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Alive and Kicking

Rochel Burstyn

Elimelech Goldberg, a shul rabbi and karate black belt, has taught thousands of kids how to cope with the pain of cancer treatments

Thursday, October 06, 2016

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HIGHER PURPOSE “The greatest tragedy is being with a dying nonagenarian who does not have a clue why he or she inhabited this planet.” Rabbi Goldberg teaches kids how to work through their pain by training them to focus beyond the incredible stress they’re facing (Photos: Arjo Photography)

Tt’s two days after Labor Day, and though fall is around the corner, it’s unbearably hot in Detroit. A late afternoon downpour is a welcome relief, but soon enough large puddles are forming on the road, and a long line of cars is lined up in rush-hour traffic.

In these conditions, going anywhere for the first time is a challenge, but somehow I turn into a driveway and inch along a curved road until I see a nondescript office building tucked behind a row of parked cars. Not quite convinced I’ve arrived at my destination, my doubts are put to rest when I see five African-American kids spill out of a nearby van — each wearing what’s unmistakably a karate belt. I know that I’ve arrived.

Inside, I find the karate studio, a large room outfitted with blue pads on the floor and motivational posters on the walls. A crowd of young and old — kids with purple, orange, or yellow karate belts, muscular men with black belts, parents, caregivers, staff, and volunteers — move with purpose. The noise level is high, the kids giddy — they’d had a break last week and are thrilled to be back — and in the center of them all, greeting each person, is a bearded man wearing a black suit and large black yarmulke. I watch as he greets a woman and her kids warmly in Spanish, and for a moment, I’m convinced he knows the language fluently.

The man is Elimelech Goldberg, a rabbi and martial arts instructor whose modest bearing says nothing about the unfathomable heights he’s reached in kiddush Hashem. We’re in the Kids Kicking Cancer healing arts studio in Southfield, Michigan, where kids who have cancer or sickle cell disease (and their siblings) learn to become powerful martial artists, tame their disease with their mental power, and inspire others around the world with their courage and strength.

The kids spread out on the mat in neat rows, Rabbi Goldberg facing them at the front of the room. He welcomes them with his signature catchphrase “Power, Peace, Purpose” as he places one hand on his fist and bows. The kids chant “Power, Peace, Purpose” in return, bow in unison, and the class begins. The kids in the room range in age from about 5 to 16, and all look healthy and energetic. At least for this class it’s hard to tell who’s sick, who’s undergoing painful treatments, or who has a sick sibling — a reminder that we never truly know the private loads that people carry, kids included. The kids punch forward (shouting “Ay!”), double punch (“Ay, ay!”), and do a rather complicated-looking double-punch-high kick (“Ay, ay, ay!”)

BREATHING LIGHT It’s not so much about martial arts as it is about the neshamah. “We’re breathing in light straight from Hashem and with His help, we can deal with anything”

The opening warm-ups out of the way, instructor Richard Plowden, a five-time world karate champion, acknowledges a small, thin boy who raises his hand. He’s just celebrated his birthday and Richard asks him if he had a cake. When the young karate master responds with an excited yes, Richard replies with a mock-horrified: “And you didn’t invite us?!” He asks about the kids’ new schools, their classes, their summer fun, responding with questions, empathy, and true kindness. Then he directs them to stand at attention and close their eyes. The room descends into a solemn silence. “Breathe in the light…” Richard instructs.

The collective inhale is audible — even many of the observing adults around the room have their eyes closed and are participating.

“And blow out the darkness…” The collective exhale is equally loud.

And then Sensei Richard calls loudly, “What are you?”

“Powerful martial artists!” the kids yell in response.

“What’s your purpose?”

“To teach the world!”

It’s not just hyperbole; they really do. There’s a screen right there in the room with the latest update of the people who have been impacted by these kids: It currently stands at 14,238.

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