Jeremy Witchel pretended he had a peacock on his head and a slimy slug in his back pocket, all part of an improv routine that he performed with his mother and her team in front of nearly 200 students on Pitt’s campus last Thursday night.
Witchel, a junior at Chatham University, was competing with nine other Jewish students on Feb. 8 to be crowned Mr. Nice Jewish Boy, a competition at Hillel Jewish University Center that raises money for a charity of the winner’s choice. Each contestant participated in a group dance, answered a few randomly selected questions and performed a talent of their choosing, with acts ranging from singing and playing trombone to eating a bowl of cereal on stage.
Partly because of his animal-wielding character, and partly, he says, because of his mother’s participation in the show, Witchel was elected the 2018 Mr. Nice Jewish Boy.
For its third iteration, the competition was combined with Ignite Summit, a weekend of student-led learning and discussion at Hillel JUC. This year’s Ignite Summit was centered on the arrival of a 300-year-old Torah from Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle.
The Torah, originally from Poland, was passed down through the Mirow family for more than 200 years until the Nazis invaded Poland. It was later rediscovered in the 1970s tucked inside a wall in the former family home. From there, it was smuggled out of Poland and in 1975, sent to New Castle, where descendants of the Mirow family still live.
Now, the Torah will be housed at Hillel JUC, and students can use it as a way to connect the “history and the future of the Jewish people,” Danielle Kranjec, senior Jewish educator at Hillel JUC, said.
To start the weekend of celebrating the new Torah and Jewish learning, Kranjec opened the Mr. NJB competition, joking that “if Ignite is about finding your Jewish inspiration, I don’t think you’re going to find anything more inspirational than what you’re going to see tonight.”
We talked with Witchel about his family, his charity of choice and his Jewish life at Chatham University.
PJC: How does it feel to have won Mr. Nice Jewish Boy?
Witchel: It feels, um, awesome. I had been practicing for a long time. It was broken down into the initial Q-and-A and then also our talent. There were 10 possible questions that we could have been asked for the Q-and-A, and you didn’t know which one you were going to get. For my talent, I did improv; we had been practicing once a week for about five weeks before the actual event. And when I say practice, we didn’t know what was actually going to be asked but running through the format and the flow. It was a lot of fun working with my mom and her team to prepare that.
How did you come up with that idea to do improv for your talent?
My mom has been doing improv for about six years, and I’ve been doing improv for three years, so I’ve done classes before and did it over the summer. That was just the first thing that came to my mind when they said you have to do a talent. What’s more “nice Jewish boy” than doing your talent with your mother on stage?
Your mom seemed really excited that you won the competition. What do you think this means for her?
It means a lot to her that she got to come out and see me win. She’s always been there for me through everything. It’s especially really nice because my dad unexpectedly died over the summer so it was really nice for both of us to do this together and do the improv together.
He would have been really proud and that was something me and my mom talked about a lot throughout this process. The charity I was raising money for, the Anti-Defamation League, that was my dad’s favorite charity.
Were you or your dad involved in the Anti-Defamation League?
Neither of us were very directly involved, but he was very passionate about what they believed in: their mission statement and the idea of securing justice for Jewish people and minorities around the world.
You mentioned it was especially important to do so now with today’s climate. Can you expand on that?
Especially with what happened in Charlottesville and what Trump’s been tweeting, it’s really important for some organization to be supporting and identifying what is hate speech and where to add context and what’s the difference between ignorance and just hate, what is the context there — and they provide that. Even with what happened a few weeks ago at Pitt, somebody traced swastikas all over cars in the snow, a friend of mine posted it on Facebook. They were always important, but they’re even more important today than they were before.
You also mentioned you wanted to bring a more vibrant Jewish community to Chatham. Can you tell me about your experience there now?
We don’t have a lot of Jews at Chatham. We have around 10 Jewish students that I’m aware of at Chatham. We have about 1,400 undergrad students. In the past, Chabad has been involved on campus, but I wanted to start something with Chabad and Hillel that was more student-run and that organized all of the students together to do something from grassroots rather than from administration down or a Jewish organization down.
What would you ultimately like to see?
I’d like to see there be organized, fully student-led Jewish programming and Jewish advocacy on campus. There are more Jewish students at Pitt than there are the entire student population at Chatham, so I don’t ever see us getting that big but maybe someday having a really solid Jewish presence at Hillel and at Chatham, where we can have advocacy for Jewish events and holidays.
Do you have any advice for how to be the best nice Jewish boy you can be?
Bring your mother. PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at lrosenblatt@pittsburghjewish chronicle.org.