Temple bingo — a gamble if it’s a good way to raise funds

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.

Local Shuls Were Alleged Targets

The target list of an alleged cell of homegrown terrorists included two synagogues located in the Pico-Robertson corridor, The Journal has learned.

The target information emerged as a federal grand jury issued four indictments last week in the ongoing probe. It was confirmed by a source close to the investigation, although police have not specifically identified the shuls. There is no indication that any Jewish house of worship is in particular danger at the moment, and authorities are working with Jewish leaders regarding ways to enhance security precautions leading up to this month’s high holiday services.

Last week’s indictment doesn’t name synagogues, but it did identify other specific targets, such as the Israeli consulate and some of its officials, the El Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles International Airport and military recruiting stations. The Pico-Robertson neighborhood, however, would be one of many logical areas of interests in Los Angeles for a terrorist intent on harming Jews, because it’s home to many Orthodox institutions and residents. The B’nai David-Judea Congregation in particular got attention from authorities in the wake of the arrests of four Muslims this summer. A sizeable police contingent checked on security measures there, said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, who is also president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Officials declined to state whether B’nai David-Judea was on the target list, and Kanefsky said he refrained from asking, but he also knew of no other synagogue that had received a similar police visit.

The indictment by a federal grand jury charged three American-born converts to Islam and one Pakistani national with conspiracy to kill American and foreign — apparently Israeli — government officials, and conspiracy to wage war against the United States through terrorism.

The break that led to a terrorism investigation came in mid-July, when Torrance police, investigating a string of gas station robberies, found a cell phone, dropped during a holdup by Gregory Vernon Patterson, 21, one of the suspects.

That find led police to the apartment of a fellow suspect, Levar Haney Washington, 25, where they found “jihadist” literature, bulletproof vests and an address list of some two-dozen Los Angeles sites. One was described as the “headquarters of Zion,” with the address of the Israeli consulate.

An examination of Patterson’s computer turned up Internet research on local Israeli targets and the calendar date for Yom Kippur. The purpose of the gas station robberies, authorities later concluded, was to raise money to fund terrorist attacks.

From there, the trail led to Kevin Lamar James, 29, an inmate in a state prison in Folsom, who allegedly orchestrated the plot from within prison walls.

Authorities said that James had founded Janiyyat Ul Islam Is Saheeh (JIS), roughly translated as the Assembly of Authentic Islam, a tiny, extremist offshoot of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, which publicly opposes terrorism.

In a 100-page manual, James urged followers to attack the U.S. government and Jewish and non-Jewish supporters of Israel, according to the indictment.

The fourth indicted person is Hamad Riaz Samana, 21, a Pakistani student at Santa Monica College. He, Washington and Patterson attended the same mosque in Inglewood.

While Washington has a prison and gang record, Patterson and Samana were described by friends and teachers as quiet, studious types, without any prior convictions. Their families and attorneys have defended the suspects, either denying their guilt or saying they deserved a presumption of innocence.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, in announcing the indictment of the four suspects, said, “This summer, Americans watched so-called homegrown terrorists unleash multiple bombings in the city of London…. Some in this country may have mistakenly believed that it could not happen here. Today we have chilling evidence that it is possible.”

Leaders of the local Muslim community have stressed their willingness to help investigators and their opposition to terrorism.

Rabbis and Jewish lay leaders sought to strike a balance between alerting the community and avoiding panic.

“We want people to be fully aware, but retain the spiritual value of attending Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis. There are some 150 synagogues in the greater Los Angeles area.

The Anti-Defamation League and law enforcement agencies have scheduled a Sept. 15 security briefing for local Jewish institutions.

Israeli consul general Ehud Danoch praised the FBI, local police and the mayor’s office for “keeping us continually updated and involved.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who serves on a state Homeland Security committee, stressed the importance of constant communication between Jewish institutions and law-enforcement authorities.

“California has some 50 percent of all likely terrorist targets in the United States,” he said. He also urged state attorneys general to pay particular attention to the danger of extremist clergy ministering to prison inmates.

L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss also warned of the need to remain alert.

U.S. Attorney Debra Wong Yang in Los Angeles noted that “The conspirators were on the verge of launching their attack,” and L.A. Police Chief William J. Bratton added, “Make no mistake about it. We dodged a bullet here. Perhaps many bullets.”


Rural Shuls Make Do Without Rabbis

There’s been a Jewish community in Muskogee, Okla., since 1867, when furrier Joseph Sonderheim opened his import-export business.

