May 8th. May 8th. May 8th. I used to love the month of May. It blossomed eternal. It was the month my mother’s beautiful pink flowers would finally bloom on the side of my childhood home, after the long Massachusetts winter. It was the start of our family birthday season that stretched from Father’s Day and ended in the last days of August, when everyone in our house got a cake with candles lovingly decorated by my mother. No one in my family had ever died in May. It signaled that the fishing boat could come out of dry-dock, winter storms were over, and summer vacation would soon be upon us.
All that changed in 2001. May 8th, 2001.
Koby Mandel had set out with his friend Yosef Ish-ran to hike the wadi behind Tekoa that morning, skipping school. They never returned. They were murdered by terrorists who have never been captured — stoned to death in a cave in the wadi behind their homes. That next morning, when we heard the news, I began to hate the month of May.
In the summer of 2000, I got married and started a new phase of my life. I had made aliyah on my own, against my family’s wishes and dreams at the very young age of 19. With just a few hundred dollars to my name, a dream of history, and a vision of the future, I had set my course for Jerusalem nearly seven years before.
Along the way, I worked at a startup called Whole Family and thankfully my paths had crossed with Sherri Mandel, and then with her husband, Seth. Sherri and her famous blue hat. Sherri, famous for her smiles, wisdom and ever flowing grace. Sherri, who to me was part mother, part sister, part favorite aunt. She stopped me before I walked down the aisle towards my husband and our future, lifted my veil and reminded me to smell the flowers in my hands and take a moment to myself. That moment and her loving embrace is something I have never forgotten.
A few months later, she asked me to photograph her son’s bar mitzvah. “It will be in Tekoa, on the hill. Just family and friends and lots of fun. You’ll do it right?” Of course. Who would ever refuse Sherri anything?
I remember riding out to Tekoa in a van with Sherri and Seth’s family from the States. Her niece, Koby’s aunts — worried about the checkpoints and the soldiers and the roads. Me, confidently telling them Tekoa was “out there,” but it was safe and we would all be fine.
We stood on that hill, with the winds blowing up from wadi and Koby and his family and friends partied like any free spirited 13-year-old boy can be expected to celebrate — with life and music and laughter.
Only Koby z”l was different. He was strangely cocky, self-assured and well-read for a 13-year-old. He wanted to know everything about everything and he wanted to make sure I made him look cool in his blue shirt. Most boys wear white at their bar mitzvahs. Not Koby. Dark blue. He stood out strikingly like the dark blue star on the Israeli flag, along side his friends. I have always wondered if that was why he insisted on wearing that shirt. He adjusted his watch just so, knew all of the poses he wanted me to take, and fixed his hair no fewer than 10 times, while I snapped away. Did he somehow know those photos would be shown millions of times around the world?
My most famous photographs. Ones I am so glad to have taken, so Sherri and Seth and their family could have those memories. And yet how many times have I wished they would be buried in some never looked at bar mitzvah photo album. That none of you would have ever known or seen these photo. That Koby wouldn’t be a household name, but just a regular young man, finished with college and the army and thinking of marriage and children and building his future.
As a photographer, my photographic memory is a blessing and a curse. I can remember the photos I took 25 years ago like they were yesterday. So the morning I heard that Koby had been murdered, I put my camera down and vowed to never pick it up again. All I saw in my head was Koby.
For weeks and months and then for years, his pictures and his smiling face would flash through my head. Every single bar mitzvah photo I took of him — and those I didn’t. My last battery was dying as he was lifted up on shoulders by his friends that night and I didn’t have great flash on those images. I was angry at myself for not having had an extra, extra spare flash battery with me that night. In my mind, I can still see him dancing and being carried like a prince by his friends — his hands in the air, a look of pure happiness on his face. But I didn’t have enough flash to capture each moment of that for his family. I caught him blinking, and looking down, but missed his shining face at exactly the right moment for a photo.
It was still the days of film, and nothing digital, where every picture on the roll was precious. There were no repeats and no do-overs. So in this case, I considered it an unforgivable sin. Were the images I had taken enough, and what about the moments I had missed? Who would remember those, and burn those images into their mind, but me?
