This week in New York, as “Jacob L.” will be called to the Torah as he celebrates the milestone of his becoming a bar mitzvah, and will embody the greatest of chesed and tzedaka, and be a role model for the four generations of family and friends celebrating with him, and for all of us. Jacob is in seventh grade at Ramaz and has done something different and outstanding to mark this milestone, underscoring his awareness that becoming a bar mitzvah is not all, or only, about him, or a party. In fact, because of the value of giving tzedaka anonymously, he’s only agreed to use his first name here, requested not to be in the spotlight, but to highlight the cause which he’s adopted and putting his name behind.

Jacob displayed this in Jerusalem two weeks ago by celebrating with a dozen 12-14 year old boys who he had never met. His Jerusalem celebration affirmed that reaching this milestone is about his responsibility toward others. If his Jerusalem celebration was any indication, Jacob has a promising future as a Jewish leader and role model whose hallmark will be caring for others.

In lieu of gifts for his becoming a bar mitzvah, Jacob asked that donations be made to The Koby Mandell Foundation to provide scholarships for kids his age in its renowned Camp Koby. Camp Koby is Israel’s preeminent camp for children ages 8-18 bereaved from the loss of a relative to terror or other tragedy. (www.kobymandell.org) In Jerusalem, the 12-14 year old boys invited to Jacob’s celebration made Jacob and his family feel welcome and appreciated. They were also appreciative as they enjoyed a special day at Jerusalem’s Kraft Stadium that included ice breakers, a sports and team building workshop, a soccer game, and even an informal tossing of an American football, something with which the Israeli boys were less familiar but which they took to all the same. Refreshments and a festive lunch also allowed for more informal conversations and celebrations.

Jacob mitzvah with friends from Camp Koby

Jacob celebrates his bar mitzvah with friends from Camp Koby in Jerusalem

Camp Koby and its parent organization, The Koby Mandell Foundation, are named in memory of Koby Mandell, who was just 13 when he and his friend Yosef Ish-ran, were murdered in May 2001, two of the early victims of the second intifada. In order that Koby’s memory be sustained and used for good, to care for and strengthen others bereaved through acts of terror and other tragedies, The Koby Mandell Foundation was born. As the years progressed and the second intifada raged on leaving behind tens of thousands of bereaved loved ones of the more than 1000 victims, The Koby Mandell Foundation has earned the reputation of being Israel’s preeminent organization helping kids cope with bereavement.

The goal is to heal the invisible scars of those left behind, helping make the kids in Camp Koby stronger through their grief, and in doing so, making all of Israel stronger. Though there are many programs for bereaved adults, some of which The Koby Mandell Foundation specializes in as well, children are often left out of the healing process. Camp Koby provides bereaved children with some fun and a break in their daily routines, and also helps foster healing among peers and staff who understand what they are going through having lost a parent or sibling.

Camp Koby began in the summer of 2002, just over a year after Koby’s death, and since then has expanded to include Passover and Chanukah camps as well as activities organized in smaller groups throughout the year. Jacob’s bar mitzvah celebration was one of these. As Shabsi, one of the counselors who participated said, “If we could only have 4-5 activities like this throughout the year it would be invaluable in maintaining our connection to the kids and in helping continue their healing.”

All Camp Koby programs have three elements which were part of Jacob’s Jerusalem celebration: They are fun, they include social integration, and there is therapeutic component. Hundreds of therapists work with campers employing art, music, and drama. The therapists help the kids heal and express themselves during the camps, and therapies are customized to the different ages and backgrounds of the campers. Through this, they become like one big extended family, something that they can’t live without. As much as Jacob welcomed these campers into his celebration, the campers welcomed him into their family.

Over the past 14 years The Koby Mandell Foundation has touched and helped thousands of bereaved families. Every time a child smiles and is able to open up to express his or her grief, that’s a huge success. Support for The Koby Mandell Foundation and Camp Koby come from a wide variety of people and places. It’s unique and noteworthy when a 13 year old boy cares enough, and has the presence and selflessness, to celebrate his becoming a bar mitzvah by including children his age who are total strangers, a value also highlighted in his Torah portion, and through this celebration touching them directly and making a lasting impression in their lives and healing from the grief they have undergone.

And it was not lost on anyone that in Jacob’s case, not only is he the same age as Koby was when he was murdered, but even their names are the same. That Jacob celebrates his becoming a bar mitzvah within a week of the anniversary of Koby’s murder binds them even more.

Maybe Koby wasn’t on the field playing and celebrating with Jacob and the other boys in person, but he was there in spirit, and no doubt had a big smile on his face, cheering them on in heaven.