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What’s so funny about a stand-up rabbi?
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What’s so funny about a stand-up rabbi?

The ‘pope’s comedian’ to perform at Clark temple

Rabbi Bob Alper
Rabbi Bob Alper

The Honorary Comedic Advisor of Pope Francis will spend some time in February in Clark in a synagogue — where he will feel at home.

The Pope’s Honorary Comedic Advisor is a rabbi.

Rabbi Bob Alper, a resident of East Dorset, Vt., a one-time fulltime pulpit rabbi who has worked as a stand-up comic and motivational speaker for three decades, will appear at Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah on Sunday,
Feb. 24.

Alper was named to the honorific Vatican position in 2015, beating out some 4,000 entrants from 47 countries who participated in the unique digital “Joke With the Pope” competition sponsored by the Pontifical Missions Society by submitting online a joke that reflected the Vatican’s standards and values. The contest, part of Francis’s increasing use of social media, was designed to reinforce the pope’s joyful approach to life before his upcoming visit to the United States.

The joke the rabbi submitted via video at the last minute: “My wife and I have been married for over 40 years, and our lives are totally in sync. For example, at the same time I got a hearing aid, she stopped mumbling.”

Alper had recently started using a hearing aid.

A panel of judges thought his submission was perfect for Francis, who has worked to bring an element of humor to the Vatican.

The rabbi’s joke bested submissions by such people as Bill Murray, Conan O’Brien, Al Roker, and New York City’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

The Missions Society’s director of communications called the joke perfect for the pontiff. It was original, funny, and short. “It was a joke you would tell the pope … original, situational, gentle, self-effacing.”

It wasn’t necessarily a joke that the pope — celibate, like all Roman Catholic priests — would tell.

Alper, who was ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1972, acknowledged the incongruity of a member of the Jewish clergy winning a title awarded by the world’s highest-ranking Roman Catholic leader.

“There’s an even exchange between us,” he said. “Catholics often look to Jews for the best humor, just as Jews often look to Catholics for the best Italian food.”

Today, the world is Alper’s stage, not only his bimah, though he still continues to officiate at High Holy Day services at a small Philadelphia congregation, and at the occasional lifecycle event.

Alper, 74, a native of Providence, R.I., who started injecting humor into his sermons and classes while serving at congregations in Buffalo, N.Y., and Philadelphia early in his career, has during the last 18 years partnered with fellow Christian and Muslim stand-ups to deliver an interfaith message.

During performances before religiously mixed audiences in such venues as synagogues, churches, mosques, theaters, and college auditoriums, under the auspices of Jewish and Muslim organizations and various diversity groups, the interfaith teams have performed their individual routines, joined each other on stage to discuss what their religious faiths and cultures have in common, and delivered a message of tolerance and mutual respect.

The participants call their act the “Laugh in Peace Tour.” They’ve taken it to Israel (including western and eastern Jerusalem), England, and France.

The rabbi and his partners largely avoid politics, and shatter stereotypes about each other’s faiths. And they bring people together.

“If you’re laughing together, you can’t hate each other,” Alper said. “And the audiences laugh — a lot.”

One career highlight: sharing the bill with a Muslim performer at the University of Arkansas, home of the “Razorbacks.” “A Muslim and a Jew performing at a school whose mascot is a pig.”

The ecumenical match-ups began as a publicist’s gimmick, but have grown into genuine friendships that have garnered wide coverage in the media. (His routines are featured a lot these days on Sirius XM/satellite radio.)

The rabbi, who had served as president of his synagogue youth group, said he gravitated toward the rabbinate “because I wanted a career where I could work with people.”

Why did Alper, who bears a slight resemblance to Steve Martin, become a comic?

“My rabbinate is helping people laugh,” he said.

Eventually, after 14 years of full-time work — time spent, he likes to say, in front of “a hostile audience” — he found that he enjoyed humor, inspiring congregants through making people smile, more than the standard, often-dour aspect of his profession.

The author of three books of inspirational essays, Alper bills himself as “the world’s only practicing clergyman doing stand-up comedy … intentionally.”

After he left the traditional rabbinate, he moved from Philadelphia to rural Vermont. Growing up in New England, he was always attracted to its bucolic vibe.

The home he and Sherry, his wife of 49 years, share on 16 acres is surrounded by — basically, nothing. Sometimes, the rabbi said, when he gets home, he stares up at the stars or soaks in the silence. “It is very
spiritual.”

East Dorset has a small-but-growing Jewish community, and a small synagogue where Alper is an active member. But he’s not the congregation’s rabbi. Instead, he said, he performs his informal, mirth-making rabbinical role wherever he goes in the area. “Like the supermarket.”

About his title as the Pope’s Comedic Advisor …

He has no official duties. “I don’t advise the pope.” There was no monetary prize or opportunity to meet the pontiff. Just the honor and bragging rights. As winner of the contest, he was able to choose which charity would receive a $10,000 award from the Vatican; Alper chose “House the Homeless” in Ethiopia.

And the rabbi received an official-looking, framed certificate, as well as a pair of tickets to “The Tonight Show.” He was at, not on, the late-night show, he stressed.

Alper said he holds out hope that he may get to meet Francis in Rome one day.

He recited a short joke about a young boy calling 911 from his home, which is burning down. It’s in “fairly simple” English, Pope Francis’s fourth language.

“I would tell that to the pope.”


If you go

Who: Comedian and rabbi, Bob Alper
What: Sol Sern Memorial Program
Where: Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah, Clark
When: Sunday, Feb. 24, 3 p.m.
Cost: Free, RSVP to tbethor@gmail.com or call 732-381-8403


Steve Lipman is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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