In 1916 the first synagogue was dedicated, Congregation Beth Ahaba, a lay-led Reform congregation that served a tight-knit Jewish community of merchants and professionals.

“As Oklahoma grew and prospered through the 1920s, so did our congregation,” said Nancy Stolper, 77, who moved to Muskogee 50 years ago.

Beth Ahaba reached its height of 75 families in 1929 but dwindled to 40 families during the Depression, as stores shut down and people moved away to find work.

Since then, Beth Ahaba’s fortunes have declined steadily. Its young people, including the Stolpers’ four children, grew up and moved away.

Its last student rabbi left 15 years ago.

“We’re now just a group of frail senior citizens,” said Stolper, noting that only eight to 10 members are still able to get to synagogue.

Three months ago they gave up their monthly Friday night services, and this High Holiday season, she fears, will be their last.

“My children have invited us to spend the holidays with them, but I can’t do that, you understand?” Stolper said, crying quietly. “What will we do with our beautiful little building? And our Torah? We haven’t forced ourselves yet to make those decisions. But we know the inevitable is in sight.”

Beth Ahaba’s story is playing out across America, from the mining towns of upper New York state and Pennsylvania to rust-belt factory towns in Michigan and Illinois, sweeping across old Civil War communities like Vicksburg, Miss., and Jonesboro, Ark., and following the pioneer trail into Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

As local fortunes headed downward in these towns, so did their Jewish communities.

“It’s very often a function of changing demographics,” explained Rabbi Victor Appell of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). “The vast majority of these places had congregations that have grown smaller over the years.”

Rabbi Lawrence Jackofsky, director of URJ’s Southwest region, relates the story of Ardmore, Okla., a once-booming oil town that now has just two or three Jews left.

“The guy who was running services at the end told me, ‘I looked out one day, saw two Jews and 10 Catholics in the room, and said, it’s time to move on.'”

Some of these historic congregations were able to support rabbis and even cantors in their heyday.

Others like Beth Ahaba never could, but survived from the beginning on the strength of their lay leadership.

“A lot of dying congregations exist simply because they’ve always been there,” said Jay Weiner of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ).

The Reform and Conservative movements, which represent most of the country’s lay-led congregations, try to provide support through a variety of means, including student rabbis, visiting rabbis and lay leadership training courses.

Yvonne Youngberg, a fifth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, directs the school’s student-run rabbinical student placement service, which sends students to small Conservative congregations that ask for help. She said about half of the fourth- and fifth-year students have regular pulpits.

“Twice a month is the norm, but it’s increasingly common for students to split a pulpit,” she said.

Youngberg shares her gig in Watertown, N.Y., with a cantorial student, so each of them makes the six-hour drive just once a month.

“It’s better for our schedules, and the congregation gets to hear my services and her davening,” she said.

Many congregations are served by visiting rabbis from the movements’ regional offices.

In his 13 years with the USCJ, Rabbi David Blumenfeld visited more than 170 of the 200 smallest Conservative congregations. He’d show up on Friday, lead services, answer questions, advise them on fundraising and youth work, even coach members suffering burnout.

“In these congregations, you have a core of people who are always doing everything,” he said.

Blumenfeld focused on congregations in the most geographically remote areas. He’s given impromptu sermons in Yiddish to a congregation of Russian-speakers, and he’s mushed through snowstorms outside Reno, Nev.

Everywhere he went, Blumenfeld said, he saw ingenuity and spirit.

He asked one Texas congregation how they got a minyan every week. A member pointed to a nearby street lamp and said when they need another Jew on Fridays, he makes the light blink during the evening rush hour.

At one North Carolina synagogue, the lay leader showing him around couldn’t find his keys to the building.

“He told me, ‘Don’t worry I can get a key from any congregant,'” Blumenfeld recalled. “I said, ‘What, all 40 of them have keys to the synagogue?’ And he said, ‘Why not, it belongs to them.'”

The Conservative and Reform movements both run summer training programs to help lay leaders learn the basics of running a service, read Torah, teach Hebrew school, perform baby-namings, even conduct funerals.

“Everything except officiating at weddings,” said Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, director of worship, music and religious living for URJ.

Wasserman said about half of this year’s participants in the Reform movement’s synagogue associate course come from lay-led congregations. The others want to learn skills to help support their clergy.

One Texas congregation sends people every year, she said.

