December 18, 2005, Updated September 14, 2012

Women who have lost loved ones to 9/11 heal their wounds at the Dead Sea.The bus rattled down the road out of Jerusalem towards the Dead Sea where for one day, Israelis and Americans would share their losses to terrorism and work towards healing together.

A few minutes out of the city, and the digital clock above the driver’s seat declared 9:11 in bold red. “I think it is stuck,” joked one woman nervously from the back of the bus, while others on board remarked that indeed, time felt like it was standing still.

While 9/11 means something to almost everyone on earth, the date is permanently tattooed onto the hearts of Americans who lost lovers, parents and siblings on that fateful day. To help the healing process, a group of grieving Americans recently traveled to Israel to receive support from Israeli therapists and families who have undergone the same trauma.

The 16 Americans spent a day with therapists from the Koby Mandell Foundation, who over the years have become experts in healing the gaping wounds inflicted by terrorism. Throughout the year, the foundation hosts camps and special mothers’ retreats to those who have lost immediate family members to terror. The Foundation co-sponsored the Dead Sea retreat along with the New York Jewish Healing Center.

“After 9/11 I really felt like I wanted to connect to American mothers,” said Sherri Mandell, founder of the foundation and originally from Long Island, New York. That connection was made last year after she read an article on healing by Rabbi Simka Weintraub who was counseling the families of those killed in 9/11. Mandell, through her work in Israel, recognized that both sides had a lot to offer each other. A plan was drawn up last winter to bring the two therapy groups together.

The approach of the day together would be the same as what Mandell offers to bereaved in Israel. “We bring people, first, to have to fun together. We have an experience of joy before we go to the pain,” she said.

After 9/11 Mandell said that she cried all day thinking about the families. “At that moment people understood we are all victims of terror and trauma,” said Mandell. Just months earlier, her son was murdered in Israel by terrorists not far from the family home in Tekoa, about 20 minutes from Jerusalem. Koby Mandell, 13, and his friend Yosef Ishran, 14, had skipped school to go on a hike. The next day they were found bludgeoned to death in a cave.

“We don’t move on, we move with,” Mandell told the busload of the families of 9/11 victims as they headed south.

“When people have the lowest point inside, it is no coincidence that we have come to the lowest point on earth,” explained therapist Shira Chernobel over the loudspeaker of the bus. The group rolled along the stretch of highway that would bring them to the Ein Gedi nature reserve, an oasis in the desert; the afternoon would be spent soaking up the healing mineral water of the Dead Sea.

Chernobel, who has been in Israel for 20 years, was no stranger to the desert landscape above the Dead Sea. She encouraged people to close their eyes and used hints of guided meditation to help prepare for the journey ahead.

The daylong trip also tapped the experience of Ruth Ann Sadeh, an Israeli-American who has lived in Israel for over two decades. Both therapists moved up and down the aisle, lending an ear and hugs as. Mandell chirped in words of support to the people who had lost spouses, in-laws, fathers, daughters, and sons.

Over the years, the formally trained therapists, with the help of Mandell, who is also an author, have developed their own therapy techniques for dealing with terrorism. Sadeh calls it mothering with metaphors.

“I haven’t lost a spouse,” says Chernobel, “But I have lived with Holocaust survivors and have a history of dealing with grief,” she told ISRAEL21c. Chernobel was among the search team who found Koby’s body in the cave and then raced ahead of the police in order to be the first to break the tragic news to Koby’s mother.

“Israelis know how to keep going and how to struggle with pain – family and regeneration is such a big part of our history,” Chernobel explained when asked how Israelis cope so well despite the ongoing strikes of terror.

Israelis have a keen ability to reframe things, said Mandell. “It is a country that has a different amount of closeness in society. In Israel, if you want to visit someone, you don’t call first. People aren’t like that in New York. You don’t just drop in on someone in Manhattan.”

Americans have had a hard time coping in the US, a country far less experienced with this type of tragedy than Israel. “Our presence reminds people about September 11 in an unpleasant way,” said one American visitor to the circle which had formed prior to the group hike up the Ein Gedi waterfall.

“We have big issues with closure,” said another who was never able to recover the body of her son. “We had no shiva for him,” she said solemnly, referring to the traditional Jewish rituals which follow the burial of a family member.

Joyce Gates from New York lost her son Peter Kellerman, who worked in equities for the Cantor Fitzgerald firm at the World Trade Center. She is amazed at how, despite the terrorism, Israelis move on with their lives.

“I see bereaved Israeli women writing books and playing instruments. In the US there are fewer people to speak with,” she commented, “Here in Israel, people are really trying to make actions towards the healing process. People are reaching out more to each other.”

Even though Gates attends healing sessions in New York, she feels that in general, the American community is lacking support in for its bereaved. “I think the only way they [Americans] can deal with this situation is not to deal,” she said.

The group made it across a small brook as they headed back down the mountain toward the Dead Sea. At that time, therapist Sadeh who also teaches at Haifa University, had a moment to speak. She radiates warmth and strength and places her hands like a mother on women nearby. “Israel offers a lot of government-supported therapy to help people cope with terror,” she said, and explained that through her work she has learned that most of all, families of terrorism need to be cared for and loved.

“They need tenderness. They need to be cared for like babies. They need to be rocked and cradled.”

Sadeh is one of the staff that helps care for bereaved mothers through the Koby Mandell Foundation. The Foundation, several times throughout the year, provides Israeli women with a five-star hotel room, where, for a few days, they are pampered with luxuries without the pressures of family life. Beyond the therapy sessions, the women experience informal activities such as boating, hiking, and archeological digs.

“These women are in great need of mothering, of feeling that they need to be taken care of. And that’s what we do,” explains Sadeh. In fact, she continued, the mode of therapy has been so successful that it was presented at a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) meeting last year.

“The real therapy for people is to be with others who are going through the same thing,” Sadeh noted, “We do a lot of touching and hugging,” she noted, saying that this was unusual. “Therapists generally do not touch their clients.”

Sadeh also uses metaphors though activities such as kayaking on the Jordan River to help women understand concepts such as entanglement and guidance.

“This was a natural extension for us to come to Israel to heal,” said Rabbi Weintraub, who told ISRAEL21c that Jewish healing traditionally draws on community in order for people to reach “wholeness and hope.” Weintraub is the spiritual leader for many of the Americans who made the trip.

As the morning wound down, the group prepared to eat lunch and soak in the healing waters of the Dead Sea.

After the swimsuits were on, one woman, a frail 86 year old lay cradled by her daughter from New York, both of them embraced by the buoyant waters. Often, the first contact with the Dead Sea can be slightly painful as the high concentration of minerals makes even the tiniest scrapes and sores on the body sting. But as the sting of the mineral salts wore off, mother and child were able to relax in the Sea. And the body of minerals that is so hostile to fish and aquatic life became, for these grieving families, a place to help them heal both inside and out.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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