Zevi Berman, age 7, a student at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah receives his first-time belt from Cindy Cohn, KKC’s longtime director of programming.
Zevi Berman, age 7, a student at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah receives his first-time belt from Cindy Cohn, KKC’s longtime director of programming. (Bryan Gottlieb)

The belting ceremony is the culmination of a yearlong journey for the students.

The ominously dark sky notwithstanding, more than two dozen participants of Kids Kicking Cancer’s Heroes Circle program gathered in a tent adjacent to the soaring main sanctuary of Temple Beth El, with parents and siblings on hand, to get belted — in person.

After two years of remote programming caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the brave warriors fighting pediatric cancer and other life-threatening illnesses found the inability to connect in person even more frustrating, so threatening skies weren’t going to halt its first in-person gathering since the early months of 2020.

The belting ceremony is the culmination of a yearlong journey for the students. Through science-based meditative exercises, including practicing somatic breathing — all presented through a lens of traditional martial arts — participants achieve various levels of expertise. Each mastered level earns a different color belt to wear with a traditional martial arts robe, known as a gi. 

Holding the ceremony in a large marquee was a departure for Heroes Circle, which previously held the annual event at Cranbrook’s Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills. The decision to move venues was based on the health concerns of the population KKC serves, who remain vulnerable to COVID-19 despite the pandemic’s recession in severe outcomes.

Master of ceremonies Lila Lazurus, who also serves as president of the Heroes Circle, presents certificates of participation to the award attendees.
Master of ceremonies Lila Lazurus, who also serves as president of the Heroes Circle, presents certificates of participation to the award attendees. Bryan Gottlieb

Cindy Cohen, KKC’s director of programming, who has been particularly adept at pivoting much of the organization’s programming online over the last two years, underscored the need to hold the ceremony in an open-air venue, which Cranbrook could not provide. 

“We’ve had a beautiful relationship with Cranbrook Institute of Science for more than a decade, but we aren’t quite ready to go back to an indoor setting yet,” Cohen said. “They have always been so generous, and we look forward to returning there as pandemic concerns ease.” 

Another milestone marked during the ceremony was the completion of a yearlong pilot project called the “AYA Teen Empowerment Program.” AYA, which stands for Adolescents and Young Adults, in medical parlance, was designed for those aged 12 through their early 20s; the pilot project was funded by a grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund. 

“The goal of the AYA program is to really offer enhanced psychosocial and life skills to our teens and young adults and build upon the therapeutic martial arts skills learned from us throughout the years,” Cohen explains. The program, led by social workers and program specialists, focuses on “socialization, community building, reduced isolation, career exploration, life skill development and stress reduction,” she added. 

The Jewish Fund Teen Board was recognized for its generous gift of more than $13,000 to help offset the cost of this year’s Belting Ceremony.
The Jewish Fund Teen Board was recognized for its generous gift of more than $13,000 to help offset the cost of this year’s Belting Ceremony. Bryan Gottlieb
Jewish Fund Teens Help Underwrite Event

The 2022 belting ceremony was underwritten, in part, by a grant awarded from the Jewish Fund’s Teen Board division. The Jewish Fund is a grant-making organization established and endowed by proceeds from the sale of Sinai Hospital to the Detroit Medical Center, in 1997. In the early 2010s, the organization’s board established a teen division, allowing high school students to learn how philanthropy and grant-making decisions happen.

Laura Charnas, the Jewish Fund’s Teen Board coordinator, explains how the 58 high school-aged members, embodying broad swaths of the Jewish community, are selected out of a pool of candidates representing 12 different high schools and as many congregations.

“The process for selecting grant recipients is all teen-led,” Charnas explains. “The teens start their term by selecting a focus area and researching local organizations, then recommend selected organizations to send out RFPs [request for proposals]. After receiving the proposals, we set up site visits to learn about the organizations.”

She added that Teen Board members meet and discuss the various proposals, build consensus and then recommend allocations of varying amounts to the selected awardees. It then forwards those recommendations to the full Jewish Fund board for approval. For the two-year term that ended in May, the teens had 14 proposals to vet.

“We work alongside the ‘adult’ board and participate in a full grant cycle,” Charnas says. “We start in August and pick our focus area; for example, the last two years focused largely on mental health, and the teens take their role very seriously.” 

She described how smaller, breakout groups then conduct site visits, reporting their observations to the full Teen Board for discussion. 

“This year we added an antisemitism focus as well,” Charnas says. “I think site visits really help the teens see the programs they’re going to fund, and that usually is what drives the choices the board makes. The Teen Board is a practical way of introducing teenagers to the mechanics of philanthropy.”

Levi and Simcha Benjamin of Southfield, along with their daughters Ayelet, 6, and Heila, 4, participated in their first Belting Ceremony. Heila was diagnosed last year with nephroblastoma, a cancerous growth on the kidneys that primarily affects children before age 5. She is now in remission.
Levi and Simcha Benjamin of Southfield, along with their daughters Ayelet, 6, and Heila, 4, participated in their first Belting Ceremony. Heila was diagnosed last year with nephroblastoma, a cancerous growth on the kidneys that primarily affects children before age 5. She is now in remission. Bryan Gottlieb

Yakira Hyman, whose second-year Teen Board term ended this May, says her experience was a deep dive into the grant application process, and deciding to award KKC money for its ceremony fell squarely within the group’s mandate. 

“Our mission statement this year was to help support mental wellness in the community and Kids Kicking Cancer isn’t only an organization that helps kids with cancer through breathing techniques and mental health advice,” she says, “it also helps other children and families in the community, even if they aren’t sick.”

