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How Playing Mahjong Made a Difference

Mahjong Mahjong fundraiser for the Israel Defense Forces

In the autumn of 2019 I finally learned how to really play Mahjong. I say "really" play because I have played Mahjong from time to time while visiting friends in the United States, but I had never learned all the rules of the game or the strategy. I'd play once or twice during a visit, and I've won some pretty tricky hands. I even have my mother's old Mahjong set with orange Bakelite tiles. So, when the opportunity arose to join a group where I live in Haifa, to learn to play, I jumped at the chance.

Shortly after the lessons ended, and our group played a few times, I went off to England to help one of my daughters following the birth of her first child. When I returned to Israel in February 2020, the Covid 19 Pandemic arose and squashed any opportunities to play Mahjong in person for many months. Some of us played online versions against "Bots" or with friends in online games. When the world opened up again, we resumed our weekly Mahjong meetings.

In 2022, when the new ESRA Haifa Committee was formed, my Mahjong teacher and Haifa Mahjong Maven, Laurie Rubin, joined the committee and announced she wanted to create the ESRA Haifa Mahjong Club. We advertised our meeting day and time to all the Mahjong Players Laurie knew, most of whom she had taught, and started playing weekly in the social hall of my apartment complex or in members' homes. Most weeks we had two tables/two games playing simultaneously and if both games ended at the same time, we could switch seats.

Following the October 7th massacre, no one felt like playing for about a month. Along with the rest of the country, we were in shock and it didn't feel right to be having fun. In fact, most of the ESRA activities stopped for several weeks. Suddenly, ESRA Haifa found a new place to meet at The Golda Meir Mashav-Carmel International Training Center at a time when their programs halted due to the war and our previous meeting places were unavailable to us.

Since November, ESRA Haifa has been meeting several times a week, for our Meet and Greet Coffee Mornings, Mahjong, Scrabble and other events, in this beautiful, welcoming oasis in the Carmel Center area of Haifa. Our weekly Mahjong Games resumed and membership and attendance grew. Most weeks we have three tables/games playing simultaneously. Our Club also hosted a fundraiser for the IDF joined by Mahjong players from Zichron Yaakov, Habonim and Atlit.

Here's what some of our members have said: Lynne: "The Mahjong Club gives people the opportunity to enjoy each other's company playing a game which combines fun, luck and some strategic thinking." Marcia, "It's a clever game, Mahjong. Brain Teaser. All levels can play." Laurie: "The Club atmosphere is so warm and friendly. We have fun and it's nice playing with different players every week. May it continue to evolve." Shelly: "Especially in these trying times, our Mahjong meetings are something to look forward to."

One of our members shared an article outlining five unexpected health benefits of Mahjong and how playing Mahjong helps train the brain.

  • Keeps dementia at bay
  • Decreases possibility of depression
  • Improves hand-eye coordination
  • Trains concentration and pattern recognition
  • Helps benefit short-term memory

Although playing Mahjong can bring about some health benefits, most importantly it's about having fun. And these days, playing Mahjong for 2-3 hours, helps us forget whatever bad news we woke up to. We think about playing Mahjong, kibbitz a bit, laugh a bit and go home feeling good.

Many of us have said that Mahjong has changed our lives in many positive ways, expanding our friendships and providing enjoyable social opportunities and mental stimulation. I know it certainly has for me. In mid-November, I received an email from the ESRA Head Office which said that a business woman in Vancouver, Canada, Lesley B. Morris, would like to donate Mahjong sets with the aim of teaching and playing with people who were evacuated from the North and South of Israel. I quickly replied that we would love the opportunity to do this. A few weeks later we heard that the Mahjong sets would arrive during the week of Chanukah, brought to us by rabbis from Vancouver coming to Israel on a solidarity mission.

As soon as I heard about the sets arriving in Israel, I visited several of the hotels in Haifa where there were individuals and families evacuated from cities and towns in the North of Israel and along the Northern and Southern/Gaza borders. I met with some of the residents and also with the designated organizers of the hotels who arrange activities and act as liaisons representing the displaced residents. I explained that I wanted to teach and play Mahjong with the residents and I would bring the games and other Mahjong volunteers to help me. We arranged a day and time at two different hotels and I put out a request for volunteers to help me teach and play Mahjong. About a dozen members of the Mahjong Club formed the volunteer bank to help out at the two sessions.

At our first session at the Dan Panorama Hotel, there were five participants from the northern border town of Shlomi and two games simultaneously with teaching mainly in Hebrew. At the next session at the Dan Carmel Hotel, we had four participants from Kibbutz Dan near the Lebanon border. Life for the Israelis who have been evacuated is stressful and playing Mahjong helps take their minds off some of their worries for an hour or two. Each time the Mahjong volunteers arrive, we bring a few sets and just see who turns up. If no one turns up, we play a game or two among ourselves and for that hour or so, our minds are freed from the dire news we work up to that day.

