Black belt rabbi gets Pope's blessing

By Doreen Wachmann

RABBI Elimelech Goldberg has never formally studied medicine. Yet he is a university lecturer in paediatrics and his work in cancer pain control has been recognised by the Pope and America's largest mosque.

The rabbi's extraordinary journey into helping kids with cancer began one Friday morning some 34 years ago.

"My entire involvement in the world of medicine came when my first child was diagnosed with leukaemia," he told me.

The young rabbi was teaching at the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles when daughter Sara Basya was diagnosed with a virus a week before her first birthday.

The Torah reading the following day was about the Akeida, the binding of Isaac.

The rabbi had told his students that Abraham's real challenge was not to obey God, but that he managed to do the traumatic task of preparing to kill his firstborn "singing and dancing".

Rabbi Goldberg told his students: "Life is not about doing what you are called to do, but somehow finding the strength to do it singing and dancing, to be able to walk up difficult mountains singing and dancing and know that God is with you."

Then the phone rang. Rabbi Goldberg was summoned to the yeshiva office to take a call from his wife Ruthie.

She told him: "There is something really wrong with Sara Basya. We have to go back to the doctor."

That Friday morning the baby was diagnosed with leukaemia.

The following morning, at precisely the time that most Los Angeles synagogues were reading about the binding of Isaac, the hospital technician asked Rabbi Goldberg to fasten his daughter's arms and legs to a table for a clinical procedure.

"I remembered what I had told my students the day before," he said. "It's a lot easier giving a class."

He said about Sara Basya, who died a year later just before her second birthday: "She was an amazing little trooper. She would tell the doctors, 'No medication today please and she would tell five-year-old kids in the clinic not to cry. She was very precocious.

"She was the first one who taught me the power of children."

Rabbi Goldberg said that his current work all over the world in helping kids to cope with cancer through karate techniques was all due to little Sara Basya.

The rabbi said: "She influenced so many people. Everything I do now is really based upon what she taught that, no matter how difficult the mountain is, you have to find the strength to walk up singing and dancing. That was ultimately her life's lesson."

But with all his talk of "singing and dancing", Rabbi Goldberg admitted: "The pain of bereavement is indescribable."

Seven years after Sara Basya's death, when Rabbi Goldberg was the rabbi of Young Israel of Southfield, Michigan, he was approached by Rabbi Simcha Scholar who had founded Camp Simcha for child cancer sufferers and asked to direct the camp.

Rabbi Goldberg said: "I told him there was no way my wife and I could go into that type of environment. It was too tough. Every little girl would be our daughter."

But direct it they did for all of 12 years.

Rabbi Goldberg continued: "At the camp I came across the reality that I now lecture about in the medical world that if an adult will scream in the middle of a painful procedure, usually the doctor will stop and figure out a better way to do things.

"When children scream they often hold them down tighter. That's pain management.

"At the camp I came across this five-year-old boy who was having his port access injected for chemotherapy. The boy was understandably screaming. He was terrified. I walked in. It was so counter-intuitive to me, but I just yelled, 'Wait!'.

"They all stopped. Even the little kid stopped screaming. The director of nursing and another nurse were holding him down. They all stopped. I didn't have a clue what I was going to say next. I said to the nurses, 'Give me five minutes with this child'.

"The nurses were happy to leave and the little boy looked at me as though I was a governor who had stayed his execution."

Fortunately, Rabbi Goldberg had learned martial arts as a way to unwind from his rabbinic duties.

He walked over to the child and said: "I am a black belt. Do you want me to teach you some karate? The boy almost jumped off the table."

Rabbi Goldberg told me: "I explained to the boy that in martial arts pain is a message that you don't have to listen to.

"You can bring in this amazing light and blow out the pain. Five minutes later the boy and I were doing a simple tai chi breathing technique. Twenty minutes later the nurse took out the syringe and the boy didn't know she had done the procedure.

"That was when Kids Kicking Cancer was born."

After the camp, the rabbi started a pilot project in a children's hospital in Michigan with 10 children.

He said: "The doctors were telling us that the children were much more relaxed. I began to lecture about it and received an appointment at Wayne State University School of Medicine as clinical assistant professor in paediatrics."

Beginning the scheme with just the rabbi at the helm, Kids Kicking Cancer now has about 100 volunteers and staff in four countries.

The rabbi gave me an example of how it worked.

He said: "There was a five-year-old boy called Luca in Windsor, Ontario, having surgery. The nurse comes in and tells mum, 'We have to hold down Luca because we have to change some skin and it's going to hurt.

"The mum tells the nurse, 'I don't hold Luca down'. The nurse says she'll get another nurse to do it.

"As she's walking out this five-year-old boy sits up in his bed and says:, 'You don't understand, I'm a martial artist. I don't have to be put down. I'm going to teach you how to breathe through pain'.

"This five-year-old boy is totally calm as they're tearing his skin and does the special meditation when getting needles. He is able to not push out against the needle.

"The nurses were so blown away that the hospital wanted to run the programme. The children are our little ambassadors."

Two years ago the rabbi brought a group of children from his programme in Sloan Kettering cancer centre in New York to teach Pfizer executives in New York how to breathe out their fear and anger.

Three days later the rabbi was called to teach Pfizer in Italy how to do it. They were so impressed that the rabbi initiated a programme 18 months ago at the Vatican Children's Hospital in Rome.

Rabbi Goldberg said: "An Orthodox rabbi needed permission from the Pope to teach meditative techniques to Vatican children. We are now in five cities in Italy and have started in Israel."

Now Rabbi Goldberg is writing a book, A Perfect God Created an Imperfect World Perfectly.

The words of his book title are inscribed on the wall of North America's largest mosque in Dearborn, Michigan.

