How does one describe Sherri Mandell, author of The Blessing of a Broken Heart?
Well, the words generous and true, ethereal, yet very down to earth,
beautiful and even radiant, and sad, so, so sad, came to mind as I
listened to her speak recently. Mrs. Mandell is on a book tour
sponsored by her publisher, Toby Press, to promote her book about the
murder of her 13 year old son, Koby, and his 14-year-old friend Yosef
Ish-Ran, on May 8, 2001, in a cave near their home in Tekoa, Israel.
The Mandell family moved from Silver Spring, Maryland, to Israel in
1996 and returning to the area was very emotional for Sherri Mandell.
She described the visit as “it is like coming home. Koby loved living
in Silver Spring and being here brings Koby back to me.
Everything in my life is mixed and I prefer to focus on the blessing.”
When I read the book I felt almost embarrassed to be sharing in its
incredibly personal descriptions of grief. Listening to Sherri
Mandell speak to a group of over 100 people at the JCC of Greater
Washington Book Fair, I was again struck by her ability to draw us into
her world, into her family, and into their pain.
Mandell noted that grief counselors often say it is important to “move
on.” But she believes that “moving on” is a mistake because “when
something is precious, you carry it with you. Grief is a sacred
space, not something to be left behind.” However, while “moving
on” is inappropriate, “moving in” – letting the pain in – is very
helpful. “My pain is great but so is my joy. Everything has
expanded because of my grief.” Grief counselors offered her drugs to ease
her pain, but she refused, saying, “I gave birth to him without drugs,
and I will mourn him without drugs.” Mrs. Mandell explained,
“Grief and pain can enter you and not destroy you. It’s important to be
strong, but not stoic. It’s important to express your grief.” If
expression is a measure of strength, then she is surely strong.
Sherri Mandell has a Masters degree in Creative Writing and has taught
writing at Penn State and at the University of Maryland. So I was
not too surprised at her response to my question asking why she wrote
The Blessing of a Broken Heart.
“Because I am a writer,” she replied simply. Writing the book was
one of the ways in which she was able to express her pain.
However, what I find most interesting is the family’s longer term
response to the tragedy. Indeed it is a model lesson for all of
us. Sherri Mandell and her husband, Rabbi Seth Mandell, chose to
use their pain to heal the world. “Shlomo Carlbach said that a
holy beggar is a person who is begging to create love.
Koby’s death made us into holy beggars.” And so on what
would have been Koby’s 14th birthday, Sherri Mandell and her three
other children spontaneously decided to give tzedakah to 14 beggars.
(They were only able to find 6 beggars that day in Jerusalem, a city
where beggars tend to congregate, which was an irony that she said Koby
would have appreciated). The next year, on Koby’s 15th birthday,
they took 15 teenagers from poor homes to dinner.
Reb Nachman of Bratslav said “Nothing is as whole as a broken heart.”
The Mandells have come to learn that “maybe healing is really about
sharing” and so the family created The Koby Mandell Foundation as a way of “healing broken hearts” and “responding to death with life.”
By Deborah Rosenbloom