Views From Lev Leytzan’s Medical Clowns
On The 11th Annual Israel Chanukah Mission
By The Lev Leytzan Mitnadvim
Touching down in Israel to begin our 11th annual Chanukah mission, our Lev Leytzan medical clowns expected to face the battles we’ve been fighting for a long time: those that take place in cancer wards, ICUs, orphanages, and nursing homes, both at home and abroad. As we collected our luggage and imagined the week ahead, we had no idea that the mission this year would take us beyond those institutional battlegrounds to the front lines of the actual war in Israel, but that is exactly what happened.
The trip started out similar to others. Our 11 medical clowns, Yitzy Biderman (MAY), Sam Cohen (Yeshiva Gush Etzion), Josh Fagin (HaKotel), Josh Friedman (Netiv Aryeh), Jacob Goldsmith (DRS), Yoni Katz (YU), Tzvi Korman (MAY), Avi Schwartzblatt (MAY), Tayla English (Darchei Bina), Tova Fertig (Be’er Miriam), Adina Goldberg (SKA), and our Patch Adams-type leader Neal C. Goldberg, Ph.D., were armed with hundreds of gifts collected by our partner organization, the Ossie Schonfeld Memorial Toy Fund. Our goal was to make Chanukah as fun and memorable as possible for the sick children and their families whose homes and hospital rooms we would visit.
What makes achieving this goal a battle? Well, even when there are presents to unwrap and funny-looking clowns delivering them, illness and disease have the upper hand. A smile and a happy outlook can be hard to come by. We deploy keen sensitivity and psychological training to hone in on just what will allow the children to forget their circumstances, if only for a moment, and bring inspiration for the difficult road ahead. Sometimes that means quietly coloring in a coloring book together. Other times it involves noisy slapstick routines that invite the children to participate in some physical comedy. Whatever it takes, the children and clowns ultimately emerge victorious as the children hastily unwrap their gifts and delight in a new toy or game. The war is not won—the children are still sick—but the enemy has retreated momentarily.
While playing in the pediatric oncology ward of the hospital in Tel Aviv, we received a call to arms that would bring us closer to the front lines of the conflict in Israel than ever before: we were asked to work with young soldiers in the hospital still recovering from wounds inflicted in the Gaza War. It was an honor just to be asked and the job would be a pleasure to undertake, but the task was not without its own very new, mostly psychological challenges. After all, the young warriors were our very age and they had witnessed the most atrocious aspects of human behavior. The population was an unknown, but there was no time for preparations. We simply dug deep into our own emotional reserves, relied on our training and instincts, and jumped in floppy-feet first.
As we approached the soldiers’ wing of the hospital, we first encountered the aunt of one of the soldiers who had been hospitalized for so long. The young man had had few visitors and had received his army discharge papers that very day. His affect was flat, he stared into the middle distance, and his sallow skin matched the color of his desert fatigues, but his aunt knew there was great emotion inside him. She pleaded with us to help her reach her stoic nephew. Jacob Goldsmith and Yoni Katz fell in step with her in that hallway and before she knew it they had entered her nephew’s room with a plan. They used a large bouquet of flowers to hide their funny clothes and announced a flower delivery.
Once the vase was set down and their identities revealed, the duo began an energetic game of “Find the Flowers” while singing an aria of gibberish in falsetto voices. They engaged the lonely soldier and soon he was hobbling down the hallway echoing the nonsensical aria while passing out flowers to his comrades and fellow officers. He returned to his room with a trail of laughing and limping people behind him, a conga line of the healing and hopeful with flowers woven into their hair. Bringing up the rear, Jacob and Yoni caught the eye of the soldier’s aunt and a glance of mutual thanks passed between them.
After the meetings with the soldiers, the unexpected brushes with war and the realities of life in Israel did not let up. The Chanukah mission happened to coincide with the end of the shloshim for the four rabbis brutally murdered in their synagogue in Har Nof. The community had quite understandably closed ranks and gathered strength in its members’ ties with each other, but a connection between a community leader and Lev Leytzan allowed the bereaved to open their hearts to us—friends who wanted only to care for them. We cautiously entered the homes of the mourners who were beautiful young families torn apart by violence and grief. The somber mood was pervasive, but we knew what to do.
Sam Cohen recounts, “The other clowns and I waited patiently as each child was handed a Krembo. The anxiety built as the countdown began: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1! Immediately the kids threw off the wrappers and the first Krembo hit me directly on the nose. Not quite my mouth, but I guess that’s not what really matters—each Krembo managed to hit somewhere on my face and as the amount of Krembo on my face increased, so did the smile on my eight-year-old partner’s face. To celebrate our completion of the game, I wiped some of the cream off of my face and directly onto his. The Krembo fight that ensued can be described only as the perfect balance between chaotic and incredible. A few minutes later, we all emerged covered in Krembo and trembling with delight.”
Noise and joy erupted, and parents basked in the shine of their children’s smiles for a while. Consoled and at peace, if briefly, the families invited us back for two more nights! It was a real learning experience for us because we witnessed the real-life pain of war but also felt the satisfaction of helping those it touched. The fruits of our labors were confirmed when the following note was sent to us via Facebook from someone in the Har Nof community: “Such holy souls [Lev Leytzan]. What are their names? I do not know. Where do they come from? I have no clue. They simply appeared by our door. They brought light to our home where it had been taken away. These pure souls raised our souls.”
By tending to the warriors on the front lines of Israel’s conflicts, we joined them in their vulnerability. We made ourselves accessible for the good of others just like conventional soldiers do on the front line. This kind of outreach made the Chanukah mission 2014 the trip of a lifetime with far-reaching benefits for the people we touched. It wasn’t always easy to achieve, but that’s the kind of battle the medical clowns at Lev Leytzan like to fight!