Rabbi turns child victims of cancer into victors with martial arts
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Rabbi turns child victims of cancer into victors with martial arts

Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg in running for CNN's Hero of the Year for his Kids Kicking Cancer work in North America and Israel

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg leads a martial arts class for seriously ill children in Southfield, Michigan, August 2014. (photo credit: Joshua Schwartz Photography)
Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg leads a martial arts class for seriously ill children in Southfield, Michigan, August 2014. (photo credit: Joshua Schwartz Photography)

As director of Camp Simcha for children with cancer and other blood disorders in the late 1990s, Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg watched as medical staff restrained a little boy to administer chemotherapy.

The boy screamed loudly until Goldberg, a black belt in the Choi Kwang-Do martial art, intervened and told the staff to wait. He asked the camper if he wanted to learn some martial arts, and when the boy said yes, the rabbi taught him some breathing techniques.

“I told him that martial arts teach that pain is not a message you have to listen to, that pain is something you can push away from you,” Goldberg recounted in an interview with The Times of Israel. “The boy understood, and he rose above the pain to the point that he didn’t even feel it when the nurses removed his chemotherapy needle.”

Today, Goldberg, 58, is internationally recognized for his revelation that martial arts can be used to help sick children with pain management, which he parlayed into a not-for-profit organization called Kids Kick Cancer.

Recently he was named one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes for 2014. Now he is vying for the Hero of the Year title (and a prize of $100,000 for his organization) via online voting through November 16.

When Goldberg received rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University, he planned to work as a teacher and congregational rabbi. And he did, on the West Coast for a short time, and then for two decades in Southfield, Michigan, where he still lives.

Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg is in the running for CNN Hero of the Year. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg is in the running for CNN Hero of the Year. (Courtesy)

But life and fate had different plans for Goldberg, who is today a martial arts expert and assistant professor specializing in pediatric pain management and end-of-life care at Wayne State University in Detroit.

A deep personal loss was the catalyst for Goldberg to eventually gain the knowledge, insight and skills that enabled him to found and direct Kids Kicking Cancer. The rabbi’s firstborn child Sara died of leukemia in 1981 when she was two.

“She was a special neshama [soul],” Goldberg said. “She would tell the other children at the hospital not to cry. Her skin was sloughing off, she had sores in her mouth and diarrhea, but she was telling me, ‘It’s okay, Abba [Daddy], I love you.’”

A number of years later, people associated with Camp Simcha came to the Detroit area to do fundraising for the camp. After meeting Goldberg and learning his personal story, they asked him to direct the camp in the summers — which he ended up doing from 1992 until 2004.

In the meantime, Goldberg took up martial arts training as a way of releasing the stresses that stemmed from his rabbinical work.

“I’m not the racquetball type, and I knew that martial arts would discipline me. I liked its emphasis on inner focus and breath control,” he said.

After seeing the effect that a quick martial arts lesson had on the young boy undergoing chemotherapy, Goldberg decided to introduce martial arts more broadly to Camp Simcha. Later, he ran a pilot program at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, and in 1999 he established Kids Kicking Cancer.

Today, Kids Kicking Cancer, which is headquartered in Southfield, Michigan also operates in New York, California, Florida and the Canadian province of Ontario, and will soon expand to Massachusetts and Georgia, as well.

In Israel, where Goldberg’s son lives with his family, on the rabbi’s frequent visits he has helped establish Kids Kicking Cancer programs in Jerusalem at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Hadassah Medical Center and Alyn Hospital.

In all locations, the martial arts programs are anchored at the hospitals, where staff are trained in Kids Kick Cancer techniques. Children, ill with cancer or other serious diseases, also come to little dojos outside the hospital for classes.

In some cases Goldberg, who has even received the Pope’s provision to demonstrate his methods at Rome’s Bambino Gesu Hospital (which is owned by the Holy See), does sessions with children long distance by Skype.

One such child is 10-year-old Raphael, who lives in Jerusalem where he had a kidney transplant when he was just a year old. A year ago, Raphael experienced severe stomach pain that doctors did not know how to manage.

‘I started to think that maybe this is what God had in mind for us in terms of an alternative means of controlling Raphael’s pain’

“One day a doctor suggested we look for an alternative way to manage his pain,” Raphael’s mother Debby told The Times of Israel.

“The doctor was not specific in what he meant, and the thought that conventional medicine had no way of helping manage my son’s pain was freaky scary,” she said.

Hours after the doctor told her there wasn’t anything he could do to help with Raphael’s pain, Debby happened to go into a store and see Goldberg on the cover of Ami Magazine, a Brooklyn-based Jewish publication, which had a story about Kids Kicking Cancer.

“I started to think that maybe this is what God had in mind for us in terms of an alternative means of controlling Raphael’s pain,” she said.

Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg with some children at the Kids Kicking Cancer national headquarters in Southfield, Michigan, August 2014. (photo credit: Joshua Schwartz Photography)
Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg with some children at the Kids Kicking Cancer national headquarters in Southfield, Michigan, August 2014. (photo credit: Joshua Schwartz Photography)

Debby, who is a volunteer coordinator for Kids Kicking Cancer in Israel, likes how the martial arts training Goldberg and his staff give children helps them regain a sense of control of their lives.

She says she has not forgotten what Rabbi Goldberg told her when he first explained why he believes teaching kids how to rise above and beyond pain and control their anger is so important.

“He told me to think about how when an adult screams out in pain during treatment, medical providers back off and try to figure out how to do things differently. But when a child yells and screams, they will just hold them down tighter,” she said.

Kids Kicking Cancer gives each terminally ill child a black belt before they die. It is embroidered with the child’s name and ‘Master Teacher’

Goldberg’s methodology is about pain management, but ultimately it is about giving seriously and terminally ill children a sense of purpose. Kids Kicking Cancer offers the kids tools to show and teach others how to handle adversity, fear and pain. Goldberg and his staff constantly remind the children that they are teaching the world.

Kids Kicking Cancer gives each terminally ill child a black belt before they die. It is embroidered with the child’s name and “Master Teacher.”

“People ask me how I deal with children dying,” Goldberg said.

“The answer is, I cry,” he said.

“But it’s not the greatest tragedy. The greatest tragedy is a 95-year-old person who doesn’t know why they’ve lived.”

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