When the death of an “unknown” touches us all

It’s not unusual to recall exactly where we were, in the light of the death of a well-known public figure. I still remember the details, around the assassination of JFK and the death of Lady Diana in 1997. The world shoulders a collective grief when someone who has had a global impact leaves its stage.

But how about the death of an “unknown”? Someone you have never met – a young boy of 13 years or 46 year-old a single woman in a country across the ocean from you? In order to shake you to the same degree, there must be some element of personal identification. For me the tragic murders of young Israeli Koby Mandell in 2001 and American, Kristine Luken in 2010, had that profound effect.

Although I live as an American on an island in the Caribbean, in this Internet – connected world, I am certainly not out of the loop for major news stories. More specifically, my love for Israel, which draws me back annually for the feasts of Sukkot and Passover for extended stays, has my antenna up for news in this oft -contentious place.

However, it was a fated set of circumstances several years ago, that I was browsing in a bookstore in my island of Tortola and in what I will call an “inner spiritual prompting,” my hand fell on a book titled “The Blessing of a Broken Heart.” I had recently lost my godson in his early 20’s, in a fatal auto accident. I was still grieving. I was intrigued about the story of this Israeli Jewish mother’s pain at the brutal stoning death of her young son, Koby by Arab terrorists. The attackers bludgeoned him to death in a desert cave near Tekoa not far from his home.

What most moved me about the book by Sherri Mandell, was not only that she shared her process, along with her husband Rabbi Seth and children, in the stages of shock and grief, but that through it she wove Jewish tradition, Torah and the biblical holidays, much of which I observe. There were beautiful quotes and poetry as she journaled through the Jewish calendar in the process of healing. I longed to meet her one day. And as fate decreed, we met at a book signing in Jerusalem in 2016 for her second book, “The Road to Resilience – from Chaos to Celebration.”

In early 2009, I had returned from a month traveling throughout Israel, visiting several dear friends who had made aliyah (literally “going up” or moving to Israel). I planned to return in fall of 2010, but in the end, I was unable to go. Just a few months later, I was shocked to read about the horrific murder of American, Kristine Luken and the brutal stabbing of her friend, British Israeli, Kay Wilson in the forest mountain trails just west of Jerusalem. The more I read about Kristine, the more I identified with her as a true follower of Yeshua (Jesus) with a huge heart for Israel, serving in a church ministry, with a humanitarian outreach to Jewish people. Her love for the land and outreach to the people exemplified by her life, is what this essentially “Jewish Gospel” is all about. I was struck to my core as I considered, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Like her, I was single, close to her age, love adventures and the outdoors, and have many Israeli friends. I could have been on that forest path that horrific day when two “sons of evil” (Kay’s words) showed them no mercy.

Although Kay had what can only be considered a miraculous recovery, stumbling bloody and bound with 12 stab wounds over a mile until she found help, her initial testimony was not fully believed. At first, police hesitated to call this terrorism. However, the suspects were caught due to Kay’s quick thinking in stabbing one of the terrorists with her pen knife, leaving a blood DNA trail to his capture and others in his terrorist cell.

Kay is quick to point out as she travels the world with her survival testimony, that the surgeon who saved her life, was an Israeli Muslim Arab. This is not about all Arabs nor is it primarily about Islam. However it is about radicalization and the incitement that comes from years of “hate education” in Palestinian schools, and through radical Islamic imams in mosques. How else could Palestinians without remorse, stone to death a young innocent schoolboy or brutally attack two defenseless women?

When I reflect on this tragedy, I see several “silver linings” in an ominous and dark cloud. One is in Kristine’s heart, who just days before her murder wrote an email to a friend whom she shared inspirational quotes, “Search out the goodness of God in the face of tragedy.” Certainly if biblical tradition says that a birth in Jerusalem is a blessing, then certainly the death of a “righteous Gentile” in Jerusalem, is also a blessing.

Kristine’s death will not go forgotten. Her parents and siblings do not sense that her life was in vain, although it was tragically cut short. Through the Koby Mandell Foundation, which offers year-round therapeutic counseling workshops for the children, siblings, spouses and parents who have lost loved ones due to terror or tragedy, there is “living memorial” in Kristine’s name. The Kristine Luken Camp Koby Scholarship Fund is set up to raise money towards this effort. As we mark the sixth anniversary of Kristine’s murder, the focus now is to be a part of giving that will memorialize her life, which shines as a bright star above the forests of Jerusalem. You too can be a part of the healing of invisible scars of bereaved Israeli children and also preserve Kristine’s blessed memory through this scholarship fund.