It is 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the doors of Beth El Congregation’s social hall open wide to a crowd of more than 100 people pouring in, each person claiming his or her spot at one of the many re-purposed banquet tables arranged in long rows and filling the room.
By 7 o’clock, most have procured plates of food — spaghetti is on the menu this particular evening — set out their gaming tools and arranged their trinkets and talismans for good luck. Finally, a Beth El volunteer takes the stage and after a bit of patter, calls out, “O-64.”
Men and women seated throughout the room resolutely take their colored daubers and stamp the cards spread out before them on which the called number appears. They are all looking forward to a night of fun, some good food and, if fortune is on their side, hoping to take home a bit of cash as well.
Welcome to Beth El Bingo, a decades old tradition at this South Hills synagogue, and one of the congregation’s most dependable and lucrative fundraisers.
“We’re operating a big business here,” Feuer said. Each week, the game takes in about $2,500, with expenses claiming about a third of that amount. The congregation clears about $50,000 every year from bingo, according to Goldberg.
“This is money coming in from outside the synagogue,” Feuer is quick to note. “Currently, there’s not one Beth El member who is playing. So, the important thing is, we are not asking members for money. That’s what’s nice about it.”
The evening includes 16 regular rounds of bingo, with winners splitting a $100 pot, and two games where the prize is $150. There are also special games featured, like the popular Queen of Hearts, a lottery-type game where the prize money builds each week there is no winner. Last year’s winner walked away with a pot that had accumulated to $24,000, according to Feuer.
Bingo has been a popular American pastime since at least the 1930s, when various social halls, churches and synagogues began hosting weekly games. But in the last two decades, many of the games have shut down, some from lack of volunteers and others due to disapproval from religious leaders because of the game’s gambling stigma. In Beth El’s long history, only one rabbi — Ken Stern, who served from 1990 to 1996 — “wasn’t thrilled with it,” Feuer said. “But he didn’t stop it.”
Currently, Beth El is the only synagogue in the Greater Pittsburgh area that sponsors a weekly bingo game.
“For some players, it’s their only exposure to Judaism,” Feuer explained.
Carol Sedora, of Canonsburg, “loves to play bingo.” She began playing when she was 18, and now, at 60, makes it a point to play twice a week, once at the Heidelberg Fire Hall and on Tuesday nights at Beth El, where she works her 36 cards.
She enjoys coming to Beth El, she said, “because the people are so friendly here, and the money goes to a good cause.” Sometimes she brings friends along, but she is also content to play solo because of the congenial atmosphere.
“Everybody knows everybody’s name here,” Sedora said. “This is an evening’s entertainment. I don’t have kids, and my husband bowls on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so I like to try to get out of the house.”
Lots of other bingo games are closing, Sedora said, pointing to the lack of volunteers. “But this place still has volunteers,” she said.
One of those volunteers is Warren Sufrin, who has been working the games every other week for almost 35 years.
“I know what this does for the congregation in terms of underwriting our operating costs,” said Sufrin. “I usually have the time, so why wouldn’t I volunteer?” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.