The world’s largest Scrabble club meets every Tuesday night and is ‘more like a big family,’ says one player.
By June Barsky
April 1983 was a busy month: The Space Shuttle Challenger made its first voyage, the Tokyo Disneyland opened, 63 people were killed when the US Embassy in Beirut was bombed, the failure of fuel rods at the Kursk Nuclear Power Plant in Russia caused the reactor to shut down, and Soviet Union leader Yuri Andropov invited a US schoolgirl to visit him after he read her letter expressing fears about nuclear war.
But while these episodes were playing out on a world stage, another — quieter — event was unfolding in Israel.
In April of that year, the Jerusalem Scrabble Club was born. And, while more grandiose events flared, grabbed headlines and cooled down, the Jerusalem Scrabble Club is still going strong and planning its 30th anniversary.
“We claim the title as the largest Scrabble club in the world,” says Roger Friedland, a club member since 1997 and its current director.
Between 50 and 60 regulars play each Tuesday night at the Beit Ha’Am Municipal Library, and since the game is a worldwide phenomenon with a thousand clubs, millions of players and international tournaments around the globe, being the largest is no mean feat.
“Over the years, no one has ever come forward to dispute our claim,” Friedland says.
In tribute to a ‘Scrabble addict’
The club is officially known as the Sam Orbaum Jerusalem Scrabble Club, named in memory of its founder, then a young immigrant from Canada who was studying hotel management at the Tadmor School in coastal Herzliya.
He and Sara Schacter — still an avid player at age 97 — were the force behind establishing the club, which found its first home at the Windmill Hotel in the neighborhood of Talbieh.
Sara Schacter, 97, club co-founder
“Scrabble is my baby,” Schacter says during a break after a game in which she scored 358 points. A social Scrabbler in her youth, when she moved to Jerusalem from London in 1983 she looked to join a Scrabble club as a way to make new friends, only to discover that no such club existed in the capital city. Then she saw an ad in the Jerusalem Post announcing a country-wide Scrabble tournament in Tiberias and decided to attend. Orbaum was its organizer and their meeting was fate.
“I asked him if he thought there was enough interest to establish a Scrabble club in Jerusalem, and he suggested I put a notice up on the tournament bulletin board and see. I did, and 16 people responded,” Schacter recalls.
Orbaum agreed to inaugurate the club, and under his leadership it grew and flourished.
Orbaum, a Scrabble addict, won the club title many times and, after winning the National Scrabble Championships in 1995, represented Israel in the World Championships that year in London.
“He was very gifted,” Schacter agrees, remembering how, when the club took off, Orbaum quit his studies at Tadmor and went to work as an advertising copywriter at the Jerusalem Post so he could be close by.
“He worked his way up to writer, then editor and finally a columnist,” she recalls. He also published four books, including But Seriously, comprised of selections from his long-running humor column by the same name, and Eskimos of Jerusalem (And Other Extraordinary Israelis), a collection of articles from his “Not Page One” column.
More than just a club
Orbaum died of cancer in December 2002 at the age of 46, but his spirit still infuses the group.
“We’re more than a Scrabble club. We’re like a big family,” says Wendy Elliman, a regular player who married Orbaum in 1989 and gave birth to identical girl triplets a year-and-a-half later. “People here really care about one another and often get together outside the club.”
It’s an aspect that Sam fostered, Friedland notes. “He wanted the club to be a place where people of all skill levels could come and enjoy themselves and be supportive. For him, it wasn’t only about being competitive.”
A typical game board at the Jerusalem Scrabble Club
On April 11, the group will mark its pearl anniversary with a gala dinner to which past and present club members are invited. Following the dinner, a “fancy cake and champagne” evening is planned at the Beit Ha’am Municipal Library and, following that, a “Scrabble food evening” at which foods that make unusual Scrabble words will be featured.
Orbaum would have been pleased but no doubt perplexed. “Every week I wonder why people still keep coming. I wonder if there’s a future for this, then I get 65 people,” he once told a reporter.
Why do they come? Just ask Sara Schacter.
“The Scrabble club changed my life. Through it I made all my friends. It’s been a wonderful experience.”