Fifteen martial arts instructors are sitting around a conference table, trying not to cry.
Also present, but only on a video screen, are a group of children fighting cancer, bald from chemo, hooked up to tubes. In wheelchairs and hospital beds, they hold up signs saying “I am stronger.” Like an anthem, they sing along to Kelly Clarkson’s pop hit “Stronger.”
The martial arts teachers have gathered in the coastal town of Herzliya to train to become volunteers for Kids Kicking Cancer Israel, a nonprofit that uses martial arts techniques to help children with cancer and other serious illnesses achieve a sense of physical and emotional well-being through free martial arts classes, counseling, and other kinds of support to families.
“Though it may be sad to watch the video, these children are an inspiration. They are modern-day heroes,” Jill Shames, KKC’s director of training and certification tells the volunteers at the program’s weekly meeting.
Representing Israel’s multifaceted social mosaic, the volunteers are a mix of Orthodox and secular Jews, Arabs, and Bedouins, coming from all parts of the country. They may find themselves at political and ideological odds with one another, but there is a common thread: a strong desire to help children with cancer improve their lives through martial arts therapy.
“To cancer, we are all the same; it doesn’t care whether we are religious or not, Jewish or not. We are here with a purpose and are cooperating for a good cause,” said Miki Chayat of Bnei Brak, one of Israel’s most ultra-Orthodox Jewish cities.
Sitting across from Chayat was Ward Abo Quiedar from a Bedouin village in the Negev, a karate expert and coach. He decided to KKC’s volunteers when he learned that children with cancer can be helped through martial arts.
Abo Quiedar wants to help these children “fulfill their dreams,” he said.
Globally some 300,000 children are diagnosed with cancer each year. While the survival rates of childhood cancer have dramatically increased to more than 80 percent, nearly one-quarter of those who survive face at least one chronic health condition such as heart damage, second cancers, cognitive impairment and growth defects, according to the American Childhood Cancer Association.
KKC, founded by Detroit-based Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, who decided to help children and parents cope with the disease after he lost his two-year-old to leukemia, is now in more than 20 cities across the world.
Power, peace, and purpose are the foundation of KKC’s program, and these principles are directly tied to its methodology.
Children are taught to release their anger and frustration by kicking and punching pads, said Hakim. They also learn specialized breathing, meditation, and visualization techniques, which helps them remain calm during painful and invasive medical procedures. The methods enhance their ability to deal with chronic stress, strengthening their involuntary nervous system, he said.
Moreover, the program encourages children to teach the techniques they learn to their classmates, and even in front of large audiences such as corporate meetings and community events.
Hakim said this is one of the most impactful tools because it gives children a sense of pride and purpose after their lives were turned upside down by their cancer diagnosis.
Volunteers, who must have a black belt in martial arts and previous teaching experience, undergo a 10-hour course followed by two months of training during which they learn how to work with the children by observing veteran volunteers.
Jill Shames, who oversees the volunteer training for KKC’s programs in Israel, has been a social worker for more than 25 years and is a karate teacher. She said that something “deeply spiritual” is gained through the practice of martial arts that these volunteers bring to the children.
“These instructors understand the power of giving,” she said. The idea that a person who gives is more powerful than one who takes “resonates with the kids, who are continually having to take things, whether it’s medication or assistance from others,” said Shames.
“Becoming a giver gives the kids control. They learn this from their instructors,” she said.
As far as the instructors go, “I want people who are studying the martial arts to know that there are other ways to give back than just working within their own communities,” she added.
A deep sacred bond develops between the instructors and these children, said Hakim. While the children gain a sense of power and purpose, the instructors learn how to come face-to-face with death, which is a part of the Japanese tradition of samurai, said Hakim.
A 2016 study by a Wayne State University professor of pathology who is also KKC’s medical director, Martin Bluth, found a 40 percent overall reduction in pain after a one-hour martial arts session teaching meditation and movement, with the greatest reductions seen in older children and those who started out with the most pain. The study looked at 64 children enrolled in the KKC program over a period of 12 months.
“Pain — yes, that was something I had to learn to live with,” said Zoe Eliraz, who was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago and is now in training to become a KKC volunteer. “Martial arts gives you a way to deal with pain without suffering,” Eliraz said.
“In martial arts, you get kicked around a lot, and the pain becomes fun. When you learn to just feel the pain, it isn’t so terrible, but when you believe the story that ‘I am miserable because of my condition,’ it’s much worse,” said Eliraz, who hopes to pass this lesson on to the children in the program.
The KKC program is currently in six hospitals in Israel and plans to add four more by the end of this year. The program is also working on expanding its reach into Turkish and Jordanian hospitals that have expressed interest, said Hakim.
“We are growing very fast, and I can see us expanding into the Middle East and Europe very soon,“ Hakim said.
The program’s new CEO, Nir Zamir, said that martial arts therapy is a kind of innovation.
“We are exploring new ways to find families and developing partnerships with community organizations and nonprofits to integrate with their programs,” said Zamir, who was formerly an advertising executive for Dell.
Zamir said he learned about the program thorough a magazine article about Hakim and his work with Budo for Peace and decided to do something more meaningful.