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(photo credit: Courtesy Photo )
"Schnookums" and 13 of his favorite clown buddies are packing their red foam noses, striped shirts and oversized floppy shoes along with kilos of cheer and energy to spread smiles and laughs among Israeli hospital patients, orphans and displaced families during Hanukka.
The clowns are part of The Compassionate Clown Alley, a nonprofit organization based in the US and established in 2002 that trains teens in the serious art of medical clowning.
Called Lev Leytzan in Hebrew ("Heart of a Clown"), the group visits Israel every Hanukka - in cooperation with the Ossie Schonfeld Memorial Toy Fund and Chayenu - to bring joy to hundreds of children of all religions.
"I chose this name because it truly defined the essence of being a clown - to use our hearts to brighten the lives of our audience," said "Schnookums," better known as Dr. Neal Goldberg, a clinical psychologist and the troupe's founder.
"I believe that teens, by learning clowning skills and helping people, gain huge confidence boosts, while creating means and purpose in their lives," he said.
While in Israel, the troupe will visit Hadassah-University Medical Center and the Alyn Rehabilitation Hospital in Jerusalem and Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer.
They will also spend time in Safed, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem's Mea She'arim quarter. Three orphanages, including Migdal Ohr, will also host them.
The clowns will help distribute nearly $60,000 worth of gifts ranging from iPods to dolls. The patient's siblings will also receive gifts. Robert Schonfeld, a supporter of Lev Leytzan and creator of the Ossie Memorial Toy Fund, donates the toys, in his father's memory.
Unlike many other high school activities that are often selective and competitive, any teen who is enthusiastic and shows an interest in the troupe is encouraged to join. The clowns range in age from 13 to 22, with the older clowns acting as mentors for the younger ones.
There are 41 clowns-in-training in the current class, which is six months long. In addition to training in clowning skills, it also includes classes with a small team of psychologists and physicians who teach the clowns about medical conditions and medical hygiene as well as the psychology of humor and illness.
Four previous classes have graduated from the program and continue entertaining with the troupe as it makes its rounds.
Goldberg also runs another program called Clowns for Safety Squad, which uses clowning to teach and promote safety education to preschool and elementary aged school children. This year's theme - "Candle with Care" - promotes fire prevention and candle safety.
Goldberg, who lives in Woodmere, New York, is a clinical psychologist who treats children, teens and adults. He provides his clowns with opportunities to gain self-confidence and compassion at a young age through their abilities to entertain and cheer the sick and elderly.