Attorney uses improv comedy to help sick kids and elderly residents
At that moment, a nurse leans over and whispers to one of the men in the blue t-shirts, “That one, in the middle of the circle, has been non-communicative for over a year. He wouldn’t talk to anyone.”
The man she’s whispering to is Jonathan Evan Goldberg, 42, founder of Cherub Improv, and he lives for moments like that one. Several times a week, his group of 80 trained volunteer Cherubs visit youth groups, the elderly, veterans, the homeless, hospital and hospice patients, and adults and children living with cancer, bringing comedy to people in need via free performances and interactive workshops. The name Cherub comes from the Yiddish “Cherubim” which means “Angel.”
As a kid, Goldberg always wanted to be an actor, but his parents encouraged him to pursue a legal career instead. In 2007, he decided to attend an improv comedy class, and the rest is history. Now, he lives on the Upper West Side and insists on using his middle name “to distinguish himself from the 50,000 other Jonathan Goldbergs in the tri-state area.” Goldberg is a partner in the litigation department of Dentons, one of the 25 largest legal service providers in the world. By day, he can be found in his office at Rockefeller Center, dancing to club music at his standing desk, which he bought specifically so he could bust a move while on conference calls. By night, he can be found playing with his chubby cats, Bella and Leo.
Before it could officially become a 501(c)3 nonprofit, Goldberg and his friends, Joy Purver and Dr. Steve Van Ooteghem, had to use their own money to get the organization off the ground, continuing to survive and expand through individual donations. Now, they’ve established partnerships with numerous organizations, including Chelton Loft, a Fedcap clubhouse open to adults with a history of mental illness and homelessness.
On an unseasonably warm September night, a small group has gathered at the Loft on West 19th Street. The Cherubs are playing games with the residents like “Geographic Freeze Tag,” forming physical positions and creating new scenes every time the audience yells “freeze,” and “Love Song,” singing love songs about the worst anniversary gifts ever given.
Many people who come to the community center are down on their luck, but even when they get on their feet, they come back to see the Cherubs each month — like Mark, who usually has to work the night shift at Trader Joe’s.
“I really look forward to it when I can make it,” he said.
There is a childlike abandon with which they all participate. Eager to volunteer, almost everyone is shy to go up and participate at first, but receives a ton of positive reinforcement from team leader Julie Stainer-Loehr, who works at a law firm. “Great job!” she coos, and everyone beams. “So funny!”
“It’s a way for people to get out of themselves. We want people to let go of their day, and we want to empower them,” Stainer-Loehr said of their mission. “On the other hand, improv is based on life experience, so no matter how bad things are, they can find a way to laugh about it.”
It’s true: for a time, everyone forgets where they are, that they have been homeless, that they don’t know where their next meal will come from, that they are struggling with mental illness and trying to stay employed every day. In the moment, they are thinking on their toes, forgetting their situation, forgetting where they are.
“At senior homes, there’s 60 people in the audience, and they’re so happy to have something they can participate in,” Seainer-Loehr said. “Most of the entertainment in those places is strictly presentation, not something they can be included in.”
Goldberg is unable to make it to Chelton Loft that night — being a partner is a demanding job — but he is usually able to make it to at least one performance a week. One of his favorite locations is Hope Lodge, a facility where people with cancer can stay with their loved ones while undergoing treatment. He still has a note from a woman who was bedridden, reeling from the effects of chemotherapy. Her husband convinced her to get out of bed and attend the comedy show everyone was talking about. Within minutes, she was laughing, her face lighting up. “I felt so much better,” she wrote. “And special, that you were brought to me.”
Goldberg also loves going to Ronald McDonald House on the Upper East Side.
“Before we even start, toddlers just come up to me and wrap their arms around my knees,” he said. “Even if we’re only mildly funny that night, they don’t care.”
Last Sunday, Israel Leone, 6, who has been staying at Ronald McDonald House for several weeks while undergoing treatment for neuroblastoma, immediately ran to get his mother when he heard that the Cherubs had arrived.
“It makes me elated to see how much fun they’re having. Look at them all laughing,” said his mother, Sharnee Merritt, watching the group. “This is like therapy. It makes him happy and takes his mind off the cancer.”
Some kids aren’t really following the rules of each game, opting instead to bounce off the couch or engage in a playful dogpile, but they’re all red in the face from laughing, including Mariama, who, in Spanish, declares herself a rock and roll princess. Even Timmy, who only speaks Chinese, is clapping, and laughing, finding ways to be involved.
“A lot of kids who don’t speak English usually feel inferior in these situations, because they can’t interact with each other,” said Merritt. “But here, they all feel like they can be part of something and have fun together. It’s not often you see that.”
Nina, three-and-a-half, who has been in treatment for stage 4 Rhabdomysarcoma, was shy at first, rolling around on the outskirts of the group. By the time the last activity was underway, however, she sat happily in older brother Gabriel’s lap, laughing as he kissed her forehead.
“She has to go through a lot of things that are tough, and to see a smile like that on her face brings joy to our hearts,” said their father, Josh Adkins.
Jennifer Fernandez, a clinical social worker who has been a Cherub for two years, brings her niece and her 16-year-old daughter Elizabeth with her to Ronald McDonald house each month. “There are kids that always look forward to seeing them,” she said.
Goldberg plans to continue to expand his group of Cherubs, hoping to bring laughter and light into otherwise dark places.
“We see an immediate impact of what we do because we hear the laughter,” he said. “In some of these places, we perform for sick people with AIDS, kids who won’t make it, people in hospice care. But we get to know them before they pass away, and we get to bring them laughs before they go.”
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