The social hall at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks undergoes a major transformation every Thursday night. Television monitors and a flashing scoreboard are mounted on the walls, and a sea of cafeteria-style tables cluttered with small computer monitors, game cards and good-luck charms take up most of the room.
The Thursday nightlife at this Conservative congregation is all about bingo.
“It’s an excellent fundraiser,” said Michael Roberts, an Etz Chaim board member and the synagogue’s former bingo trustee. “[The players] are noncongregants, and they enjoy bingo like you can’t believe.”
Typically associated with American Legion halls, Elks clubs and churches, the sedentary game that caters to seniors is not often associated with Jewish houses of worship. But a few synagogues across the Southland have offered weekly bingo nights as temple fundraisers for decades.
While some shuls embrace the idea of opening their doors to the local bingo crowd, others are adamantly opposed to the idea of the increasingly popular game because of its gambling stigma.
Bingo’s origins can be traced back to 16th century European lotteries, but its modern equivalent was inspired by a carnival game called Beano, which was adapted by New York salesman Edwin Lowe in 1929. When Lowe organized a game for his friends, one of the players is said to have become so excited that she yelled out “bingo” instead of “beano” and the name stuck.
While the game is frequently looked upon as a fundraising tool for religious and charitable organizations, the proliferation of Native American-run casinos over the last 20 years has enabled commercial bingo halls with higher stakes to spread out beyond the state of Nevada. The new generation of players seeking bigger jackpots now comes armed with special markers, called daubers, and other paraphernalia in bingo bags that double as seat cushions.
Television has taken notice of bingo’s boom. In March, cable channel GSN launched “Bingo America” with host Patrick Duffy, a successor to ABC’s 2007 “National Bingo Night,” in which two contestants compete to win up to $100,000, and viewers at home can play along to win money.
For many, bingo remains a social game. The roughly 150 players — mostly female and above retirement age — who file into Temple Etz Chaim each Thursday night find time spent at the synagogue is a opportunity to visit with friends and share the hope of winning big.
Etz Chaim’s bingo fundraiser has been run entirely by synagogue volunteers for the last 23 years, and it generates about $100,000 a year for the congregation, with all proceeds going toward the temple’s preschool and religious school.
Roberts sees bingo as a win-win situation for the congregation and the community.
“It’s a community service, in a way,” Roberts said. “We’re providing a service of running games and helping students.”
He added that the games also help the surrounding non-Jewish community get to know the congregants and the shul. “They realize that we’re nice people,” he said.
At the synagogue level, Etz Chaim says it also enjoys greater involvement from congregants, because many of its bingo volunteers go on to participate in other synagogue committees and events.
But at a time when many synagogues and Jewish agencies hold casino-themed fundraisers, not everyone thinks gambling and shuls mix.
“I’m very ambivalent about a synagogue providing a regular gambling opportunity, especially for the population that tends to frequent bingo,” said Rabbi Rick Brody of Temple Ami Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in West Covina that halted its own bingo fundraiser three years ago. “At least from what I was seeing, [the players are] people who, to one degree or another, are addicted and are focused on wining as much money as they can, and I don’t think that that is what a synagogue should be focusing on.”
Brody was relieved when his temple did away with its bingo program due to poor revenue and lack of volunteers. But even if profits were higher, the rabbi doesn’t “think it really helps the spiritual bottom line of what the congregation is supposed to be about.”
Brody is not alone. In fact, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference for American Rabbis adopted resolutions advising rabbis and shuls to discourage their congregants from using gambling as a fundraiser.
Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Adat Elohim, a Reform congregation in Thousand Oaks, believes that a bingo fundraiser would conflict with his synagogue’s identity.
“Our vision of where we’re going and who we are is that we try to heal the world and open up paths for spirituality and draw community together,” Riter said. “Gambling doesn’t seem to fulfill any of those directions.”
A few Adat Elohim congregants, like Mitch Schwartz of Newbury Park, disagree.
“Why not get money out of the community at large if you can, instead of nickel-and-diming the congregation?” said Schwartz, a former Adat Elohim Brotherhood ways and means chair.
Schwartz said that if the temple adopted bingo, the shul wouldn’t have to raise membership dues on a yearly basis.
But without support from a core group of dedicated volunteers, many bingo fundraisers fail. Weekly volunteer positions include game sales, bankers, callers, game verifiers, food vendors and computer rental salesmen.
At Temple Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Whittier, bingo volunteers are broken up into four teams of eight people, each of whom rotates their services. Temple Etz Chaim relies on 15 people a week.
While it’s hard to argue with the monetary gain (Temple Beth Shalom also made close to $100,000 in a year), many people feel that bingo fundraisers do not add much to the shul community itself, besides the friendships forged between volunteers.
Among the synagogues interviewed, only Etz Chaim had one bingo player affiliate with the synagogue.
And even some congregants at Etz Chaim are not entirely comfortable with game. Over the years, Roberts said a few board members and other active shul members have questioned the validity of the fundraiser.
“We said if you can think of another way to make this much money, we’ll close bingo,” Roberts said. “No one’s ever come up with another way.”
For more information, visit Bingo America.