Five days after 11 Jews were horrifically killed in an attack at the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill, there was laughter. Children giggled and clapped hands as a red-nosed clown named Nimi pranced around, blowing bubbles and making bizarre noises.
As strange as the scenario may seem, such was the objective of welcoming a medical clown from Israel, explained representatives of Jewish Family and Community Services.
When Nimi entered a room at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh on Nov. 1, he stood before a seated circle of students. Dressed in a red nose, a tiny purple hat, oversized olive colored pants, suspenders and bright shoes, the clown tossed colorful kerchiefs before feigning fright when a teacher humorously attempted to inject him with a large plastic sound-generating syringe.
As Nimi’s shtick ensued, he tripped over his possessions, gesticulated greatly and demonstrated that silliness is more than satisfactory from an emotional standpoint.
Less a show than a mechanism for exploring feelings, Nimi was “very beneficial for students,” said Rabbi Oren Levy, the school’s assistant principal for grades K-4.
“He gave them an opportunity to relax, sit back and let out some emotion,” said Levy. “He didn’t go into any of the details or say why he’s here.” Instead, he explained “what he does as a clown,” and subtly told students “how things that we take that are stressful, or make us angry or upset, how we can turn them into a joke and make ourselves feel better as a group.”
The benefit of medical clowning is it teaches kids “sometimes you can just look at something and not have to think,” Nimi (whose real name is Nimrod Eisenberg) said.
As part of Dream Doctors, an Israel-based organization working to “promote medical clowning as an officially recognized paraprofessional medical profession,” Nimi and others work with parents and children to address illness and aid the coping process, explained the organization.
“There is a lot of research on medical clowns dealing with trauma, and most of the time with children,” said Stefanie Small, director of clinical services at JFCS.
An August 2017 article in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics reported, “Hospitalized children who undergo painful procedures are more susceptible than others to experiencing iatrogenic effects, such as anxiety, pain and severe stress. Clowns in clinical setting have been found to be effective in reducing children’s experiences of these effects during hospitalization and before procedures.”
Clowning has benefits because children are adept at responding to the nonverbal, added Small.
“Whether it’s play therapy or physical activity, they don’t always have the words to describe and explain how they’re feeling, and so a clown has this ability to bring it out of them and help them cope in ways that therapists can’t even do,” said Small. Researchers “have discovered the benefit of not just laughter but joy, and we need joy in the midst of the trauma. We need joy in the midst of the sadness and he has that ability to bring it.”
It has been a trying period and even if a medical clown is not your thing, other services are available, such as the Israel trauma coalition, United Hatzalah or counseling at the JCC, said Small.
“We’re trying to hit all of the different needs of all the different parts of the community,” she said. “If people feel there are things they need, if there are services that they need and we’re not providing it for them, please contact us and let us know.”
As for Nimi, Levy was more than pleased with what the clown contributed.
The students and staff “seemed to have a good time,” but at points it was tough to tell, admitted the administrator. “I was too busy laughing.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.