Over the dozen years he spent working at a camp for children who were struggling with cancer, Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg often witnessed the excruciating pain and discomfort many of them were forced to endure while undergoing medical procedures.

“It’s really indescribable, what it’s like … to watch a child go through so much pain,” lamented Goldberg, who served as the director of Chai Lifeline’s Camp Simcha in New York. “The child looks at you for help and then you end up having to hold them down.”

On one particular occasion, Rabbi Goldberg did his best to mollify a young camper who was screaming in pain during treatment. Goldberg, who is a black belt in the self-defense art of Choi Kwang-Do, offered to teach the 5-year-old boy some of the defensive tactics. “In martial arts, you learn that pain is a message that you don’t have to listen to.”

As a result of Goldberg’s teaching the boy some breathing techniques, when the nurse removed the needle from the child after chemotherapy, he hardly seemed to notice. This caught the camp director’s attention.

“When we are able to breathe through pain and imagine the pain lowering,” he noted, “the brain has an amazing capacity to put us into a different place.”

In 1999, Goldberg took his deep concern and compassion to a new level by establishing Kids Kicking Cancer. The program provides children battling serious illnesses with free martial arts classes that are focused on breathing techniques and meditation.

“When children get a diagnosis like cancer or any major disease, they lose any sense of feeling that they’re controlling their lives,” the rabbi stated. “They’re prodded and poked and touched, and they’re often so afraid. We teach kids how to control their pain and make them feel powerful.”

Goldberg unfortunately knows from firsthand experience what many of these children’s families are going through. His first child, Sara, was diagnosed with leukemia just before turning one year old. Yet he was amazed to see his daughter manifest a positive spirit during the turbulent period.

Goldberg explains that in martial arts, the practitioner learns that pain is a message that can be ignored. “She was such an incredible little soul,” Goldberg recalled. “After very painful treatments, she would give the doctors a kiss and thank them.”

In 1981, despite her strong will, Sara died at age 2. “She is our inspiration in everything that we do,” her father said emotionally.

Kids Kicking Cancer’s successful implementation of classes and one-on-one support methods has helped more than 5,000 children and their families cope with their potentially devastating challenges.

“We use martial arts as a platform for meditation, for relaxation, to allow children to gain these tools and to really face down so much of the fear and the anger and the junk that accompanies pain,” Goldberg outlined.

The program offers individual support during hospitalizations and medical procedures, and provides transportation to and from classes, along with counseling.

Kids Kicking Cancer encourages its very young clients to teach what they have learned to other children and adults stricken with sickness, pain or stress. Goldberg is convinced that when the children teach the special breathing technique to others, the children find purpose in their lives.

“When they demonstrate (that) you can bring in the light and let out the darkness — the pain, fear and anger — it changes people,” he maintained.

Before terminally ill children come to the end of their young lives, the organization gives them black belts, presented at ceremonies with their family and friends. The ceremonies sometimes take place in large auditoriums filled with hundreds of people; at other times, they are held in small ICU rooms with the child’s immediate family crowded together.

“When we give children this black belt, we embroider the child’s name on one side and the words ‘master teacher’ on the other, because they really are teaching the world,” Goldberg noted.

Since getting underway in Michigan, Kids Kicking Cancer has expanded its programs to New York, Los Angeles and Florida, and even internationally, to Italy, Israel and Canada. “I am so humbled by these children when they are able to face down big stuff, and you could see that light on their face,” Rabbi Goldberg said. “I feel like their souls are shining.”