“They have a rabbi but can’t afford a second clergy, so they are building up their lay leadership,” she noted.

But it’s the lay-led congregations who really benefit, she said.

“It’s amazing the difference it makes in their congregational life,” she said.

Last year, Temple Kol Shalom, a Reform congregation with 47 families in Placerville, decided to send Dale Wallerstein, a chiropractor who had been acting as a cantorial soloist for years.

The temple had been hiring visiting rabbis and student rabbis. Finally, Wallerstein said, “we looked at continuity and consistency issues and the cost, and decided it would be good if I learned how to give dvar Torahs,” or interpretations of the Torah, “do funerals and provide pastoral care.”

After completing the two-year course, which meets for two weeks each summer, and attending a winter session on Jewish education, Wallerstein said she is “thrilled” with what she’s learned.

Even more than actual skills, she said the course has “given me confidence, which adds to my credibility,” and showed her “how to access areas I hadn’t know about, so I can direct our adult education to a different place.”

Blumenfeld, now retired from his visiting rabbi days, said larger congregations and their rabbis have a lot to learn from small, lay-led groups.

“Every rabbinic student should spend time in one of these congregations,” he said. “They have such heart.”


L.A.’s ‘Big’ Sunday

Between 35,000 and 40,000 people spent Sunday, May 15 at Woodley Park in Van Nuys for the annual Israel Independence Day festival.

The festival’s early afternoon main event featuring pro-Israel speeches and politicians lasted exactly one hour; on the last note of “The Star-Spangled Banner” skydivers appeared above. “The coincidence was amazing,” festival executive director Yoram Gutman said.

In the late afternoon, more than 7,000 people crowded the festival’s main stage to hear Israeli pop superstar Sarit Hadad. Fire marshals had difficulty clearing fans from the aisles.

About 256 vendors served up food, drink and ideology to a crowd free of violence, crime and medical problems, although one young girl fainted.

Also competing for the attention of Jewish Los Angeles was Big Sunday, a citywide Jewish volunteer project that grew out of Mitzvah Day at Temple Israel of Hollywood. More than 8,000 volunteers from 140 Jewish and non-Jewish institutions helped the blind, planted trees, cleaned up trash and painted kids’ faces.

Piles of plastic bags sat in a corner of Temple Israel’s parking garage, each filled with donated clothes. “We had mountains of bags and boxes of clothing,” said Jackie Simon, the general studies coordinator at the synagogue’s day school, who added that Westwood’s Sinai Temple also was a drop-off point for Big Sunday clothes.

Now in its seventh year, Big Sunday this year received a $25,000 donation from Toyota, plus clothing donated by the Indigo and Lucky Brand lines, Big Sunday chair David Levinson said.

Other shuls participating in Big Sunday included Temple Beth Am, Temple Beth Haverim, Beth Jacob Congregation, Beth Shir Sholom, B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Temple Isaiah, Congregation Kol Ami, Temple Knesset Israel of Hollywood, Leo Baeck Temple and Congregation Shaarei Tefila, plus The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, UCLA’s Hillel, KOREH L.A. and Shalhevet High School.


Destination: Strasbourg

It’s not every day a grown woman gets her cheeks pinched by another woman who’s tickled pink to see her eating, but then Yvonne Haller is no ordinary French restaurateur.

She’s one of the handful of honorary Jewish mothers — actually elegantly coifed and no doubt WASPy grande dames — who make the winstubs (wine bars) of Strasbourg so special; even heads of state gather to discuss business at their crowded trestle tables rather than somewhere more private.

Chez Yvonne has hosted European leaders, while members of the rock group, Radiohead, were equally unlikely guests at Le Clou, round the corner. These convivial hostelries and dozens like them provide a disarmingly homely counterpoint to the grave institutions that bring so many suits — politicians, lawyers and lobbyists — to the European city.

Perhaps the haimish ambiance is the result of Jewish influence — the community may have been decimated during the war, but Alsace has a phenomenally strong Jewish heritage reaching far beyond city limits. More than 200 historic sites document a shtetl system to rival Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the region was home to half of France’s Jews. All but a quarter were wiped out by the Nazis, but Strasbourg remains a Jewish haven thanks to an influx of Sephardim from North Africa who have been enthusiastically embraced by the remaining Ashkenazim.

