Elimelech Goldberg, age 57, is a bright and gregarious man, an orthodox rabbi who years ago earned a first-degree black belt in the martial arts. But that really isn’t where his story begins.
Goldberg, best known by friends and followers as “Rabbi G,’’ is a creator and innovator in that tiny corner of the sports world occupied by sick children. That corner is only tiny, of course, until it’s your sick child, your dreams and wishes and flesh and blood, and then that seemingly trifle of a space occupies every inch of your being.
In the early ’80s, Goldberg and wife Ruthie lost their 2-year-old daughter, Sara, to leukemia, and it was that loss that led Rabbi G eventually to shape the non-profit Kids Kicking Cancer (kidskickingcancer.org). KKC, headquartered in suburban Detroit, teaches childhood cancer patients, some of them as young as 3, the basics of martial arts. Thousands of kids the last 15 years have trained in the program, both in the US and Canada, as well as in Israel and more recently Italy.
As one might expect, Kids Kicking Cancer is not about breaking boards and bricks, tossing opponents into the air or getting fast-tracked to a wrestling scholarship or UFC championship. KKC kids only act out their kicks, punches, and blocks. Body-to-body contact is forbidden. If they land a blow, it’s to a soon-to-be-vanquished super villain of their imagination. They generally have bigger battles.
“Initially, that can be a concern to some parents,’’ said Marc Cohen, KKC’s director of operations, speaking by phone recently from the organization’s headquarters in Southfield, Mich. “I’m not saying they’re skeptical at first, but, especially moms, they wonder, ‘What, you’re trying to make my child into the next Bruce Lee?’ ’’
Rabbi G’s world instead is mainly about empowerment, teaching kids how to manage pain associated with their illness, be it from the disease itself or medical treatments. Ideally, Goldberg contends, cancer-stricken kids who learn to manage their pain also enable their bodies to heal, better position themselves one day possibly to overcome the cancer, return to a full and active life, one that may or may not include the martial arts.
“Sure, some of the kids continue with it after they’ve been cured,’’ said martial arts champ Richard Plowden, who is Rabbi G’s chief martial arts therapist. “But a lot of them, once they’re better, just want to get out there and play the stuff all the other kids are playing — they just want to be normal kids.’’
They want all the grass stains, scraped shins, home runs and strikeouts, soaring leaps and stumbling missteps that come with being healthy and active. They want to inhale, in deep, glorious gulps, the same air as their cancer-free friends. To get them there, the KKC program designed by Rabbi G has breathing at its core.
In martial arts tradition, the kids learn breathing techniques to confront pain, to manage it, overpower it. Goldberg wants them all, in his mantra, to become “powerful martial artists,’’ capable of outthinking the pain of diseased blood or a failing organ, so strong of mind, spirit, and will that a hospital visit, even one full of needles and chemicals, can be managed, if not mastered.
“We teach the children, when the needle comes in, rather than push out against it . . . in the martial arts, we learn that to push is weak, to pull is powerful,’’ said Goldberg, who also is an assistant clinical professor in pediatrics at Wayne State University in Detroit. “The ability to pull in that discomfort, when it comes into your arm, and then breath it out the other side, allows you to take control over it.’’
One of KKC’s current star students, said Rabbi G, is 5-year-old Luca from Windsor, Ontario, who wowed nurses and administrators when undergoing his cancer treatments at a hospital in London, Ontario. According to Rabbi G, Luca needed bandages removed prior to a medical procedure, prompting a nurse to instruct his mother to hold the boy down to help him cope with the pain.
The mom, said Rabbi G, abruptly dismissed the nurses’s request, confident her son was capable of managing the pain himself.
‘’So here’s this 5-year-old kid, totally in control, telling the nurse, ‘No, no, no . . . I’m a powerful martial artist, I can do this,’ ’’ recounted Goldberg. “They rip off the bandages, and his skin is bleeding, and he’s totally in control. And the nurse says to the mom, ‘I’ve been a nurse for a hundred years and I’ve never seen anything like this.’ ’’
Rabbi G is full of these stories. Since 1999, beginning with an initial class of only 12 at Children’s Hospital in Michigan, upward of 4,000 kids with cancer have enrolled in the program. In the US, nearly 20 hospitals and medical centers in Michigan, New York, California, and Florida have embraced KKC.
“We’re also in Canada, Israel, and Italy,’’ noted Rabbi G. “And believe it or not, even Iran . . . I recently Skyped to a hospital there.’’
As of today, Boston, one of the world’s most robust medical communities, remains without a KKC affiliation. According to Goldberg, it requires an initial cost of approximately $50,000 to start a KKC program, as well as a committed group of martial artists and administrators, most all of them volunteers, to sustain it.
“When you’re in it, the rewards, I mean . . . these kids are a joy, they inspire me,’’ said Plowden, 53, a five-time martial arts champ and Rabbi G’s righthand man in training instructors. “We sometimes have what we call ‘mat chats.’ We did one around Thanksgiving and each kid said what they’re thankful for. One of our kids, a young man about 20 — he’s had a real tough time with sickle cell — I asked him what he was thankful for, and he looked right at me and said, ‘You!’ That stuff just makes your day.’’
Sara Goldberg, said her dad, was one of those joys, a tiny teacher who would encourage other children in her cancer clinic not to cry.
“She would pat me on the back,’’ said Goldberg, whose two other children, Meir and Rachel, have seven children of their own, “and say, ‘It’s OK, daddy, I love you.’ ’’
Thirty years later, Rabbi G keeps his daughter’s message and memory alive, with a healing concoction of sport and spirit.
“We use martial arts as a hook,’’ said Goldberg, reflecting on a sport often associated with action movies and super heroes. “We tell them that the greatest power of all is the light inside yourself. The real martial arts is what takes place inside your mind . . . and inside your heart.’’Kevin Paul Dupont’s ‘‘On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.