After several weeks, as word spreads, we now have our regular players and newcomers join. Teaching and conversation are in a mix of Hebrew and English, sometimes it's 'three dot' and sometimes it's 'shalosh nekudot'. Some of the evacuees have started playing twice a week, at both hotels, and can explain the rules and strategy to newcomers. They are so pleased, as we all are, when they win, i.e. get "Mahjong".

One thing that has come out of this that we did not expect, is the stories shared between the evacuees and the volunteers. They told us some of their family stories and formed a bond with some of the volunteers. And for the volunteer Mahjong players, it has become an extremely worthwhile endeavor and Mahjong has brought it all together. The volunteers themselves have felt great personal satisfaction and joy in spreading the love of Mahjong, meeting new people, making new friendships and feeling a great sense of purpose.

Quotes from our volunteers:

Laurie says, "I love being part of this project. It's a win-win situation. I love meeting new people and sharing my love of Mahjong and the participants get a much-needed fun distraction during these difficult days."

Cynthia's quest to be of service after the war broke out lead her to two opportunities. She joined Novitzky Art Therapy Emergency hotline for those that need immediate assistance. She said, "As much as this was great, I didn't feel that I was being of service enough and wanted to do more. Suddenly, the opportunity to bring a bit of 'sunshine' by assisting in teaching Mahjong to those that have been evacuated to the hotels fell into my lap. I am so grateful for this chance. To see the smiles, hear the laughter, to share in their stories and their moments that they can 'escape' for a couple of hours, is very humbling.

Slowly, our group of Mahjong players has grown. Percha, an evacuee from Shlomi now living at the Dan Panorama Hotel, said she loves this new game and the new friends she has made. It has made her feel happy and she looks forward to playing Mahjong with us. Michal from Kibbutz Dan, now living at the Dan Carmel Hotel, has enjoyed the opportunity to speak in English with the volunteers. She understands Mahjong so well now, that she explains to the newer players how to forget other games like Remmy (Rummy Cube) and focus on the winning lines on the Mahjong Card. Bruria from Kiryat Shmona has found Mahjong very interesting and a little hard at first. Every time she plays, she learns more and really enjoys playing with us. Bruria said her grandchildren asked her what does she do all day and what keeps her busy? She told them, "These good volunteers come every week to play Mahjong and spend time with me."

Jews all over the world feel connected to Israel in some way and the trauma of what befell our homeland has had an impact on us in different ways. Many people want to do something to help those who have experienced this first hand. For Lesley B. Morris, personal tragedy and how Mahjong played a major part in helping her during her darkest days, ignited her desire to take action

Here is Lesley's story:

"Thank you so much for all your wonderful updates and giving me an opportunity to share a little about myself and how it came to be that I donated Mahjong sets. I must tell you how moved I am that a simple gesture from one has made such a difference in the lives of many. Just knowing that gathering together over a game of Mahjong has filled me with some semblance of normalcy.

"I have thought very hard about sharing my story as not wanting to take away from the pain and trauma of Israel and her people, my people.

"My love for Israel is unwavering. I have had the good fortune of spending time travelling the country many, many times visiting old friends, meeting new friends and just absorbing and processing the beauty, history, complexities.

"October 7, 2023 ignited a deep pain, trauma and fear that is too horrific to fathom on Israeli soil and globally for those of us connected to Israel. It reignited a trauma event for me much closer to home with a family member, my son.

"On October 3rd, 2016, the first day of Rosh Hashanah my son was stabbed, thrown away and left to die. It was months before we knew if he would live. With medical intervention, much praying and Hashem watching over our family, my son is here with us today.

"During his painful and difficult journey of which we are still on, friends lifted me by encouraging me to continue playing with my Mahjong group. I was assured I didn't have to speak, discuss family matters, my son, anything. 'Just come,' they would say. 'Let us be with you,' they would say. 'Get lost in the game you love, let the friendship of mahjong and those that surround you give you small pieces of your life back if only for a moment.'

"A few years later I decided to spread the gift of joy by starting a Mahjong business here in Vancouver. I have had the pleasure of seeing the sparkle of the tiles and hearing the clacking at many Mahjong tournaments or peoples' homes.

"This always brings a smile to my face.

"October 7th happened and I sprang into action. I knew my husband and I were going to help in all ways possible. But I needed to help in the most personal way. I wanted to send my love, peace, bundles of hugs, healing and friendship directly to those who had been evacuated, affected, left to find homes. For those who stood up and carried on with pain and trauma.

"My hope was to bring people together over a game of Mahjong, a piece of cake or komish broit and feel safe if only for a moment.

"Moments of healing sewn together moving us forward to something better."

Thank you, Lesley Morris, for your generous donation of the beautiful Mahjong sets and to all the Haifa Mahjong players and volunteers for sharing your love of the game. May the year of the Dragon bring you good health, good fortune and peace to all.

Learning to play Mahjong at the Dan hotels in Haifa

For information on ESRA Mahjong Clubs in Haifa contact Laurie 054 580 8023 and in Beer Sheva contact Lesley 052 460 7199 

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Thursday, 25 July 2024

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