City Front: Fly in the clowns

A group of young medical clowns, here from New York during Hanukka, is serious about healing.

'You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I'll guarantee you'll win," said Robin Williams in the movie Patch Adams. Apparently that philosophy is alive and well. Here in Jerusalem, a group of youngsters came from all over New York equipped with the tools to brighten up the festival of lights. They arrived in the Holy Land to specifically cheer up children with life-threatening diseases, and over the course of this past Hanukka, they put smiles on the faces of children in hospitals, orphanages and private homes. The clowns are part of an organization called Lev Leytzan: The Compassionate Clown Alley, which was founded by Neal Goldberg of Woodmere, New York. He trains the clowns at his own clown school, and this group of youngsters, aged 18-22, is made up of students studying here in Jerusalem and back in New York. When they get together they form a crazy circle of energy that can cheer up anyone. "When we're on the road and we're not clowning, they have to stay on the bus because they feed off each other's energy and draw huge crowds It sets us back, we can't get anywhere in our tight schedule," Goldberg says with a grin. Goldberg, who's been clowning for six years, is a clinical psychologist who has written a book titled Saying Goodbye: A Handbook for Teens Dealing With Loss. A Hebrew translation will be available soon, which will deal specifically with the issue of terrorism. The program is four years old and has been coming to Israel on visits for the past two years. "Bringing the program to Israel was a long-term goal, but being able to do this in our second year is definitely exceeding expectations. It gives the program a sort of ambassador quality," says Goldberg. While in Jerusalem they clowned each day from 9 a.m. until about 1 a.m., with a few breaks for food. Did they get any personal time? "There's no clowning on Shabbos," proclaims Etai Stern, one of the silliest of the clowns. "We have no way of knowing how long our days are. Each house is different. Last night we sat with a lady who asked us to watch her daughter's bat mitzva video, so we were there for an hour and a half," Goldberg explained. The clowns have come with Robbie Schoenfeld, who is the founder and coordinator of the Ossie Schoenfeld Memorial Toy Fund, which in its second year, has raised $50,000 in order to buy and distribute toys for sick children in Israel. A portion of the proceeds goes to subsidize the participants' airfares. "Some of these kids work a whole summer to afford this trip so they can work these crazy hours to do a mitzva [good deed]," Schoenfeld said. Schoenfeld donates to Chaieynu, the Israeli sister organization of Chai Lifeline, an organization that offers a range of services to children with life-threatening diseases. Chaieynu provides Schoenfeld with lists of children in need, organizes the visits at orphanages and hospitals, and arranges for the home visitations. They also take care of the logistics once the group arrives in Israel. A Chaieynu representative jumps on a tour bus that has just made stops in Bayit Vagan, Mea She'arim and Har Nof and yells, "OK, haredi family, five children under the age of 12. He just got home from the hospital today." He turns to the clown in charge of music who, before he can say anything, responds, "I got it, Neguns Neshamele, it's perfectly appropriate, everyone loves it." The clowns storm into the Har Nof apartment building, placing red noses on all the excited neighborhood children who gaze at them as they pass on their way into the apartment. The children inside are waiting and the parents are just as excited. The mother of the household points out the large multi-colored toy station, which they received from the toy drive. "Look, they walk into our house, hand us this gift which I could never dream of affording and put smiles on all of my children's faces. I have not seen this strength from my daughter since before she had cancer at the age of three. They are a blessing from the sky," she says. While in Jerusalem the clowns visited dozens of private homes, together with Hadassah-University Medical Center in Ein Kerem and an orphanage called the Children's Village of Jerusalem. Zev Weingarten, a social worker from Chaieynu, explains, "The house visits are very special. At the hospital the children get special attention and programming to fulfill their needs. Once they get home, and it's back to life with the family, the depression sets in. That's why we really value the clowns going to all of these homes." Hospitals in many countries use clowning as a form of therapy to help patients' recovery or ease suffering, particularly in children's wards. Medical clowning in Israel has recently taken a huge step forward with the introduction of clowning courses at the University of Haifa. Students will receive a BA in theater while taking courses in nursing. "The program will teach medical clowns things you don't learn in acting school, like the relationship between caregiver and patient or the psychological state of a patient in pain," university spokesman Ati Citron said in a statement. "They have already studied the profession," added Citron. "We want to expand their understanding in the realm of theater and in the field of nursing. In addition to the studies that each student completes, specific courses have been designed. For example, they will be offered a course on the sociology of humor and clowning - a course not given anywhere else in Israel. "There is an entire field of study within nursing that relates to the relationship between patients and caregivers," Citron continued. "A caregiver needs to understand the psychology of a patient in a hospital setting, a patient in pain or with a serious disease. A medical clown needs to understand his role within this context, and therefore we believe that at the end of their studies they will not only know more about the theoretical aspects, but will be much better clowns." Lev Leytzan is not quite as academic about its clowning, but it is a thorough program. The organization has made quite a name for itself around New York and is rapidly gaining popularity around these parts. "We know the reality is we don't change anything for these kids. But for the moments that we get with them, we make them happy," Schoenfeld says. Judy Siegel-Itzkovich contributed to this story.