Worst things to happen to me actually saved my life

By Doreen Wachmann

BONNIE Cohen thought she was living the American dream in a house on the hills near Los Angeles.

"We had a dream life," she said. "My husband Alan was very successful in business. We had two beautiful children in a dream house on the hills. We belonged to a country club. I played golf four days a week.

"We travelled all over. We drove fancy cars. Everything was going along perfectly."

That was until Bonnie's daughter Sherry went to university and converted to Christianity.

Bonnie and Alan both came from typical American Jewish assimilated families, who were proud to be Jewish, but did not understand what being Jewish meant. Yet they assumed their children would marry Jews.

Their bubble burst when Sherry married a Christian missionary and the young couple brought up their two children as Christians.

Bonnie, who has just raised six million dollars for Aish's new EYAHT women's seminary building in Jerusalem, explained: "My husband was brought up exactly like me. Our parents were exactly the same.

"They were all born in America. His parents lived in Michigan and mine in California, but they were best friends. They identified as Jews and it was very important that their children married Jews.

"They never gave us a reason. As much as we ate baigels and lox, we ate ham and cheese too.

"Without Torah you can't pass on Judaism. I didn't know that at the time. My mother did not even light Shabbat candles.

"My grandmother came to America at the turn of the century and I don't think she lit candles. I knew my great-grandfather who lived to 99. I have pictures with him wearing a yarmulke. He would go to shul in the morning, then after go to work.

"My grandparents were Orthodox. My parents were Conservative. We were Reform and my children were ignorant.

"We belonged to a Reform Temple. We were revolving-door Jews, in at Rosh Hashana and out at Yom Kippur. We didn't do much, but we were very, very proud to be Jewish. Most of our friends were Jewish."

When Sherry went to university, her roommate was a born-again Christian.

"She explained the Bible to her from a Christian perspective," Bonnie said.

In desperation, the couple and their daughter went to their Reform rabbi.

Bonnie said: "The rabbi of the temple never talked about God, always about social issues. We never talked about it at home either. We were just proud to be Jews. We were cultural Jews, baigels and lox on Sunday morning.

"She came home and told us this. We didn't know what we believed. We went to our rabbi. My daughter walked in with the book she had been given with 365 prophecies that proved that Jesus was the Messiah.

"The rabbi didn't have much of a background in Judaism, let alone in Christianity. He didn't know us. We didn't know him.

"He looked at Sherry and said: 'I am not going to argue scripture with you. The most important thing is you have a relationship with your family'.

"He turned to my husband and said, 'Don't worry. It's a phase that'll pass'."

The 'phase' has never passed to this day.

But Bonnie said: "We thought he was the rabbi and that he must know. We just kept waiting for it to pass, but it wasn't passing.

"Then she came home and she was engaged to a born-again Christian. By then she wasn't willing to talk to anybody. I told my best friend who said her cousin had been in that situation and she knew a rabbi who got him out. She introduced us to an Orthodox anti-missionary rabbi. He wanted to invite my daughter for Shabbat."

Sherry refused. The rabbi persisted and invited her parents.

Bonnie was delighted to accept, but Alan said: "Under no circumstances am I going to anyone's house for Shabbat, especially to an Orthodox rabbi."

But Bonnie accepted on his behalf. She said: "That night was magical. It was my first Shabbat ever."

The rabbi said that the only way they would be able to reach their daughter was for them to learn in order to be able to answer her questions. The couple began learning with Aish.

Then Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder of the Jewish outreach movement, arrived on the scene and changed Bonnie's life.

He told her to go to Jerusalem to meet his wife, Dena Weinberg, who heads EYAHT.

Bonnie said: "We had been all over the world. We had climbed the Great Wall of China. We had been in the middle of the Amazon jungle. We went to Europe, but we never went to Israel. It wasn't on our agenda."

But the couple had slowly started keeping mitzvot despite the fact that none of their friends or family did so. So they decided to visit Israel.

They immediately felt at home and decided to buy a holiday home in David's Village in Jerusalem.

On the completion of the purchase, the couple arrived for a 10-day visit before returning to LA for Alan's business.

Their return flight was due to stop over in New York so they could have dinner with their son Michael who lived there. But Michael was confused.

He had seen his sister become a fervent Christian and his parents fervent Jews. He had sampled a brief stint of Torah learning, but was still religiously confused.

Two days before his parents' return flight, he called and said: "If you are coming to New York just to see me, I don't have time to see you."

Bonnie said: "My heart was broken, I was sobbing. My daughter wasn't talking to me and now my son. I asked my husband if we could stay one more week in Israel. He said he couldn't be gone from his business in LA.

"I begged him, 'Please one more week'. Because my husband is so kind and wonderful and couldn't stand me crying, he said: 'OK, one more week and then we have to go back and no more tears'."

It was January, 1994. On the night that Bonnie and Alan should have been in their beds in LA, their dream home was totally destroyed at the epicentre of an earthquake which killed 57 people and injured 5,000.

Bonnie said: "The two worst things in my life, my daughter becoming a Christian and my son not wanting to see us, saved my life. My daughter saved our lives spiritually and my son physically."

The couple settled permanently in Jerusalem, where every week they host 100 guests for an oneg Shabbat.

Bonnie has become the prime mover and fundraiser for the six million dollar EYAHT building, which is to be opened on June 9, in the centre of Jerusalem.

Bonnie said: "Every Jewish soul is just as important to God as my daughter. Maybe if somebody had been there for my daughter she would not have taken the road that she took.

"I want to be there for someone else's daughter. My husband and I have totally devoted our lives to kiruv (Jewish outreach). All I think about is how I can reach somebody else, how can I touch another soul, how can I give them the opportunity to make an educated decision on how to live their life."

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph