In a Santa Monica karate dojo, Adam takes aim at an orange-and-red foam pad that his teacher, sensei Bruce, has dressed up with electrical tape to look like a grimacing face. Adam, 7, emits a raucous “kiai!” and strikes the pad, sending it careening into the mirrored wall.
“You’re a warrior,” say Bruce and another teacher, Kim.
Adam is a leukemia patient, and the weekly karate classes he attends are provided to him through a program recently arrived in Los Angeles, Kids Kicking Cancer. Classes, equipment and clothing are supplied without charge to Adam and his 5-year-old sister, Mika, who often attends to be closer to her brother, said their mother, Sharone Pomerantz.
The karate lessons and breathing techniques that Kids Kicking Cancer teach have “helped so much,” Pomerantz said.
Whereas Adam would previously spend the week after chemotherapy treatments feeling tired and defeated, he can now often be found in the dojo only three days later, practicing breathing and relaxation exercises and working toward his yellow belt.
Kids Kicking Cancer (KKC) is the creation of Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, who left a position with a Detroit Orthodox synagogue to devote himself full time to his organization. Goldberg, who lost a child to leukemia in 1983, has a background in working with sick children through Chai Lifeline and its Camp Simcha. With KKC, Goldberg integrates his expertise as a rabbi and as a martial artist to help kids cope with painful treatments and life-threatening conditions.
The organization’s methodology focuses on giving kids a sense of control over their lives and their pain.
“We allow the children to feel like they’re victors, not victims; that they’re powerful, not weak,” Goldberg said.
The organization’s mantra is “power, peace, purpose,” which Rabbi Goldberg said derives from a Kohanim blessing.
“Pain is a message you don’t have to listen to,” he said, recounting stories of teaching bed-bound cancer patients breathing techniques to help diminish pain felt during chemotherapy.
Since establishing KKC, Goldberg, who is also a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University Medical School, has worked to expand the organization around Detroit and to five hospitals in New York and one in Windsor, Ontario. In total, they serve about 2,000 children. The program has attracted support from the talent agency CAA and from celebrities like Jessica Biel and Gerard Butler, whom Goldberg calls “a good friend.”
In Los Angeles, two KKC classes began in August at Dawn Barnes’ Karate Kids in Sherman Oaks and Santa Monica. Both locations offer free classes for children going through cancer treatment and their siblings, and karate instructors volunteer their time. KKC expects to expand to Childrens Hospital Los Angeles by the end of October.
Although Rabbi G, as most people call him, has long sought to spread his organization and its message of empowering children around the country, its arrival in Los Angeles was serendipitous. Dawn Barnes, who, along with her husband Ben Yellin, owns seven karate studios in the Los Angeles area, had been looking for a children’s charity to support. In 2004, she saw a news story about Rabbi G on television and felt compelled to contact him.
“I thought, this is fantastic, this is the perfect charity,” Barnes said.
Eventually Barnes and Bruce Rush — the aforementioned sensei Bruce — who has a doctorate in psychology and specializes in working with children, traveled to Detroit to meet and train with Goldberg.
The program seems a good fit for Barnes’ karate studios, which feature rainbows, colorful mats, an occasional flourish of Native American art, pastel foam noodles and glassed-in dojos that allow parents to observe their children.
Besides this environment cultivated for children, Barnes’ karate teachers emphasize persistence and use encouraging language, such as “a black belt is a white belt that never quit.”
The L.A. chapter of KKC has attracted about five to six students to each of its free weekly classes, and Barnes and Rush are hoping to increase the program’s profile. Both note that they accommodate students with special needs or health conditions — an emphasis on flexibility that is also shared by Goldberg, who told a story about a child who approached the organization but had no interest in martial arts. Since she loved dance, KKC devised a dance program for her using tai chi breathing techniques.
As for Adam, his mother says karate has helped him handle the psychological and emotional toll of taxing cancer treatments. His teachers agree.
“Adam’s got great energy and a great spirit,” said Rush, who is now KKC’s California program director.
And Adam has taken up the confidence-building ideas of KKC.
“I am a powerful martial artist,” he says, first alone, then along with the senseis. His light brown hair is buzzed short, exposing a long scar on his scalp where a tumor was removed.
His mother is here, too, watching proudly through the glass. As the lesson ends, she rushes off, explaining, “I have to go clap for him.”
They meet at the dojo’s doors, where Adam greets his mom with a smile and a bow.
For more information about Kids Kicking Cancer, call (310) 963-6743 or visit powerpeacepurpose.com.