Life & Culture

The Jewish women who just can't stop gambling

It starts with bingo, but then the debts grow. Why are so many Jewish women seeking help for their online betting habits?


Gambling. Poker chips, cards and the dice nearby tablet on white wooden table. Top view. Copyspace. Poker. Summer. Sun flare

M iriam* grew up in a typical Charedi household in north London. As she became a teenager she began to resent the control of her parents, the restrictive dress codes and the insular society.

She had a job and although she was allowed to keep some money, most was handed to her parents. She began playing online bingo secretly using all her weekly allowance.

When a match was made for her to marry when she was 18, she saw it as a possible means of escape.

For a while after her marriage, she stopped gambling but began again after she had two children and started to feel trapped in the very environment she wanted to escape from.

She could feel herself losing control of her life as her gambling was spiralling out of control. Money she had been allocated for housekeeping was now being used for gambling.

Amanda* lives in an affluent, predominantly Jewish area of Leeds. She didn’t come from wealthy background but married a well-off man. Lacking in confidence she finds it hard to mix with the other women in the area.

She started playing online bingo three years ago. Sometimes she spends hundreds of pounds. One time she spent £3,000 in one morning.

To explain the money spent, she told her husband she’d bought an outfit for their son’s bar mitzvah in six months’ time. “I want to stop and sometimes I can go a whole week without going online but then something happens, or I get nervous about going to, say, a coffee morning or something and I start again.”

Gambling is often thought of as a male pastime — and a male problem. But at least 30 per cent of callers to the National Gambling Helpline are women.

In recent years, an increasing number of these women have come from strong cultural ethnic backgrounds, including Judaism.

Miriam sought help from GAMCARE, which provides information, advice and support for anyone affected by gambling harms.

She was referred for treatment and she hasn’t gambled for the past year.Sonia Rossington is a treatment practitioner for GAM. People who call the helpline can be referred on to the team of treatment practitioners and given the options that are available for treatment.

She says women are likely to come forward more quickly than men if they believe they have a problem.

“The definition of gambling harm is you spend more than you can afford on whatever method. Males tend to say, ‘I can handle myself, I can control it and myself.’ It’s only when they know they can’t pay their bills and need to find some alternative, that they turn to us for help. Or are pushed by their families to.

“Women are quicker to realise they have a problem. Women are much more intuitively understanding of a situation.”

Susan Garcia created AddAnon, a group for Jewish people affected by addiction, 30 years ago as part of Jewish Care and it’s now under the umbrella of JAMI, the Jewish mental health charity.

“We didn’t classify it because the effects of an addiction are exactly the same whatever the addiction is,” she says. “Why do we have a Jewish group? Why the need? The thing about Jewish groups, it’s about community and culture, and people feel more at home when they are talking to someone of the same faith. There is something about the connection and spirituality.

“Our groups aren’t massive because you have to be brave to actually come to a group. I have a nucleus of about 30 people on my books and sometimes we have eight or ten attending meetings.We do Zoom as well once a month.”

All shades of religious observance are represented. “Halachically gambling is not allowed, we are meant to do opposite, tzedakah,” says Garcia, “but I do get religious people. They are trapped in a community and have to have some escape but only if there is a flaw in that relationship.

“Anyone who is an addict doesn’t broadcast it, especially gamblers. The main thing with an addict is they are compulsive liars. When they become liars, you lose trust with somebody, then there is a breakdown in relationships.”

Film-maker Daphna Attias, who was born in Israel but moved to the UK as a student, recently produced an award-winning online interactive film, Odds On, about women and gambling.

The powerful film focuses on Felicity, a retired GP, who looks after her grandson and is also trying to raise funds for her daughter to have IVF treatment.

The film portrays Felicity’s obsessional and downward spiral into online gambling, resulting in her not only losing all the money saved for the treatment but also putting her grandson’s life in danger.

Attias and her team built the character of Felicity with an advisory group that included former gamblers.

“What surprised me was the profile of a gambler in general, you assume it’s a type but it’s not,” she says.

“Actually, mostly it’s very capable women who juggle a lot and that’s why we chose Felicity, a retired GP with a family, a fully functioning woman.

“It’s something about online gambling and that industry that targets women especially, women of a certain age.” She points out that the best grossing day in the year for the gambling industry is Valentine’s Day — “for obvious reasons -- disappointed women. It’s really cynical and sad but a lot of women feel lost.” says Attias.

“We met with a group of people who were gamblers to check we were doing things right. But one person said Odds On wasn’t hard-hitting enough. One woman said she once left her son in the car for five hours because she was gambling and forgot about him.”

The psychiatrist Professor Henrietta Bowden-Jones was appointed as the government’s National Clinical Advisor on Gambling Harms last year and was one of Daphna Attias’s advisers on Odds On. She opened the first NHS clinic for problem gamblers in 2008.

“Then 20 per cent of our patients were gambling online. Everyone else was going to bookmakers, queuing up at lunchtime.

"Only one per cent of our patients were women then. The 2005 Gambling Act implemented in 2007 led to some of the regulations we now have, like the relaxation of advertising.

"That coupled with the amazing technological and unpredictable transformation of everyone having a mobile phone in their pockets, and these phones allowing people to gamble.

“Gradually over the last 15 years we’ve seen a very slow change in the presentation of the patients. Twenty per cent of people we see are now women. That’s not scientific, that’s an observation of our numbers.

"But remember a lot of this is because we’ve opened more clinics and more people are showing up.”

She adds: “If you make something cheap, available, advertise it everywhere, then you are going to get people using it. That’s why the gambling industry makes so much money. Then there is the evolution of the cashless society.

"If you used to, say, tell your hubby, you were going out to the shop, but were actually going to the bookies and placing a bet, there was a limit to how much damage you can do.

"But now, with smartphones and iPads you can be sitting across the dining table from your family and be gambling and they will never know. I had one 19-year-old who spent £150,000 in one-night gambling online, using his parents’ cards.”

She describes the trajectory of a gambler: “You use up your own money, then you borrow, then you end up in debt, you end up with payday loans. Then people lose homes, cars. They move home to escape debt collectors. We’ve seen the poor children of gamblers, feeling anxious and afraid and getting bullied in new places.”

The scale of the problem was illustrated last month when bookmakers William Hill was fined a record £19.2 million by the Gambling Commission — but escaped having its licence suspended by the industry regulator.

The fine was imposed for social responsibility and anti-money laundering (AML) failures described as “widespread and alarming” by the commission’s chief executive Andrew Rhodes.

Among the examples of bad practice cited by the Gambling Commission were customers being able to open accounts and spend £23,000 in 20 minutes, £18,000 in 24 hours, and £32,500 over two days respectively, all without checks being made.

A much-delayed government White Paper on gambling is expected to tighten regulation of the £14.1 billion industry.

It’s not just financial problems that result from gambling addiction. Professor Bowden-Jones says: “People lose everything, they become isolated, become anxious and depressed.

"They can get suicidal. And some do take their lives. Work is going on now to see how we can prevent suicide. Money represents safety and once you lose safety, then you are at the mercy of everything else.”

* These names have been changed.
To watch Odds On, go to For help, goto or

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive