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Temple teens learn improv comedy skills

Temple Sholom congregant and comedian Alex Bernstein teaches youngsters how to do improvisation and stand-up, as part of the temple’s summer program. 
Temple Sholom congregant and comedian Alex Bernstein teaches youngsters how to do improvisation and stand-up, as part of the temple’s summer program. 

Teens are getting their funny bones tickled — and learning how to tickle others’ — at Temple Sholom this summer. In a series of informal “Hot and Shticky” workshops at the Reform temple in Scotch Plains-Fanwood, congregant and comedian Alex Bernstein and some of his friends are teaching the youngsters how to do improv and stand-up comedy.

Since 2010, Bernstein has taught improvisational and stand-up comedy to over 70 kids in fifth through 10th grade at the temple’s temporary location in Fanwood. (The congregation is building its future home in Scotch Plains.)

“In 2010, I was finishing a book I’d written about doing stand-up in Cincinnati at 16 called Plrknib. It’s not out yet. So I had stand-up on the brain. And I started to perform again after about a 20-year hiatus,” said Bernstein. “At the same time, my son Charlie was in third grade at Temple Sholom, and one of his Sunday school teachers just didn’t show up one Sunday.”

Director of education Michelle Shapiro Abraham asked if Bernstein would sub on the fly. 

“I became a regular sub, and then Michelle started dinging me to teach all the time,” said Bernstein. “She then approached me about teaching basketball or web-marketing — yuck — to teens in the temple’s Jewish U program, and I said ‘How about stand-up?’ And she looked at me like I was on another planet.”

Abraham eventually agreed.

“The first year of stand-up was, in my opinion, incredibly successful, and that class is still going to this day, although it’s now stand-up and improv,” said Bernstein. Another class by Berstein was added for students in grades five through seven.

“Improv is excellent for both performers and non-performers,” said Bernstein, who regularly hosts the congregation’s annual comedy night fund-raiser. (Another congregant and stand-up comic, Polina Zismanova, usually performs those nights, too.) 

“For actors and performers, improv is a great way to let loose and get creative in a million ways they may not be able to do in a traditional play or musical. And it’s also a huge asset that those kids will be able to add to their acting toolbox,” Bernstein said.

“For non-performers, it’s simply a tremendously fun way to spend an evening.”

Teens are naturally good at comedy, according to Bernstein.

“They’re flexible, willing to take risks, and tremendously supportive of one another,” he said. “Every workshop starts with a pledge that we make up, week-to-week, that essentially goes: ‘I pledge to put myself out there and make a complete fool out of myself!’ So we create a highly fun atmosphere right from the get-go.”

Participant Adam Wachtel said he loves doing comedy.

“I hope we get to do a show at the end of the summer. And I hate it when my mom picks me up [on time] at 9,” he said.

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