At the shiva, I remember Sherri thanking me so many times for those pictures and the negatives. She touched that photo album like a precious gift. Their last family photos of Koby and his siblings. As was my policy, I never keep the negatives of the images I shoot. I want the families to have them, unfettered and unbeholden to me. But I didn’t need the negatives to remember him; the images continued to swim in my head incessantly, anyway.
Years later, my own children would be born. We all know the story of the cobbler whose children have no shoes. My twins have no photo albums, no portraits of their birth, or the months after. It wasn’t until years later, when a friend saw my portfolio and asked if I would take pictures of her children in exchange for a donation to tzedakah (charity), that I would agree to pick up a camera again.
I was afraid. Afraid to disappoint. Afraid to miss a moment I couldn’t get back. Afraid I would forget Koby and his uniquely dark blue shirt and his inquisitive eyes. But I agreed and did it, and then another family asked, and then another. And as the charities grew and the families were grateful, I realized I had been missing out on something I enjoy and love so much. Showing people what I see. Sharing the light I see in every person and each place and on every path and around every corner of this tiny but beautiful land. We all have our gift and something to bring to the world, and I had turned mine off for years. It was a mistake to think that was the right answer to Koby’s murder.
One year, I raised money to support a group of Ethiopian students who had walked to Israel, losing their parents on the journey. Another year, we bought beds and food and apartment supplies for poor families in a nearby town. Some years I donated thousands to Swim 4 Sadna to help build apartments for special needs young adults — others, to help single moms or abuse victims. And in each child I meet and help to find their smile, and in every adventure and beautiful spot, I see a little piece of Koby.
This year, I set out on an new mission. To share Israel with the world via a new card game. I filled it with photography and adventure and trivia. All things Koby loved. People around the world have a hard time relating to Israel, children in the Diaspora have it even harder. Such a hard time understanding what a bunch of hilltops mean to their past or our future. Why a pile of old stones matters that much, or a river or a valley is worth us fighting for.
Humans have a hard time loving, or caring for that which they do not know. So I set out to help everyone learn and love with fun and adventure, that is how Reveal Cards and specifically the Reveal Israel game was born.
Comedy for Koby, is back in Israel in a few weeks. Bringing laughter for those of us living here, to support the incredible programs the Koby Mandell Foundation has created to support the survivors and victims of terror. Sadly, their list of participants and victims that need their support grows every single year. I hope you’ll join me in attending one of their shows, or supporting the Foundation in other ways. The work they do is tremendous and such a vital part of our recovery as a nation.
Sherri and I lost close touch over the years, but every May, I find myself thinking of Koby. I think of the life he should have had. The jokes he loved. His sense of adventure. The future he should have built and the legacy his family has built around him. As Yom Haatzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) approaches, I encourage you to think of just one person, one individual out of the many thousands who have sacrificed for the State of Israel to be here today. Think about the acts of one person who has given life or limb, or soul so this tiny great country can be free.
We are not perfect, no country is, but do take pride in what we have built, what we are building. Get inspired from what the survivors like Seth and Sherri and their family have created out of tragedy and loss and senseless terror by helping us build something even greater. The modern State of Israel is no less than a miracle and something so much greater than any of us individually could ever create or perhaps even have imagined. We should strive to build a country and a society worthy of those we have lost, worthy of those that have paid the ultimate sacrifice and those that deserved to be here, but left us in their place instead.
For more information about the Koby Mandel Foundation, visit their website at www.kobymandell.org
Tickets for Comedy for Koby shows can be purchased at www.comedyforkoby.com
Sherri’s incredible books on mourning and resilliance can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Blessing-Broken-Heart-Sherri-Mandell/dp/1592641512 and here: http://www.amazon.com/Road-Resilience-Chaos-Celebration/dp/1592643833/ref=pd_bxgy_14_img_2?ie=UTF8&refRID=0BYA3F7WPT909K6HABBM
May Koby’s memory always be for a blessing.