The young adult clowns of the Long Island-based charity Lev Leytzan, a medical clowning troupe, returned recently from an 11-day humanitarian mission to Romania and Israel to celebrate Chanukah.
The goal of the trip, Lev Leytzan’s eighth in five years, was to bring warmth to the bodies and souls of the sick, the elderly, orphans, and Holocaust survivors. The group brought socks, gloves, and hats to audiences along with slapstick humor, funny red noses, and a special kind of compassion.
Lev Leytzan brings clowns to the most unlikely places – hospital rooms, nursing homes, the apartments of shut-ins. “We went to many hospitals and visited people in their homes,” said Effie Pill, a Lev Leytzan member on his first overseas mission. “In Romania, where we saw so much poverty and sadness, we brought smiles and laughter. In Israel, where I am used to being a tourist, I went to people’s homes and hospitals and gave sick people the chance to feel good.”
One Lev Leytzaner recalled a mother at the Bucharest children’s hospital pulling him aside to tell him her seven-year-old daughter was hospitalized again, and that this would be the last time. Funeral plans were underway. “My baby girl has been lethargic for so long; it’s been months since she’s had visitors. Now she’s playing and laughing, she loves the clowns. She’s dying, yet look at her, she’s living.”
Slapstick, clowning and comedy filled the corridors during the hours we spent at the hospital. It was sad to see the drab hallways of the huge triage area that was the hospital’s treatment center. Toward the end of our visit, we passed out many scarves, hats and gloves. Mothers called over an English-speaking nurse to explain what these gifts meant to them.
“Being homeless and living with children in a park and in cardboard boxes is our plight,” said one. “Your clowning warmed our hearts and memories, while these wonderful gifts will keep our bodies and spirits warm. Bless you.”
While in Romania we met an elderly Holocaust survivor who said he’d lived in the same facility in Bucharest for many years. “My family is long gone,” he told us. “I love clowns, I love that they make bubbles and juggle with me. It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed so hard. I was clapping and dancing a little too. I’m usually grouchy and don’t have too much to be happy for.”
(L-R) Adam Gindea, Avi Ballabon, Effie Pill, Moshe Marton
He thanked us for coming and asked, “Was it a far ride?”
We went from Romania to Israel. When we do our home visits there, we never know with whom we’re going to meet – we don’t know their names or their stories. Upon entering one particular home, ready to clown, we found a family with many candles lit and the shades drawn. The sadness was palpable and the clowns were uncertain about what to do. Invited to sit, we were told one of their children had recently been murdered by Arab terrorists. We thought we were there to help the daughter who survived cancer and instead we sat and sang with this family that was experiencing such tremendous pain.
The Chanukah trip was organized under the auspices of Lev Leytzan’s Ambassador Program, the organization’s international outreach arm. The program’s director, Beth Friedlander, chose Bucharest for the mission due to the dire circumstances of the Jewish community there. The city’s 6,000 Jews are mostly aging, largely isolated, and impoverished. Many are Holocaust survivors. Social services are few and the groups that provide them, whether government- or privately-funded, are always strapped for money.
“The activities of Lev Leytzan seemed a perfect fit for these lonely, disadvantaged, and needy people,” Ms. Friedlander said. “Bringing tangible items such as socks, gloves, and hats is a great way to address an immediate hardship.”
During the Israel leg of the trip – the group’s annual Chanukah in Israel outreach program – the clowns interacted and played with the sick and needy throughout the country, especially children, and delivered gifts sponsored by the Ossie Memorial Toy Fund.
“After the success we had in Munich and Budapest last year, I couldn’t wait to find out where we’d be going next,” said one of the Lev Leytzan clowns. “It’s hard to be away during Chanukah, but I know it’s worth it. There’s nothing like seeing the joy on the faces of the people we touch.”
The clowns themselves fund the majority of the cost of the humanitarian missions. By enhancing the lives of others they gain maturity and perspective unusual in people their age. The trip to Romania and Israel broadened their horizons and inspired many disadvantaged and needy people hungry for human connection.
(Special thanks to Yeshiva Derech HaTorah’s Women’s Organization for helping to organize the sock, glove and hat drive in Brooklyn.)
Editor’s Note: Founded in 2004 by Dr. Neal C. Goldberg, Lev Leytzan trains teens and young adults in the art of medical clowning and spreading joy and laughter to Jewish children and the elderly in the New York area, Israel and other countries. To support Lev Leytzan visit www.levleytzan.com or call 516-612-3264.
Dr. Neal C. Goldberg