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Is Mah Jongg the Newest Summer Camp Craze?

Is Mah Jongg the Newest Summer Camp Craze?

Campers learning to play mah jongg

In my family, we celebrate nearly every holiday and get-together with a few games of mah jongg, in which family members of all ages – from 25 to 95 – gather around the table to arrange and rearrange the smooth, cool tiles into winning hands…or not!

I learned to play when I was little by sitting on a stool and watching as my mom played in her weekly games on Monday nights. My wife, Jennifer, learned, too, – at some point between our first date and our wedding.

For years, my mom, Susan, has been on a mission to teach mah jongg at URJ Greene Family Camp, the Reform Jewish summer camp my brother and I attended. This year it finally happened. She’d enlisted a friend, Susie Aronstein, to help her, and the two of them were at camp at the same time Jennifer and I were visiting. Four was the perfect number for teaching (and playing!).

We set up the racks and tiles at tables in the chadar ochel (dining room), unsure of how many campers might show up to play during their Thursday night chufsha or free time. In the worst-case scenario, we reasoned, the four of us would play by ourselves.

Although we didn’t have any campers during the first chufsah block, as some campers came in to pick up their bedtime meds, a few peeked over at the four of us as we dealt and sorted the tiles and started to play. “Is that mah jongg?” one asked. Another chimed in with “Oh, I know how to play.”

Once the campers headed off to bed, staff members came in and did the same. “Oh, I’ve always seen my grandma play. She would be so excited!” A few took over our spots and started to learn to play, asking us to confirm they had gotten the names of some of the trickier tiles right. “Is that a “flower” or a “one bam?” “What suit goes with the red dragon?” “Which wind is this?”

By Friday, it was a movement.

When the announcements at Friday’s night staff meeting included “Jewish ‘Mom-Jongg’ with Susan Hertz in the staff lounge,” cheers erupted.

Before long, the lounge was filled with mah jongg players, but these were not your mother’s or grandmother’s cohorts, munching fruit and gossiping about families and the news. These college-aged young people were eating Whataburger taquitos and honey butter chicken biscuits, cheering when they picked jokers, and jumping out of their chairs to proudly present their winning tile combinations. Playing went on into the wee hours of the morning, ending just before the staff’s Shabbat curfew.

On Saturday, campers and counselors were again at the mah jongg tables during their free time. Some had played before and were excited for an opportunity to play at camp – and others came in to learn. Nearly all the campers who were newbies picked up the game quickly, perhaps because of the possibility of beating some of their counselors! The counselors and other staff were excited to learn that the sets they were using had been purchased by camp and would stay behind even after we left. Some vowed to try and play every night until the end of the summer.

Whether it's belaying on the ropes course, making lanyards, or learning to love macaroni and cheese, camp is all about trying new things – especially things you’ve seen or watched others do, but weren’t sure about doing yourself.

Jennifer and I are back home now, hopeful that just as we learned to play mah jongg by watching my mom, aunts, and grandmother play, more GFC campers and staff members will learn to play by watching those who already know the game and are willing to teach others.

Was this a one-time craze for a few nights while we were at camp or will there be demand for a mah jongg haggigah (activity block) next summer?

I think we’ll have to wait and see which way the winds blow.

Brian Hertz is a nine-summer alumnus of URJ Greene Family Camp, having been both a camper and a staff member, and continues to visit each summer. He is a sustainability consultant for Waste Management, Inc. and dreams of starting a Young Adult Mah Jongg League in Houston, TX, where he lives with his wife Jennifer, whom he met at camp, and their 4-year old Goldendoodle, Penny.

Brian Hertz
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