Young Jewish Leadership Concepts co-founder Lou Balcher realized in July that his organization’s annual rafting trip in the Pocono Mountains wasn’t going to happen.
The August retreat, which brings young American Jewish professionals and educators from Israel together to foster connections and community, simply wasn’t feasible in the COVID-19 era.
Balcher and his staff began brainstorming virtual activities that would support the organization’s mission of engaging young Jewish adults with the American Jewish community and Israel.
He reached out to Benji Lovitt, an American Israeli comedian who attended the rafting trip in 2007, and asked if he would be interested in talking about his experiences in comedy, the process of making aliyah, his Jewish identity and the relationship between America and Israel during a YJLC event.
Lovitt signed on, as did Los Angeles-based comedian Avi Liberman, so Balcher scheduled Conversations on Comedy for Aug. 16. Balcher encouraged parents to attend with their adult children in order to foster intergenerational dialogue.
The topics became more relevant a few weeks later when comedic actor Seth Rogen came under fire for making jokes questioning why Israel should exist during an interview with Marc Maron.
During the panel, Lovitt spoke about how he ended up in Israel. He was active in Hillel during college and spent his 20s searching for meaningful work in the Jewish nonprofit world.
He moved to New York to work at Young Judaea and eventually decided to make aliyah. In Israel, he began focusing on stand-up and using comedy to lead workshops about cultural differences.
Liberman spoke about creating Comedy for Koby, a biannual tour of Israel for American stand-up comedians. The program benefits the Koby Mandell Foundation, an Israeli nonprofit organization that works with terror attack victims.
He got the idea when he was a young struggling comedian traveling to Israel in the early 2000s, when fears of suicide bombings kept most of his Israeli friends confined to their homes.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t I just do a show? There are enough people who speak English. Let’s try to provide everybody with a safe, fun night out,’ and that’s kind of how it started,” he said.
As the program grew in popularity, Liberman saw an opportunity to educate comedians about Israel.
“That’s kind of my little ulterior motive. I bring them here, bust a lot of the myths from what they see in the news and all that stuff, and they come back as emissaries of Israel,” he said.
When the conversation turned to Rogen’s comments about Israel, the comedians called for understanding. Lovitt said many people who were offended by Rogen’s remarks didn’t realize that they were meant as jokes.
“His mistake was saying things in a joking fashion that maybe people would get upset by without context. He was criticizing his Jewish education growing up,” he said.
Liberman said Rogen’s comments didn’t discount the positive representation he has provided by talking openly about his Jewish identity, visiting Israel and how his parents met on a kibbutz.
“I’m not a big fan of ‘cancel culture’ or attacking somebody just because something came up a certain way,” he said.
An audience member commented in the Zoom chat that the comedians were letting Rogen off too easy.
“If there’s something he is guilty of, it’s probably underestimating the power of his voice,” Lovitt responded. “He admitted he may have made a mistake by not realizing the power of his words.”
Liberman agreed and pointed out that many of the comedians he works with through Comedy for Koby have misconceptions about Israel — some thought the country was one giant desert and that people rode to work on camels.
He said the media landscape often amplifies misleading information.
“Unfortunately, especially with the internet, there’s such a problem around the world with overconfidence, whether it’s [about] the Arab-Israeli conflict or COVID,” he said. “It’s easy to live in New York and to feel like because you’re surrounded by Jews and you have a strong Jewish identity that you know everything [about Israel].”
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