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Sweat | Helping Children Kick at Ninjas, and Cancer
Posted on Mon, Sep 6, 2010 at 4:21 am
by The IDMA Team

The defenseless 7-year-old boy was surrounded by a crew of evil ninjas trying to kill him, when suddenly a team of New York City police officers responded to his call and, with flying kicks and spectacular karate chops, beat the ninjas into submission.

This was not some action film or video game, but a mental exercise in the imagination of the boy, Philip Califano.

Philip has a severe brain tumor. The exercise was part of an unusual — and, yes, completely unproven — therapeutic effort: a martial arts class run by a police officer turned rabbi in a Queens yoga studio.

“I want you to go inside your body and find those evil cells that are attacking you, and beat them up — punch them, kick them,” said the instructor, Gary Moskowitz.

Mr. Moskowitz, 53, took up martial arts to survive as a scrawny, yarmulke-wearing teenager facing much larger thugs on the tough streets of the South Bronx. During his nine years with the New York Police Department, he said he earned the nickname “Rambowitz” because of his penchant for detaining violent suspects with kicks and chops.

These days, Rambowitz squares off against infirm children, trading punches, kicks and blocks in the hope of helping them cope with their terminal illnesses. He offers free classes and Cancer Camps on Sundays in Queens, where he lives with his wife and three young children.

Mr. Moskowitz, whose father owned a bagel factory, said he was beaten up constantly as he took city buses to a yeshiva in Washington Heights from a once-Jewish neighborhood in the southeast Bronx that had become predominantly Puerto Rican and black and was plagued with street gangs. Later, he said, while attending Evander Childs High School, he was mugged for his lunch money and bus pass, even during class.

“By age 14, I was the victim of four armed robberies,” he said. “Wearing a yarmulke in that neighborhood was like having a bull’s-eye on your back. I basically had to learn how to fight, or commit suicide.”

Shortly after being held off the edge of a roof with a knife to his neck, the young Gary enrolled in a Catskills “commando camp,” he said. It was run by followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League and who created the militaristic programs to teach young Jews the fundamentals of self-defense. Mr. Moskowitz said he had been attracted to Mr. Kahane as a “dumb kid” and later turned against the rabbi.

In addition to learning how to handle a machine gun, he said he began the pursuit of martial arts, which gained him enough respect on the street to be invited into a karate club in a housing project near the former Polo Grounds.

He joined the Police Department in 1982. In addition to the Rambowitz nickname, he said he was also called Dirty Heshy, for his practice of carrying a .357 Magnum in a shoulder holster, like Clint Eastwood’s .44 Magnum in “Dirty Harry.” He relished these nicknames, but not the teasing he said he experienced as one of the few Orthodox Jewish members of the department at the time.

He wore his yarmulke and was outspoken about his support for Israel — he said he refused an assignment to guard Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, when he visited New York, and zealously pursued a case against a group of what he said were anti-Israeli terrorists. Since his 20s, he has been teaching martial arts and giving antiterrorism seminars to Jewish groups.

He said he also went to rabbinical school, and said he now had a modest congregation at the Genesis Tree of Life Yoga and Wellness Center on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills. He combines martial arts and religious study, teaching from the Torah as congregants perform his special form of tai chi: “chai chi,” using the Hebrew word for “life.”

Mr. Moskowitz has had his share of scattershot projects in the past, including controversial initiatives at synagogues in the Bronx and on Long Island. New York police officials said he was fired from the Police Department in 1991 over a variety of misconduct charges.

He began the “Combating Cancer” programs last year, teaching children to practice punching, kicking and stick-fighting for exercise and helping with balance training. For children too delicate to practice martial arts physically, he devised a noncontact game called “virtual karate,” in which the two fighters stand apart and throw air punches and kicks.

Then there is the meditation and guidance therapy in which they imagine the cancer or the pain to be an evil bully ready for his comeuppance. Mr. Moskowitz said his breathing techniques and other exercises helped children manage pain and fear and made it easier for them to face injections for chemotherapy or other treatment, though his methods have not been subjected to scientific study.

As visualization aids, Mr. Moskowitz provides drawings of the black-robed cancer cells and the heroic officers.

“If they visualize the pain as a band of villains, they can fight it and the pain subsides,” Mr. Moskowitz said. “As a city kid and a police officer, I was in a lot of fights, and learned to turn the pain off — that’s what I teach. I teach them to take their mind and say, ‘I’m above all this.’ ”

He described his method as a kind of hypnosis “that commands the brain to destroy the cancer, like the immune system would attack any foreign body.”

“But I’m not a doctor and I’m not God,” he added. “If nothing else, this changes their spirit and helps them feel stronger. It gives them spiritual and emotional support.”

Philip, who lives in Oceanside, N.Y., was given a diagnosis of brainstem glioma last year and has received chemotherapy and radiation. His doctors say they have “done all they can do for him at this point,” said his aunt, Domenica Califano, who noted that many of the children in his experimental chemotherapy study had already died.

Philip’s young body has been weakened to the point where he sometimes has trouble standing, but his tumor has stabilized. His aunt said Mr. Moskowitz’s sessions had strengthened the boy’s resolve to survive.

“He’s gotten stronger and he’s standing up to the tumor,” she said. “It’s mind over matter, and he’s surviving.”

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