It’s weeks after Purim, but a group of students from Magen David Yeshiva in Brooklyn are pulling colorful wigs out of their bags, smudging white paint on their faces and drawing bright red circles and stars on their cheeks. They’re prepping with excitement for a visit to CareOne at Teaneck, a nursing and rehabilitation center located in Bergen County, N.J.
But first, they must learn the art of balloon animals — and the importance of bikur cholim (visiting the sick).
Their teacher for the day is a clown named Cookie who is dressed in a red, white and blue wig, cobalt blue pants and a colorful tie. Daniel Rothner, as he’s known when he steps out of his clown costume, is the founder of Areyvut, a nonprofit based in Bergen County that creates programming for Jewish youth centered on the core Jewish values of chesed (kindness), tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (social action). He chose the clown name Cookie, he says, because it’s a happy-go-lucky name. “And I love cookies.”
Instead of hosting one-off trips to visit a soup kitchen or clean up a park, Areyvut and other youth-oriented organizations are embracing the art of mitzvah clowning. The act of establishing a new identity as a clown and putting on a costume allows many kids (and adults) to break free of their discomfort and shyness when visiting special-needs children and nursing home patients.
“It’s bikur cholim with a twist,” he says, adding that the goal is to promote connection and conversation during the visits and raise the spirits of the residents. “It’s not simply a performance.”
Each mitzvah clown training session aims to equip teens with the skills needed to go mitzvah clowning on their own. Participants are given a clown kit complete with a shower cap (to go under the wig), a mirror, a powder puff, a red nose, a paintbrush and bright-colored face paint. The half-day training focuses on the importance of the mitzvah of bikur cholim as well as more practical skills, like how to apply clown makeup (and the secret to wiping it off: baby oil). They also learn how to make balloon animals, necklaces and hats using Qualatex balloons. Rothner intersperses the lessons with practical tips, such as “the 99-cent store is your friend,” and “never, ever give medical advice.”
Mitzvah clowning is “the gift that keeps on giving,” Rothner says. Once participants are trained, it is a relatively simple service activity they can do throughout the rest of their lives. “We build the program in a way to facilitate and encourage ongoing engagement and involvement so that individuals who are trained when they are 12 or 13 years old can still be performing this act of chesed when they are 38,” he says. “We want to get kids involved when they’re young and ideally ignite a lifelong passion for chesed.”
Rothner first trained as a mitzvah clown back in December. His trainer, Andrea Hirschfeld, has been offering mitzvah clowning trainings for more than a decade, along with Sue and Mike Turk. At the time, all three were members of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, N.J. Mitzvah clowning has evolved over the years, in part due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 privacy and security laws and the fact that many hospitals will not let students visit patients unless they have undergone extensive volunteer training.
“Our focus now is mostly assisted living and retirement communities,” Hirschfeld says.
Over the years, Hirschfeld — whose clown name is All Ears “because I have big ears and wear big earrings” — has trained some 2,500 mitzvah clowns.
“It’s impossible to know who will gravitate to mitzvah clowning,” she says.
To be a good clown, you don’t necessarily need to be funny or to have a good sense of humor or a beautiful costume. “I can take the shyest student, and they can make a wonderful clown. Whatever they bring to the table from behind that mask, it allows them to suddenly be more boisterous and take on a new character.”
As demand increases among day schools, camps, and Jewish youth organizations for mitzvah clowning sessions, Areyvut plans to host trainings every month or so, he says. Each session lasts approximately half a day and always includes a site visit so that teens can test out their new skills.
As for the Magen David students, the visit to CareOne left them with bright red smiles.
The seniors “loved our crazy outfits and funny stories,” says Jennifer Hidary, aka Chilly the Clown.
“Seeing the smiles on the faces [of the
CareOne residents] put a smile on my face as well,” says Renee Dayan.
And for Joseph Mandil, aka 2 Face the Clown, his favorite part of the trip was that “it didn’t even feel like a mitzvah,” he says.
Several of the students plan to go mitzvah clowning again.
“I like to make people happy,” says Jamie Hasson, a 10th grader at Magen David who chose the moniker Shorty the Clown. “Every week, my friends and I visit an old lady who lives a few blocks away, and I can’t wait to visit her in costume. Last year, we helped clean her house for Passover. We play bingo together. We are like her kids.”
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