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It might seem like an odd pairing: comedian and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah headlining Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) of Greater Philadelphia’s 34th Annual Benefit on April 22, 2018. After all, Noah has a checkered history with the Jewish community. It doesn’t look like that history will improve after this week.
Some might recall that once Noah won Jon Stewart’s coveted seat in 2015, journalists began combing through his social-media accounts. Ultimately, they found a cache of sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic tweets. He blew off the criticism for a while, then backpedaled a bit, though he never really apologized.
Around the same time, he joined the Daily Show podcast to discuss his experience as a foreign comic working in the United States. In that interview, he brought up an interaction that occurred when he casually mentioned his childhood friend Hitler to one of the show’s Jewish writers. That is, his friend was literally named Hitler. He went on to offer an extended — and fairly disingenuous — explanation for why the name wasn’t offensive in South Africa. (His 2016 memoir, Born a Crime, also includes an anecdote about his teen DJ/dance crew performing at a South African Jewish school and the fracas that occurred when they started yelling, “Go, Hitler!”)
No show, no go
In any case, none of that is JFCS’s problem. The social-service organization hired him; he accepted. And then he canceled, forcing them to cancel the event.
Suzanne Meyers, JFCS’s vice president of marketing and communications, says Noah’s booking agent, Ruth Stover, told JFCS on April 4 — 18 days before the event — that he was backing out. They were given no explanation until a week later, when they were told only that he had a “business scheduling conflict.”
I contacted his press representative, Jill Fritzo, to ask about the cancelation and she repeated the claim. I asked about the nature of the conflict and whether Noah planned to donate any money to JFCS to help cover their costs. As of this posting, I haven’t heard back.
Among its many projects, JFCS works with abused, neglected, and disabled children to find foster and adoptive homes and offer families ongoing support. They provide counseling, support, and training for children and adults in the LGBTQ community. They offer programs, workshops, financial assistance, clothing, and resources for those dealing with difficult issues ranging from poverty to suicide. They assist the elderly with meal delivery, hoarding issues, and benefits management and have several programs dedicated to the needs of Holocaust survivors. They provide care management, financial assistance, and group activities for people with disabilities.
In short, JFCS is a pillar of Philadelphia’s Jewish service community, working with 25,000 people of all faiths, in the city and at a new center in Bala Cynwyd.
"Small potatoes," big cost
Event chair Alyson Bell says, “We had a lot riding on his appearance and spent money on media ads, radio, billboards, and direct mail. Just as at any big event, JFCS had quite a bit of money on down payments. . . . We tried to get another big comedian within our budget without upsetting all of our new possible advocates. When we couldn’t get anyone of equal caliber to commit to performing in such a short window, we weighed our options. Knowing we’d lose a majority of our new ticket holders and sponsors that decided to attend because of Noah, financially, we really had no other option.”
Noah’s scheduling conflict will leave JFCS with a roughly $200,000 deficit. Their benefit usually brings in $500,000, with a crowd of around 500, but this year was the first they decided to vary from the usual format, which JFCS president Paula Goldstein describes as a “business-casual cocktail party.”
Hoping to attract a new crowd to the event with a hipper slate, the group was on target to bring in up to 800 people; for many, this would be the first interaction with JFCS. In addition to a pre-show dinner with Iron Chef and Philly celeb restauranteur José Garces, patrons could pay up to $2,000 a head for an additional post-show dessert chat with Noah.
To cover some of their lost funds, Goldstein says JFCS is looking at “parlor meetings” and plans to send out an email appeal. Bell says that, so far, many of the advance ticket buyers are donating at least part of their ticket price instead of asking for a full refund. But the fact remains, as Goldstein said sadly, “We may have seemed like small potatoes to Trevor Noah, but to us, this was really important.”
Noah, who today made TIME's "100 Most Influential People" list, did show up for a Roslyn, New York, Jewish Community Center fundraiser in mid-March, which netted that group $1.4 million. Did he figure he'd done enough for the Jewish community at that appearance? Did he just find a better gig this time? Will he instead appear at a benefit for his own newly opened foundation? I don’t know, because he hasn’t answered me — and JFCS doesn’t know, because he never spoke to them directly, not even to apologize.
Perhaps the least he can do is find out if Jon Stewart’s available.
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