Hyman added how participation gave her “the opportunity to make a difference in our community while educating me further on grant processes and nonprofit organizations. And we feel like we’re making a difference even though we’re young.” 

Having graduated earlier this month from Farber Hebrew Day School in Southfield, the 18-year-old is taking a gap year in Israel at Midreshet Torat Chessed in Netanya, and then matriculating into SUNY Binghamton, in New York state.

Despite threatening skies, parents and children attended Kids Kicking Cancer’s annual Belting Ceremony held on the grounds of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township.
Despite threatening skies, parents and children attended Kids Kicking Cancer’s annual Belting Ceremony held on the grounds of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township. Bryan Gottlieb
The Value of Community

With the two dozen students sitting in front, Lila Lazarus, veteran Detroit journalist and Heroes Circle president, acted as master of ceremonies. She welcomed family and friends, and effusively praised participants, acknowledging the significance of gathering collectively.

“Do you know what experts say our No. 1 most important health crisis is?” Lazarus asked the crowd during her opening remarks. “They could be talking about COVID or maybe obesity or maybe even cancer, but actually the No. 1 public health crisis is loneliness. One in three of us is actually lonely.”

After urging attendees to turn toward each other and smile, despite being masked, she then reiterated a Heroes Circle principal tenet: “You are not alone, so turn to your neighbor and say, ‘thank you for being here.’” 

She also acknowledged the generosity of the Jewish Fund and its Teen Board members for making the event possible.

Sruly and Bayla Berman of Oak Park, along with their son Dovid, age 2, attended the Belting Ceremony to watch Dovid’s older brother, Zevi, age 7.
Sruly and Bayla Berman of Oak Park, along with their son Dovid, age 2, attended the Belting Ceremony to watch Dovid’s older brother, Zevi, age 7. Bryan Gottlieb

Following Lazarus’ remarks, students gathered on stage to receive either a belt or a certificate of participation. The youngest recipient, 4-year-old Heila Benjamin of Southfield, earned her yellow belt while her parents, Simcha and Levi, along with big sister Ayelet, 6, looking on.

“This is our first real, in-person event because we joined during COVID,” Simcha, 27, explains. 

“So, it’s exciting. Heila is doing really well, and I don’t know if she really understands everything because she’s 4, but she’s excited to participate.”

Levi added how grateful the family is for Heroes Circle programming since it was the only available outlet for his family while they dealt with pediatric oncologists and treatment regimens needed after their younger daughter fell ill.

“We got the diagnosis about three weeks after COVID, so we were pretty much homebound for over a year, and the only program that was available for her was through Kids Kicking Cancer,” Levi says. “Through Zoom classes once a week and all sorts of other activities, including things for the adults, too, they really make you feel that you aren’t alone.” 

Another participating family included Bayla and Sruly Berman of Oak Park, whose older child, 7-year-old Zevi — who is not sick but has a younger brother with a genetic disorder — was there to receive his first belt. The Bermans enrolled their older son as a way to give him “an outlet” to receive special attention.

“Heroes Circle allowed us to concentrate on all the doctor appointments our son Dovid needed, and the KKC program allowed Zevi to just be able to grow and thrive through all the online events,” Sruly explains. 

“And that was amazing to us to be able and give him that time.”

Haley Wallace, a rising senior at Madison High School in Adrian, Mich., and a member of KKC for 10 years running was diagnosed at a young age with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer that forms in soft tissue. RMS can occur at any age, but most often affects children. She is now fully recovered.
Haley Wallace, a rising senior at Madison High School in Adrian, Mich., and a member of KKC for 10 years running was diagnosed at a young age with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer that forms in soft tissue. RMS can occur at any age, but most often affects children. She is now fully recovered. Bryan Gottlieb
Teen Empowerment 

For many older children, both former cancer survivors, their siblings and others, the lessons developed in the KKC arsenal of programs have long-term benefits, which was the impetus for developing programming uniquely designed for this demographic, Cohen emphasizes.

About a half-dozen attendees of this program participated in the event. One veteran, 18-year-old Haley Wallace, who has been a Heroes Circle participant for 10 years, explained how Kids Kicking Cancer impacted her when she first received her cancer diagnosis as a child.

“KKC has done a lot for me over the years,” Wallace, a rising senior at Madison High School in Adrian, says. “It made me feel like I was actually part of a community when no one else wanted to be around me because of cancer, since kids think cancer is contagious, and it’s terrible. But it also taught me how to learn and relax and deal with stress.”

After all the belts and certificates hoopla, attendees participated in a KKC’s signature “Breath Brake,” taking in and exhaling several deep breaths while repeating the mantra “power, peace, purpose,” led by the organization’s founder, Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg. 

Wallace closed the event with a rendition of Elton John’s 1983 hit, “I’m Still Standing.”

“Every belt is a sign of power, but the kids are not just powerful martial artists,” Rabbi Goldberg explains. “They are breathing in light, pushing out darkness. So that’s peace. And what’s the purpose? Ask any kid here and they’ll tell you: to teach the world.”

Entrepreneur Barak Leibovitz, 32, joined Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, founder of Kids Kicking Cancer. Leibovitz attended on behalf of his family’s charitable organization, the Leibovitz Family Foundation, which has pledged a six-figure gift to KKC.
Entrepreneur Barak Leibovitz, 32, joined Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, founder of Kids Kicking Cancer. Leibovitz attended on behalf of his family’s charitable organization, the Leibovitz Family Foundation, which has pledged a six-figure gift to KKC. Bryan Gottlieb
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