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Newsworthy Notes

From the Houston Chronicle, February 7, 2021

Bingo helps Houston synagogue connect during COVID

By Lindsay Peyton



You don't have to drive to a bingo hall or pay to play. All it takes to join Congregation Shaar Hashalom on family bingo night is opening a computer and joining Zoom. Friendswood resident Sandy Ostrosky, adult-education trustee, organizes the monthly bingo games for the synagogue in Houston's Bay Area.

Members interested in playing email her beforehand — and she responds with a link and two bingo cards per person. Players print them up and mark each number called with whatever is handy, usually M&Ms, beans or pennies. When members don't have a printer, Ostrosky delivers cards to congregants' homes. She also makes the drive to drop off prizes when the games conclude.

Decades ago, Congregation Shaar Hashalom offered a community wide bingo night on Saturdays. But when the new temple was constructed, the games came to an end.

Until now. 

Despite COVID-19, the congregation has found a way to gather — virtually — and play a game together.

"Because of the pandemic, we were thinking of ways we could still connect with our members," Ostrosky said.

The inspiration for a bingo night came from Ostrosky's ladies birthday lunch group. There are 12 members, including a few from Shaar Hashalom like Friendswood resident Ida Diamond. Diamond, who joined the congregation in the 1980s, said that before the pandemic, the group met in person.

"1n better times, we'd go out to lunch and see each other," she said. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, they switched to Zoom.

"After a while, people don't have anything to talk about," Ostrosky explained. "No one had been anywhere or done anything new." Diamond decided to try something to take the pressure off of finding topics for conversation. "1 thought, let's ratchet it up and add something fun," she recalled. Diamond had attended a virtual bachelorette party for her daughter, and everyone played Zoom bingo.

"1 changed it a little and didn't do it exactly the same way as my daughter," she said. The bingo was a success at the birthday group.

"We were laughing and just having fun," Ostrosky said. The two women decided to bring bingo to their congregation. The synagogue's first game was in November. Diamond calls the numbers from her house. She has an old child's bingo game with all of the numbers printed on plastic chips. 

"Right before every game, I make sure I have all the numbers," she said. "Then I put them in a can or bowl. I stick my hand in and pull one out. It's random." Ostrosky, from her own home, adds each number to Zoom's chat feature, so no one misses a move. She also announces the prizes before each match.

"The prizes get better as the bingo gets harder," Ostrosky said.

There are usually about 10 games per evening, beginning at 6:45 p.m., one Saturday evening a month. The first time, Diamond said 46 people registered.

"I think people came to it with a little skepticism," she recalled. It didn't take long, though, for the game to catch on.

"Our numbers doubled the next month," Ostrosky said. "Everybody loves bingo. It really keeps us connected". Children play alongside elderly congregation members.

"It's all ages," Ostrosky said.

While Congregation Shaar Hashalom has delivered services virtually since the beginning of the pandemic, the synagogue has remained active.

"We're not shut down — we're just shut down in person," she said. Holidays moved to Zoom, as did all services and Sunday school. Bar and bat mitzvahs have been celebrated online, as well as each night of Hanukkah.

"We’ve mixed up the ways were interacting," said the congregation's president, David Hirsch. "We are using technology, but we're still adding a personal touch."

That's important lately, he explained. Sometimes digital substitutes for physical gatherings can feel cold or superficial. Congregation Shaar Hashalom has spent extra effort to ensure that never happens, Hirsch added. Bingo is an example of an entertaining way the congregation stays connected.

"We wanted to have opportunities to just have fun together," he said. "Plus, we get all kinds of people who will come to bingo but who might not come to Shabbat services." His children Jacob, 16, and Sophia, 13, played in the last bingo game.

"This is a terrific program," Hirsch said. "It's a time to shake off some cobwebs and just laugh. There's nothing like a little laughter." Finding a place for joy during the trying times of the pandemic is part of Ostrosky's mission.

"We want to keep people involved, so they can see each other and have fun while we're all in our houses," she said. "1 get emails from people who say they had so much fun - and ask when's the next one?" 

Clear Lake residents Bill and Diane Rothschild played on the past two nights of family bingo.

"My wife has managed to win two months in a row," Bill Rothschild said with a smile. The couple never played bingo before, but now they look forward to each event.

"We miss interacting with people so much," Bill Rothschild said.

"it’s just a wonderful way to be together," Diane Rothschild added. "And during these times, that's something you'll never forget."

Alexa and Scott Hurwitz, who live in Friendswood, are regulars at the games.

"You would be surprised by how much fun Zoom bingo can be," Alexa said. "The congregation has been amazing. They're keeping people connected." The couple's sons — 10-year-old Caleb and 8-year-old Jacob — also get in on the amusement.

"It was really fun playing with other families because we don't get to go out during quarantine," said Jacob, who also recommended other children at the synagogue join "so they could have fun too."

Alexa Hurwitz said virtual social events, holiday celebrations and services allow elderly members to attend, as well as busy families.

"It might change how we go forward when we can go back," she said. "We're grateful that we have a congregation that cares and doesn't forget about each other." Hurwitz is also thankful that the congregation found a way to continue its programs — and even add more — during the pandemic.

"It keeps my kids connected to Judaism and connected to tradition," she said. And when she watches her sons play bingo against some of the 80-year-old members, Hurwitz can't help but think that Congregation Shaar Hashalom did so much more than persevere during this challenging year.

"The synagogue has gotten even closer in some ways," she said.


Lindsay Peyton is a Houston-based freelance writer.

Sat, April 20 2024 12 Nisan 5784