A comic’s serious devotion to Jewish service
Ari Teman’s JCorps offers ‘neutral’ space for doing good deeds
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Ari Teman is a comedian by trade, but he’s serious when it comes to recruiting Jews for social service.
The Springfield native, whose “day job” happens at night when he performs standup, is also the founder of JCorps, a social and volunteer network for people ages 18-28.
Founded three years ago with $300, it is now in cities across the United States and in Israel and Canada. Last year, JCorps volunteers from 170 colleges and 450 companies served 21,000 meals to hungry people.
Just as important, Teman will tell you, people like it. Some 45,000 supporters voted to make him the first “Jewish Community Hero” in a competition sponsored last fall by Jewish Federations of North America (formerly United Jewish Communities). Intended to honor those “making strides to repair the world,” the prize came with a $25,000 grant to fund his project.
On Jan. 20, the 27-year-old whiz kid fed upper-school students at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union a steady stream of punch lines and ground rules for getting mitzva projects, or any initiatives, off the ground. And after a day full of service projects (see sidebar), they seemed ready for a good laugh.
What makes JCorps so successful?
For starters, Teman told NJJN, it’s “neutral.” There are no hidden agendas, political, religious, or otherwise. “What’s Jewish about this? It’s a group of Jews,” he said, after his presentation to the high schoolers. “The idea is that people will come to JCorps who would be uncomfortable going to Hillel or a Chabad house. They want to meet other Jews but they’re not comfortable going to a synagogue, with some political or religious view.”
The reward for neutrality is diversity, according to Teman. “We have the ultra-Orthodox guy with a beard standing next to a girl who can’t recognize her own name in Hebrew,” he said.
In a way, his organization also reflects his own mixed feelings about Judaism. Raised Orthodox, he quipped, “I’m not observant; I wouldn’t eat in my own house.”
His family belonged to Congregation Israel of Springfield, where they lived before moving to Teaneck when he was six. He remembers helping put up the eruv in Springfield with his father and a rabbi.
“I have questions. I respect the vast amount of wisdom that is in Judaism.” But, he said, we spend too much time on details of tradition and observance; “we focus on the number of sheaves of wheat and cows,” he said, referring to the story of Joseph in the Torah. “That’s a good story, but what do I do with that information? Until I have a weird dream with cows, I’m really out of luck. And I have a feeling if I had that dream I’m really out of luck too.”
In his talk to the Schechter students, he joked about another Bible story: Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. “That’s gruesome,” he said. “That’s going to up your allowance if your dad does this to you, right?”
But like a lot of his jokes, this one has a serious point: Another secret to JCorps is that it doesn’t speak of service as a “sacrifice.” Let people be selfish, he said.
“The secret to JCorps — and any organization that gets people involved — is giving people what they want,” he said. For some that means exploring another career through volunteering in the field, for others it’s meeting other Jews — think JDate with a social conscience.
JCorps is only the latest in a series of startups Teman has been responsible for since the dot.com he began at age 15. He regularly serves as a consultant to businesses on how to successfully launch “an entire venture, from idea through completion.”
In 2008, New York Jewish Week named him among their “36 under 36” Jewish leaders; he’s also been featured in Time Out New York, which called him a “jewlarious” comedian whose work is “clean and innocent” but has an “inherent naughtiness.”
How does he make time for everything he does? “I’m cursed. When I was a kid someone told me busy people get more done. I’m crazy.”
Teman is already making plans to hand JCorps off to someone else. “Now that it’s international, it’s a little difficult running it in my spare time,” he said.
Next on the agenda: Dale Carnegie for kids.
“Your kid doesn’t know how to ace the interview,” he explained. “They don’t know how to work with their coworkers. They’re not being taught social skills and team-building skills in most schools. It’s not on the national agenda — I hate that phrase. There’s no test when you enter college for social skills. Where’s the EQ [emotional quotient] test? That is far greater indicator of whether or not you’re going to be successful.”
He’s ready to start, “if someone wants to fund it,” he said.