COLLEGE PARK, Md., May 9 (JTA) The Jewish community at the University of Maryland is mourning the West Bank murder of a son of a former Hillel rabbi at the school.
The mutilated bodies of Ya’akov Mandell, 13, and Yosef Ishran, 14, were found dead Wednesday in a cave near the West Bank settlement of Tekoa. The two were killed with stones and knives, prompting Israeli investigators to believe the murderers were Palestinians who encountered the youths in the area and spontaneously decided to kill them.
The slaying of Ya’akov, who holds dual Israeli and American citizenship, is prompting U.S. Jewish groups to pressure the Bush administration to offer rewards for the killers’ arrests.
Ya’akov’s father, Rabbi Seth Mandell, moved to Israel with his family in 1996 after serving the Maryland Hillel for five years.
His wife, Sherri, a freelance writer, had written for the Washington Jewish Week.
Once in Israel, the rabbi worked in Jerusalem for Ohr Somayach, a yeshiva for English speakers.
Koby, as Ya’akov was known, was the oldest of four children.
According to media reports, he and Yosef skipped school Tuesday to go hiking in the West Bank. Their parents believed they were attending a rally in Jerusalem. They notified the police when the boys did not return after midnight.
In New York, Nancy Lederman, Koby’s maternal aunt, said at a news conference that the child’s death was a “personal tragedy.”
“It’s a loss so enormous, I can’t begin to describe it,” she said, displaying a photo of her nephew taken a couple of years ago atop the Empire State Building.
“As you can see,” Lederman said, “he was bright, beautiful and full of joy.”
Lederman, who resides in Manhattan, said Koby e-mailed her regularly from Israel; she in turn sent him hundreds of books.
“He was a voracious reader,” she said.
Lederman said she would soon be on her way to Israel to join the bereaved family, adding that she had already spoken twice with her sister Koby’s mother but the conversations were brief.
“She couldn’t talk,” Lederman said. “She only wanted to know when I’d be coming.”
Linda Zurndorfer, a family friend in Silver Spring, Md., said her son had received an e-mail from Koby a few weeks ago in which he talked about his plans for the summer and high school.
When the family left for Israel in 1996, 9-year-old Koby “took it as an adventure,” she said.
“He was just a regular kid,” said Zurndorfer, whose children attended the Hebrew Day School of Montgomery County with the Mandell children.
Hillel officials in the Washington area remembered family members from when they lived in Maryland.
Roz Kram, who operates the food program at the Hillel, said the family used to spend Shabbat together at the Hillel.
“He was an inquisitive little boy who enjoyed playing and doing his own thing,” Kram said. “He was a member of the Hillel family while he was here.”
Binyamin Jolkovsky, the publisher and editor in chief of Jewish World Review.com who attended the University of Maryland in the early 1990s, remembered Koby.
“He was a nice happy kid,” Jolkovsky said. “He was the type of person who would love to go out in the woods.”
Jolkovsky said he “had to do a double take” when he read the news Wednesday.
“When I saw it, I just broke down and cried,” he said.
Rabbi Mandell is remembered for relating well with the students, and for his love of Israel, which friends say led him to make aliyah with his family.
“He had a very strong impact,” said Rabbi Gerald Serotta, the campus rabbi at nearby George Washington University. “He was an Orthodox rabbi with a personality.”
The University of Maryland is planning to hold a memorial for Koby.
In the wake of Koby’s murder, the Zionist Organization of America and other Jewish groups plan to redouble efforts to get the U.S. State Department to reverse its current policy and offer rewards for information about U.S. citizens killed by Palestinians.
While the government offers rewards for Americans killed abroad, it exempts Palestinians, saying a reward program would be “detrimental” to efforts to capture terrorists.
“More can be done,” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said Wednesday . “We really are in the position to extradite Palestinian terrorists who murder U.S. citizens.”
Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.), who represents the Silver Spring area where Koby grew up, said she would follow up with the Bush administration on the possibility of offering rewards.
“It’s appropriate where you have Americans for our government to stand up for them and their families,” Morella told JTA.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it was too early to determine whether a reward would be offered.
“Our chief concern is to be in touch with the families, to help the families,” Boucher said. “I’m sure the matter will be investigated, whether we have a role in that or need to offer some reward. We’ll have to see.”
(JTA Staff writer Michael J. Jordan in New York contributed to this report.)