By Eleanor Linafelt
Though it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, three Jews, two Christians, three Muslims and a Buddhist will be walking into a synagogue and telling, in fact, meaningful jokes.
They are a group brought together by Carmiya Weinraub, a local comedian and member of Kehilat Pardes, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Rockville, who is producing and performing at an interfaith comedy night to be held at the synagogue on Jan. 1.
The goal, Weinraub says, is to promote “cross-cultural understanding through laughter.”
“We learn so much about other people when they are themselves and also share about their very particular experience,” she says. “And the particular is the universal, so if you are a person of faith, to hear about someone else’s is a connecting point.”
When planning the show with the nine participating D.C.-area comics, Weinraub gave them two simple instructions: “I said that they needed to touch on, at least a little bit, their religion, and that they could make fun of their own religion, but they couldn’t make fun of anybody else’s.”
Nick Baskerville, who will be telling jokes about being a Christian and the doubts that he’s faced about his faith, hopes that the comedians’ sets will draw out the similarities between all of their religions.
“There are different words and terms and holidays, but at some point, we’ve all had the question of: How do I know what I know about my faith?” he says. “Getting to understand different people is starting off on what is the same and then branching out to understand the difference. So often people start from the other side and they never make it to the core because they’re too busy fighting about the differences.”
The way comedy is structured — by building tension and then releasing it with a punchline — makes it an effective medium to engage audiences in controversial or divisive subjects, which religion can sometimes be. “If they laugh, they understand their joke and understand your point of view,” Baskerville says. “They might not agree with it, but they understand it.”
Laughter encourages a feeling of connectedness. “A lot of people perform comedy because they feel alone in some way,” Weinraub says. “When you get up there and share your view and people are laughing, you leave feeling less alone and more understood.”
Weinraub knew that Kehilat Pardes would welcome an event like this, because of the synagogue’s emphasis on interfaith work. Rabbi Uri Topolosky values bringing people from different faiths together, and has also previously invited rabbis from other Jewish denominations to speak with one another, which Weinraub says is unusual in an Orthodox setting.
“Our congregation values our interfaith partnerships, and the valuable learning and growth that emerges each time we extend ourselves beyond the four walls of our community,” Topolosky says.
He was also excited to support the interests and talents of a member of his congregation. This will be the first time that Weinraub will perform her comedy at her synagogue.
“We pride ourselves on embracing a culture of change. One of the ways this manifests is by celebrating within the congregation the various interests and passions of our community members,” Topolosky says.
The group of comedians hopes to continue to perform together and bring the show to other places, including congregations, community centers and any other spaces interested in hosting them.
The interfaith comedy night at Kehilat Pardes will be on Jan. 1. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the show starts at 8 p.m. To attend, go to kehilatpardes.org/event/interfaith-comedy-night/.