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A touching Mandel draws a crowd to Main Event
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A touching Mandel draws a crowd to Main Event

Versatile comedian ties own challenges to federation mission

People were still wiping away tears of laughter when Howie Mandel turned serious. “What you do is wonderful, and needed,” the comedian told supporters of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ on March 28, “and I am proud to help out in whatever way I can.”

The comedian and game show host mixed comedy and Jewish pride in his appearance at the Main Event, an annual fund-raiser for UJC MetroWest’s UJA Campaign. Some 500 supporters attended the event at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in West Orange.

More than $100,000 was raised at the event for the UJA Campaign of MetroWest.

The bald-domed star of shows from St. Elsewhere to the more recent Deal Or No Deal and America’s Got Talent, made it clear why he was there: Aside from needing to finance his wife’s love of shopping, he quipped, “I am very proud of my Judaism.”

It was a surprisingly touching turn in a performance that raised a few eyebrows but had most of the room roaring for more. He mentioned that when his father died, he sought out a minyan wherever he went so he could say Kaddish. Doing that in some of the remoter parts of Iowa, he said, proved an interesting challenge.

But like a kid who gets bored being good, he also gleefully set out to shock his audience. He grilled doctors in the audience about proctology exams, discussed why men ogle “hotties,” and generally skewered whatever holy cows he could find.

If the audience didn’t know where he would turn next, neither did he.

“I have had ADD since childhood,” Mandel said. He also spoke about his well-publicized germophobia.

“I’ve been a mess,” he said. “I joke about it to get through it with laughter. But I’m surrounded by wonderful people who care about me and help me.” Then he added, “My psychiatrist is in a whole other tax bracket, thanks to me.”

Mandel admitted his foibles have proved profitable for him too. “When I’m bored, I get into s—t; I don’t edit myself,” he said. “That’s cost me a lot, but it has also provided me with a living. Whatever I got punished for doing as a kid, I get paid for now.”

Like any Jewish parent, he is proud of his three children. While he battled to read as a kid, they are academics, he said; one is a pre-med student. On the other hand, he hasn’t spared them his humor. When the party planners came to discuss ideas for his youngest daughter’s bat mitzva party eight years ago, he said he suggested “Jesus” as the theme, complete with water-into-wine and fishes and loaves. His daughter, he said, opted for “shopping.”

Spotting a rabbi seated near the stage, he exclaimed contritely, “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.”

Mandel’s presence proved a beneficial draw for the organizers. The event, chaired by Amanda and Peter Fiverson, Cynthia and Michael Geller, and Marit and Jason Halper, attracted more would-be attendees than the 500 they could accommodate.

One of the institutions benefiting from MetroWest Annual Campaign is JESPY House, the South Orange-based program that provides support services, training, and accommodation for adults with learning and developmental disabilities.

A very personal description of the organization was offered by a long-time client, David Schnitzler. Now 45, he came to JESPY House, he said, when he decided as a young man that he wanted a measure of independence. He stated with pride that he has worked for almost 22 years for the Veterans Administration. “Because I did such a good job, they hired eight other JESPY clients,” he said. Schnitzler announced that he is now engaged, and plans to get married in October.

Making the pitch for pledges, her last as UJA Campaign chair, Paula Saginaw linked her message to the Passover story.

“We know the beginning — when we were slaves. We know the middle — when with an outstretched arm we were delivered. But what about the end?

“That is a trick question; there is no ending,” she said. “To be a Jewish community is an ongoing narrative that requires our ongoing participation.”

She also said that all participants who increased their gifts by $100 were eligible for a prize that included attending a taping of America’s Got Talent, the NBC show on which Mandel is one of the judges, and a meet-and-greet with him afterward; an autographed copy of his memoir, Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me; and dinner for four at Abigael’s in Manhattan. Akiva Balfour of Montclair was the winner.

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