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Clowning taken seriously

Engaging with people to help them cope

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Woodmere resident Dr. Neal Goldberg, who grew up in Queens, knew he wanted to be a psychologist by the time he was 11.

What Goldberg, now 47, didn’t know back then was what that career would involve. In 2004 he established a nonprofit organization comprising four programs that practice “medical therapeutic clowning,” which entertains patients of all ages in hospitals, at home and in other venues in the U.S. and abroad. 

For 12 years, the Lev Leytzan clowns, who are mostly volunteers and range in age from 14 to 21, have visited more than 20,000 children and adults from Long Island to the Middle East, including children in Israel who have suffered trauma brought on by terrorism. (Lev Leytzan is Hebrew for “to the heart of a clown.”) The Lev Leytzan/ElderHearts are a professional group of more seasoned clowns, specially trained to serve clients with Alzheimer’s disease, other dementias and children and adults in hospice care. 

Many of the clowns are from Five Towns schools, including the Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere and Mesivta Ateres Yaakov Yeshiva High School in Lawrence, along with girls from Stella K. Araham High School in Hewlett Bay Park and Torah Academy High in Far Rockaway. The group usually numbers 150, and Goldberg said he has trained a “gazillion more” through the years.

The clowns also visit Holocaust survivors, especially in Eastern Europe — an underserved group, according to Goldberg, a New York state-licensed psychologist who is the executive director of Lev Leytzan/Elder Hearts: The Heart of Therapeutic Clowning Inc. 

The Herald is proud to name him its 2016 Person of the Year.

“I was fortunate to know at a young age which career appealed to me,” said Goldberg, whose practice is in Lawrence. “Being fascinated by people’s emotions, thought processes and behavior, psychology was the most obvious profession.”

A self-described introverted extrovert who enjoys talking to people, Neal and his wife, Leora, have four children — Yonatan, 20, Adina, 19, and twins Elan and Oren, 17. At different times they have helped with Lev Leytzan, but now they are pursuing their own interests, he said.

Goldberg went through a period of reflection after co-writing a book on grief and bereavement, “Saying Goodbye: Dealing with Loss and Mourning,” with social worker Miriam Liebermann. The book was published in 2004.

“I was thinking about these people [who had lost loved ones] and their quality of life, and how to give it meaningful purpose,” said Goldberg, who earned a doctorate from Fordham University and two post-doctoral degrees from the Advanced Institute for Analytic Psychotherapy, which is based in Jamaica, Queens. “I have a background in music theater, and I decided to run with it.”

Goldberg was also a clown for several years, using the stage name Schnookums. Teaming up with the circus troupe Cirque du Soleil and its social action program, he created Compassionate Clown Alley Inc. All of the medical clowns undergo 120 hours of training. 

“The organization has evolved significantly to include many other layers, but I’ve had the same dual goal: looking for ways for people to understand and express themselves while connecting with people in a deep and meaningful way during times of hardship,” he said. “Medical clowning is about engaging with the patient, creating an opportunity and meaning with what interests them and what they are coping with. We work one on one to engage people.”

Daniel Rosenthal, 17, now a senior at Davis Renov Stahler, said he loves to make people laugh. That, combined with his memory of feeling lonely in a hospital after surgery when he was in sixth grade, spurred him to join Lev Leytzan in early 2015. 

“To have the opportunity to actually lift the spirits of people who need it more than anybody is really an amazing feeling,” the Woodmere resident said. “I love making everybody around me laugh, so when I was presented with the opportunity to make people laugh, it wasn’t much of a decision.”

Lev Leytzan clowns have had quite an impact on Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre. The troupe began visiting the facility in 2001, according to Kathleen Fee, its director of volunteers.

Making weekly visits year-round on Sundays, the clowns have entertained roughly a thousand patients, Fee said. “It brings a smile to the patients’ and families’ faces, and many patients look forward to the visit,” she said. “One patient, back a year or so, changed her therapy session to not miss the Sunday visit with the clowns.”

When Rosenthal is at Mercy with his fellow clowns, he makes the most of his training, which, he said, includes being comfortable “doing crazy things in front of a group of strangers.” 

“I think some of my favorite moments have been when we were able to make the doctors, nurses and family members laugh,” he added.

Goldberg’s group, which began with a $1.5 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also helps with the annual Ossie Schonfeld Memorial Toy Fund by distributing toys to children during a yearly weeklong trip to Israel.

In 2015, the Lev Leytzan clowns provided comedy therapy to nearly 8,500 people, who included residents of nursing homes in Israel; Budapest, Hungary; and Bucharest, Romania. Grants, individual donations and family foundations help support the group. 

“We believe that laughter has the power to heal bodies, minds and spirits, Goldberg said. “We also believe that our compassionate medical clowning is a serious business that takes training and dedication.” 

To get involved or donate, go to levleytzan.org.