happy, too. You’re really there to have fun with them … it’s about having the best 10 days of their lives.”

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