The blood link makes a visit to one of the prettiest parts of France particularly resonant for the Jewish visitor, who will find antique synagogue furnishings of magnificent quality in Strasbourg’s exquisite Musee Alsacien. There are also a host of other museums, synagogues and other testaments to Jewish life across the region.

Strasbourg, which has a host of magnificent museums, houses medieval Jewish tombstones in its Musee de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame; there is also a third-century mikvah that can be visited, the inevitable Rue des Juifs and two restaurants specializing in Jewish Alsatian cuisine. Although the magnificent Gothic synagogue was destroyed by the Germans in 1940, many beautiful shuls (Moorish in Thann, neoclassical in Haguenau, neoromanesque in Struth) still stand in the countryside, notably the 1791 temple in Pfaffenhoffen with its matzah oven and superb painted ark.

Even without the Jewish sites and heritage tours on offer, Alsace would be a delight and Strasbourg its crown jewel. The most decorated city in France, where every wooden surface seems to be exquisitely carved, every piece of cloth embroidered, every wineglass etched and every piece of pottery hand-painted, the riot of ornament somehow comes across as far from sweet, more a celebration of life.

To get an overview, take immediately to the water; bateaux-mouches (river boats) await in front of the Palais Rohan, where a teenage Marie-Antoinette came to be married. You will float through the picturesque ancient quarter of La Petite France into the handsome harbor and upriver to see the breathtaking buildings that are Strasbourg’s modern raison d’etre — the elliptically elegant European Parliament and swirly, swaggering Court of Human Rights designed by Richard Rodgers.

Once off the boat, your first stop in the engrossing Old Town should be the world’s prettiest and most engaging cathedral. Reminiscent of a pink wedding cake on the outside, the interior boasts a magnificent 16th-century astronomical clock whose 12:30 p.m. performance is not to be missed. The clock portal outside the cathedral is remarkable, too, not the least because it is flanked on one side by a piece of ancient synagogue statuary. Around the cathedral lies a warren of streets rich in winstubs and fine shops. The best shop for regional products is the large emporium on the square where you disembark the bateaux-mouches, lying in wait for the discerning tourists with fine linens, painted cookware and the carved iron for which the region is also famous.

Strasbourg is rich in well-priced, comfortable hostelries like the Tulip Inn-Hannong, where elegant rooms range from $60 to $125 per night. In a smart shopping street only a five-minute stroll from the Old Town, it offers a quieter alternative to the Maison Kammerzell, a hotel-restaurant famous for its ornate medieval exterior, and other lodgings close to the cathedral.

Although there is enough in the city to command a dedicated weekend trip, it would be a shame to miss the riches of the surrounding region. Colmar is another handsome town packed with fine museums and Jewish heritage sites. The Musee Bartholdi, dedicated to the creator of the Statue of Liberty, contains a collection of artifacts and works amassed by the Historical and Contemporary Jewish Art Fund, but the town’s most justly famous museum is the Unterlinden, a former Dominican convent with 13th-century cloister, packed with fabulous mediaeval art and a famous altarpiece.

Like Strasbourg, a river runs through it, and it’s delightful to have lunch by the water during summer; head for the Tanners’ District and Little Venice. Although Colmar does have a luxurious riverside hotel, it is more pleasant yet to stay in one of the surrounding villages on Alsace’s delightful Route des Vins.

While picnics are a good reason to summer in Alsace’s rolling hills, December is when the region, famous for its Christmas markets, is at its most atmospheric and entrancing. Strasbourg’s festive lights are simply unforgettable.

By Journal Staff

Three Rabbis were talking over a regular Sunday morning breakfast get-together.

Rabbi Ginsberg said, “We have such a problem with mice at our shul. The shammos sets all kinds of baited traps but they keep coming back. Do either of you learned men know how I can get rid of these vermin?”

The second Rabbi Cohen replied, “We have the same problem at our synagogue. We’ve spent all kinds of gelt on exterminators, but the problem still persists. Any suggestions?”

The third Rabbi, Rabbi Slosberg, looked at Rabbi Ginsberg and Rabbi Cohen, and told the following story:

“Rabbis, we had the same problem with mice at our synagogue. We tried traps, exterminators, even prayers; but nothing worked. Then one Shabbat, I went to the synagogue about an hour before services started. I brought a big wheel of yellow cheese and placed it in the center of the bimah. Well, soon hundreds of mice appeared on the bima and headed for the cheese. While they were feasting on the cheese, I Bar Mitzvah’ed all of them. I’ve never seen any of them in shul again.”