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Sending in the clowns to help troubled kids in Israel

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Past Emunah Canada president Baila Aspler, centre right, and World Emunah director Shlomo Kessel, centre left, get into the spirit of the evening with clowns Flora, left, and Shorty. (Janice Arnold/The CJN)

Shira (Shorty) Friedlander is a petite woman, as her nickname implies. She is scared of the rough teenage boys from troubled backgrounds who live in the residential centres in Israel that she visits. But she puts on her rubber nose, straightens her yellow crinolined skirt and walks through the gate anyway each day.

Her trepidation is not groundless: Shorty recalls one lad who took delight in repeatedly hitting her with elastic bands.

Such are the perils of being a therapeutic clown, and she wouldn’t have it any other way, because those infelicitous first encounters invariably turn into trusting, playful relationships.

Shorty is not there to entertain. Clowns like her act silly, but have the serious goal of gradually bringing out the good in a hurting youngster through laughter and imagination.

Shorty is one of four specially trained social clowns who regularly go to two children’s homes run by Emunah, an organization that runs social welfare and educational programs throughout Israel.

They are emissaries of Dream Doctors, an Israeli organization that promotes medical clowning, an officially recognized paraprofessional field in that country. Its more than 100 artist-therapists go to 29 hospitals, working as a part of multidisciplinary medical teams.

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Shorty and her fellow clown, Flora, were special guests at Emunah Montreal’s annual fall gala on Nov. 7.

Emunah Montreal is directing the proceeds of the event to its parent organization’s innovative social clowning program. While medical clowning is well established internationally – including in Canada – social clowning is something new.

Medical clowns typically make one-time visits to sick kids in hospital. These social clowns have ongoing contact with children and youth who have been removed from difficult homes and are considered at risk.

“The aim of Emunah’s residential care network is to break the cycle of dysfunction and distress, providing the children and teenagers with the skills they need to form healthy, productive relationships and, ultimately, establish their own loving and stable families,” states the organization’s website.

World Emunah director Shlomo Kessel, who was also at the gala, said that, “The children connect with the clowns because they are non-threatening, non-judgmental. They don’t probe. They will talk to them often when traditional therapy does not work. They open up about emotional issues and difficult things that have happened to them, such as sexual abuse, that they won’t do even with a psychologist.”

The social clowning program had its genesis about four years ago in a church in Dallas, at a celebration of Israel that was attended by thousands, said the South African native.

The children connect with the clowns because they are non-threatening, non-judgmental.
– Shlomo Kessel

Sitting next to Kessel, by chance, was a Jewish woman named Amy Korenvaes, who happens to be a generous supporter of Dream Doctors.

While speaking with her back when he was the director of the Emunah Sarah Herzog Children’s Centre in Afula, Kessel “suddenly realized what a unique way it would be to help traumatized kids” outside the hospital setting.

Korenvaes gave the first donation for social clown therapy at that centre, and the program has since expanded to the Emunah Achuzat Sarah Children’s Home in Bnei Brak.

“Social clowning has been an amazing success,” Kessel said.

The guests were encouraged to don red noses and take selfies, to be posted on World Emunah’s social platforms as a show of support – and good humour.

While here, the two clowns visited the Montreal Children’s Hospital and the Jewish General Hospital with medical clowns from Quebec’s Dr. Clown Foundation, as well as the Yaldei Developmental Centre for children with special needs.

Shorty said the response was the same as she gets back home: people, regardless of their age, just feel a little better around someone who is not afraid to look funny in the name of compassion.

Established in 2002, the Dr. Clown Foundation serves about 40 institutions in Greater Montreal, bringing cheer to hospitalized children and the elderly in long-term care facilities.

Emunah, which grew out of the religious Zionist women’s movement, is a broad-based organization that touches the lives of 10,000 children and their families a year. It runs 135 day care centres, three emergency shelters for children, four high schools, 13 crisis centres that often deal with domestic violence and restaurants for needy seniors.

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