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Camp for Victims of Terrorism Offers Consolation and Camaraderie

When Lior Thaler and his best friend stopped by the Karnei Shomron mall, all they wanted was to order a slice of pizza and say hello to Lior’s sister, who was celebrating a friend’s birthday.

Two minutes later, Thaler lay unconscious with his body full of nails, his best friend was dead, his sister was in critical condition and the rest of the teenagers in the party either were dead or severely wounded.

Shay Inger was standing at a gas station with his friends awaiting a ride to B’nai Hay, a school for students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, located near the Palestinian city of Kalkilya.

A strange man walked up to the group and began, "Tell me something . . . "

As the youngsters waited for the question, the man blew himself up. His detonator button flew into Inger’s windpipe and sliced it, shrapnel embedded itself in Inger’s frame and his body was flung to the ground.

Before losing consciousness, Shay saw body parts strewn around the gas station. Two of his friends were dead. Three others were wounded.

This week, the two boys — Thaler, 16, and Inger, 17 — are among 60 youngsters attending Camp Koby, a weeklong getaway in Israel for youths who were severely injured in terror attacks.

The getaway is the latest in a series of week-long camps run by Seth and Sherri Mandell, parents of the late Koby Mandell. Koby, along with a friend, was beaten to death by Palestinian assailants in May 2001 while hiking in the Judean Desert not far from his home.

Shortly after Koby was murdered, the B’nai Akiva youth movement invited his younger brother, Daniel, to attend Camp Moshava in the United States as a gesture of support.

Though the experience generally was positive, Daniel said he felt different than the other campers.

So the Mandells decided to create a safe place in Israel for children who have been impacted directly by terrorism.

At Camp Koby getaways, "If a child wakes up crying in the middle of the night," says Jackie Goldman, director of creative art at the camp, "the other kids in the bunk have ‘been there, done that.’ The kid doesn’t have to hide it or be ashamed of the fact that he is crying."

Seth Mandell says the camps "came out of our own experience. What was missing was not financial support, not education, but an opportunity to be around other people who had lost immediate family members."

Only those suffering the same fate, he says, can fully understand and support each other.

"A week after shiva, the children go back to school," he says. "Other kids don’t know how to deal with them. Teachers don’t know how to deal with them. There is no training whatsoever about how to deal with these kids. So they feel tremendously isolated."

Camp Koby getaways give children a sense of unity and camaraderie, he says.

He hopes this week’s Camp Koby will do the same, mainly by letting the kids have fun.

"It’s a regular camp with basketball, swimming, boating and a trip to Superland — typical camp stuff," Goldman says.

The difference is that some activities — like art, music and drama programs in which campers may choose to express their feelings on terrorism — are led by a therapist.

It’s important that kids who want to talk feel comfortable discussing their experiences, Mandell says.

Inger says he intends to take full advantage of that opportunity.

"I came here to meet other people who were wounded by a terrorist attack, to hear other people’s stories," he says. "When I hear other people’s stories I feel I am part of a group, people who went through what I went through. They understand more what I am talking about. It’s just not the same with people who never went through this."

Like others at the camp, Inger has endured multiple surgeries, and has more surgery ahead of him.

His first one was in the ambulance on the way to the hospital after the attack.

"My right hand had nearly been severed," he says in a matter-of-fact tone. "There were two nails in my heart, all kinds of shrapnel throughout my chest, stomach, hands and arms. My skin had come off from both my hands, and some of my finger bones were shattered."

What worried paramedics the most was that Inger’s lungs had begun to fill with fluid. They did an immediate incision to drain the fluid.

"Without that," Inger says, "I wouldn’t have made it alive to the hospital."

Inger was moved to a regular hospital bed after one week in the intensive care unit, but Thaler was shuttled back and forth for three weeks as he underwent a series of operations.

He survived but his sister did not, dying 12 days after the attack.

"The first few days, I cried a tremendous amount," says counselor Bracha Cohen, a psychology student who has worked at various Camp Koby getaways. "In the beginning, it was very hard for me to be here. I felt there was not enough room in my heart to store all the pain."

The hardest parts are the camp getaways for injured kids, she says.

"You see the damage. You see kids who can’t be in the sun, who get tired quickly, who have skin burned all over their bodies. You actually see the damage to their lives," she says.

Though Cohen continues to listen to everyone’s story, she has learned to build a wall around her heart. Otherwise, she says, she couldn’t handle working at the camps.

"So many kids were wounded or lost family. So many children, so much pain," she says. "It’s such a small country, and there is so much suffering. To see so many severe injuries is very difficult."

But children and staff somehow are able to find the bright spots in their experiences.

Inger, a soft-spoken boy, says he is grateful both to be alive and for all the support he has received from friends and family.

At the hospital, he says, "there were always lots of people, and they left me gifts and notes. I saw these things once I woke up. I saw that a lot of people cared, even people I didn’t know from around the country and the world."

Even the paramedics who saved Inger’s life stopped by to check on him during his two-week stay in the hospital. They are still in touch with the boy.

Inger also got spiritual support from his grandmother’s Jewish prayer group in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where his family is from. Jewish students throughout Brazil wrote him letters as well.

"My son, who is 14, was in the camp for people who lost family members," Mandell says. "He said the kids at the camp are much nicer, because they have their priorities straight. They realize that the regular way teens treat each other is nonsense. These are much better kids, more open, more caring about other people."

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