Meeting the enemy head on

By Ilan Preskovsky

There is surely no greater act of chesed than helping children with cancer and that is precisely what the American not-for-profit organisation, Kids Kicking Cancer, has been dedicated to doing for over fifteen years. That it does so in a most unconventional manner does nothing to take away from how powerfully effective it has proven to be time and time again.

Founded in 1999 by Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, who left his position as a community rabbi of some twenty years to start the organisation, Kids Kicking Cancer was created purely to give children dealing with cancer or similar serious diseases a way to confront their disease head on through the practice of martial arts. The organisation has grown exponentially since he first started it, but it all begins with Rabbi Goldberg – or Rabbi G, as he is affectionately known to the children – mixing his past role as a spiritual leader with his experience as a black belt in Choi Kwang-Do and, sadly, the personal tragedy of losing his two-year-old daughter to cancer some years ago, to create a series of programmes that aim to seriously enhance the lives and recovery of young children dealing with life-threatening illnesses.

Anyone unfamiliar with martial arts beyond your odd b-grade action flick might perhaps cock an incredulous eyebrow at the idea of mixing cancer treatment with punching and kicking, but as Rabbi G himself explains it in his book, A Perfect God Created an Imperfect World Perfectly: 30 Life Lessons from Kids Kicking Cancer, “Martial arts is a fascinating amalgam of self-awareness, introspection, movement, and energy that emphasises the melding of mind, body, and spirit.”

As such, while Kids Kicking Cancer certainly gives a space for children to both work on their physical strength within the limits of what their individual treatment allows and to physically “fight” this all-engulfing shadow that evades comprehension at every turn – as Rabbi G writes, “[Martial arts allows] young boys and girls to feel like victors rather than victims” – its benefits stretch far beyond even these tremendously useful tools.

Drawing a straight line between the soul, as presented in Judaism, and the various names for the same that are at the centre of most ancient martial arts, the various programmes at Kids Kicking Cancer use a combination of meditation, breathing exercises, and martial arts techniques to help the children manage the pain and stress that comes with their diseases, specifically by tapping into the part of themselves that goes beyond the mere physical. The school is entirely non-denominational and caters to boys and girls from all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and religions (or lack thereof), but the very Jewish – if mostly universal – idea of our being more than just our bodies remains at the heart of its entire ideology.

What’s truly incredible, though, is that such often esoteric ideas aren’t just, on some level, understood by children as young as three years old, but are embraced by them too. Working off a central mantra of “Power, Peace, Purpose”, the children who attend these weekly classes – all absolutely free of charge, including uniforms, transportations, etc. – have benefited enormously in how they deal with their young lives and the illnesses that have the power to completely define them. Parents, caregivers, doctors, and the children themselves have all noted just how much of a positive impact these classes have on them.

In fact, so successful have these programmes been that, along with Kids Kicking Cancer being awarded a number of prestigious healthcare awards, the lessons that form the core of the organisation’s programmes have been taught in seminars for various companies of different sizes and are easily adaptable to all kinds of people, just trying to deal with their ordinary lives.

Most remarkable of all, though, is the fact that the lessons that form the basis of these seminars and Rabbi G’s book come not from Rabbi G or any of the organisation’s large and fully trained staff, but from the children themselves: children who have consistently shown incredible courage, compassion, and wisdom in the face of the most unimaginable of challenges – even by those children who, tragically, ultimately succumbed to their disease. You can meet Rabbi G when he visits South Africa as part of the next Sinai Indaba.

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