Birthday for the Bereaved

You may have heard of my son Koby. In May (2001), he and a friend were brutally murdered a half-mile from our home in Tekoa, Israel. He was bludgeoned to death in a cave. He was killed with utter cruelty. He was killed because of hate.

He was an innocent 8th grader. He and his friend had cut school to go hiking in the wadi, the dry riverbed. They wanted to know the wadi like the back of their hands, his friends told us during the shiva.

June 14 would have been Koby’s 14th birthday. On that day, I was in terrible pain. How do you celebrate the birthday of your oldest child, who is no longer with you? How do you mark the day that would have brought him closer to high school and to college, to manhood and marriage, to children?

How do you mark the day that reminds you that your son is no longer alive?

My kids and I did errands in Jerusalem in the morning, and then we decided to go to Burger King to mark Koby’s birthday, because one thing Koby loved about Israel was being able to eat kosher hamburgers. My son loved to eat — especially hamburgers. On the screensaver on our computer, he wrote: “I’m hungry, give me something to eat now!!!” His hunger was a force to be reckoned with.

I and my 3 kids — Daniel 12, Eliana 10, and Gavi 6 — needed to walk about 5 blocks to get to Burger King. We were hungry and tired and cranky, so when we passed a vegetarian restaurant, we decided to stop there to eat. I think we were all relieved not to have to feel the sadness of eating hamburgers without Koby.

As we ate, I cried and cried. I miss him so much — the way he hugged me at night, the way he dropped his backpack on the living room floor when he walked in, even the way he kept his room a total disaster zone. I miss the way he read each article I wrote and commented on it. I miss the jokes he was sure to tell me every day. I miss him and I miss my previous life, one where pain wasn’t my constant companion, one where horror wasn’t the undertone of my dreams.

I closed my eyes and held a napkin against my eyes as I cried and I thought: How am I going to go on? How am I going to get the strength to leave this restaurant and get through the day?

And suddenly I realized. On my birthday I like to swim a mile. What was I going to do on Koby’s birthday? Swim 14 laps? We were in downtown Jerusalem; Koby would have been 14. I said to my kids: “Let’s go give charity to 14 beggars in Koby’s name.”

At that instant, a gentleman with a clean-shaven face and puffy white hair put a card down on our table. With a glance, I knew that the card said that the man was deaf and was looking for a contribution.

In the past cards like that had annoyed me — I was trying to eat a meal in peace, and suddenly some beggar had interrupted me.

Now my kids and I were thrilled to see him. “Here,” we said, “here’s money.” He looked at us with a grin on his face.

We got change and exited the restaurant, energized by our mission. The only problem was it was so hot and there were so few people in downtown Jerusalem because of the fear of terrorism. We saw a man giving charity to an old stooped man. The old man walked away and we ran after him to give him money. We actually went up to two people who had broken legs and were resting on a bench because we thought they were beggars. We strode purposefully up to them but didn’t see a cup or change basket.

Up in heaven, I thought, Koby was laughing at our escapades. There was nothing he loved more than irony and this was supreme irony: We needed beggars because we were desperate for someone to give to. We were begging for beggars. (Shlomo Carlebach calls a “holy beggar” one who is desperate to give.)

But just when we needed them, there weren’t any.

Perhaps this was Koby’s message to us, his birthday adventure: his spirit was alive and connected to us.

It was too hot to stay out much longer. We thought about visiting the Western Wall, where there is usually a good group of beggars, but it was the middle of the afternoon and it was just too hot to be out more. So we decided that next year on Koby’s birthday, we would get up early, go downtown, and to the Wall, and make sure to give away money in Koby’s name.

When I later told my husband about the 14 beggars, he said, “Next year, we’ll gather the beggars and take them out to a restaurant for a meal.”

What do you do with tragedy and pain? Either you become bitter, hardened and despondent, or you go forward and try to make beauty and joy in the world.

Koby would have wanted us to create joy in his name. Koby would have rejoiced to sit with the beggars at a table.

This article first appeared in Hadassah Magazine, and then was reposted on

About the Author

Sherri Mandell is the author of “Writers of the Holocaust,” and author of the book “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” (Toby Press). She and her husband are founders of The Koby Mandell Foundation (, dedicated to creating programs that help children and families struck by tragedy.

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