| Magazine Feature |

Ahead of the Game

 Eliezer Ginsberg’s life hasn’t been all fun and games, but he’s found the winning strategy to put a smile on sick kids’ faces

Photos Naftoli Goldgrab


hen my two-year-old son Ezra fractured his femur this past spring, he became well-known around our Clifton, New Jersey, neighborhood as the little guy with the T-shirt, diaper, and cast on his leg. One day at the park, a neighbor offered to cheer him up by gifting him a stuffed animal.

“My husband and I collect them,” Lesli Ginsberg casually explained.

I was expecting a small teddy, but when she emerged from her house, she was holding a giant aquamarine puppy. It was bigger than Ezra! His eyes widened and he hugged it instantly. Ezra gave his new friend permanent residence on our couch, and in the midst of the madness of being confined in a cast for four weeks, his fluffy new friend gave Ezra comfort.

Later, I learned that Lesli’s husband Eliezer actually won the stuffed puppy. While he spends his days as a controller at New York-based Centers Healthcare overseeing facilities’ finances, in his off-time, he’s a boardwalk game maven. Eliezer estimates that over the last few years he’s won more than 150 basketballs and the same number of plush toys. As he’s accumulated more prizes, Eliezer has transformed his talent for arcade games into a one-man chesed initiative, distributing the prizes to children who might benefit from them.

“The games gave me something to look forward to, something I’m good at.” Eliezer channeled that skill into making other kids happy

Holding Court

Eliezer is a mainstay at arcades like Dave & Buster’s, amusement parks like Six Flags and Hershey Park, and the Point Pleasant Boardwalk in New Jersey. Whenever he goes, he comes equipped with garbage bags to schlep home his prizes (though he’ll give away a stuffed animal on the spot to a kid who looks like he could use a boost).

During the summer, the Ginsbergs visit the boardwalk several times a month, and Eliezer plays whenever they go. Come wintertime, boardwalks close, so Eliezer hits up the Dave & Buster’s in nearby Wayne every other month or so. Each visit yields three or four prizes, but Eliezer and Lesli don’t have the space for them all, so most of his winnings — between 30 and 40 stuffed animals and more than 100 basketballs — join the collection stored in his parents’ basement in Toms River, and he brings them home as needed.

Distribution for the stuffed animal gemach, which launched unofficially about six or seven years ago, is by word of mouth. When Eliezer hears about a struggling child, he’ll arrange to deliver a toy. Occasionally Lesli, a first-grade teacher at YBH elementary school in Passaic, will go, sometimes with their three children: seven-year-old Esther, six-year-old Chayala, and three-year-old Moishy.

It’s hard for Eliezer to pinpoint when it all began, but he remembers that years ago, he bumped into a few Camp HASC kids in Hershey Park. A girl in a wheelchair was having a tantrum, so Eliezer handed her the big bear he had just won. While it didn’t solve the issue, it did give the girl something soothing to hold as she calmed down.

This incident sparked an idea: He had so many stuffed animals, and kids who were struggling could enjoy them. The idea percolated, and slowly but surely, Eliezer started giving his winnings away: To the hospitalized child mentioned by a coworker, to a local girl who became paralyzed from the waist down, his rabbi’s son who broke his leg, a student in Lesli’s school who was badly burned by the hot contents of a thermos that spilled on her on the school bus, the siblings of a coworker who tragically lost a son, and more.

“There’s nothing I can really do to make it better, but it feels good to give the kids something — even something small — to look forward to,” Eliezer explains.

While he focuses on Jewish kids, Ginsberg has also offered prizes to disabled or suffering non-Jewish children he meets at the park or the arcade.

The games, like the operation of the stuffed animal gemach, have become a family affair. On a trip to California’s Santa Monica Pier, his daughter Chayala took a shot at the ring toss. While Eliezer never spends money on that game alone, because it is virtually impossible to win, sometimes it comes as part of a playing bundle. No one was really paying attention to Chayala except for Eliezer’s mother-in-law, who suddenly shouted, “She got it!” Much to Eliezer and Lesli’s surprise, Chayala won a giant flamingo.

“It was so big, we couldn’t bring it back,” Eliezer says. “My in-laws may drive across the country and bring it with them at some point.”

And once it’s on the East Coast, that flamingo may join the rest of the stuffed animal stash.

“When we’re at a park, all the kids want to do is play the games,” Eliezer muses.If they’re anything like their father, they’ve got a good shot.


liezer’s prowess has its roots in skill, but also lots and lots of practice. When he was six, his father, Rabbi Binyomin Ginsberg, became the principal of Seattle Hebrew Academy, and they moved from San Diego to Seattle.

Eliezer and his younger brother would go to school with their father, and they often arrived at least 45 minutes before the start of school.

“That’s what you do when your father is the principal,” he says.

Eliezer passed the time shooting hoops.

When Eliezer was eight, Rabbi Ginsberg installed a basketball hoop on their garage, and Eliezer’s laser focus only got sharper. Before long, he was able to score ten three-pointers in a row. A couple years later, on a camp trip an amusement park, Eliezer realized he could apply his skill to carnival games.

“I didn’t like the roller coasters — I’m not good with motion,” he remembers. “I figured I’d use the time to play.”

Amusement parks can rig their games to make things harder, so that fewer players win, but Eliezer found that by studying people and determining where they were going wrong, he could do it right. He’s of average height — 5’ 9” —with an average build. He wears glasses and often plays in a dress shirt and pants.

“Noticeably Jewish,” as he puts it, and not built like your standard professional ballplayer, but Eliezer’s attention to detail, combined with pretty good hand-eye coordination, make him a winner very often.

Jumping through Hoops

What makes Eliezer’s skill even more impressive is that he has Tourette’s syndrome, a nervous system disorder. People affected by Tourette’s suffer from involuntary movements and/or sounds called tics.  In Eliezer’s case, it causes him to jerk his neck, back, and arms. He has back spasms and neck pain, and he coughs or emits certain noises. Other than that, his speech is unaffected.

Eliezer developed Tourette’s around his bar mitzvah. Then, when he was 14, his family moved to Minneapolis, and he started yeshivah in yet another state. Stress can exacerbate the tics, which  in his case did indeed become more pronounced with all that was going on.

Interestingly, when Eliezer is in his zone, he doesn’t suffer from tics. As a teenager, he played a lot of baseball. His favored position was pitcher, and when he stood on the mound and wound up, the tics would stop. Playing arcade games requires focus, which has the same positive effect.

“I’m concentrating, and it’s like I don’t have Tourette’s,” he says.

In school, Eliezer usually took tests privately so he wouldn’t disturb the other students. He also dealt with some teasing and ostracism. Even now, adults comment about his tics at functions, on the subway, or even in shul on occasion.

Eliezer tries to preempt comments by being upfront about his condition. When he flies, he tells his seatmates that he has Tourette’s syndrome, so they don’t panic. Luckily, people are usually understanding, and if they aren’t, Eliezer has learned not to let it get to him.

Eliezer credits his confidence to therapy. His family developed a relationship with Rabbi Paysach Krohn on a tour of Europe in 2004, and a year later, when 20-year-old Eliezer told his father he was ready to see someone about his disorder, his father called Rabbi Krohn for a referral. For eight years, Eliezer met with a therapist weekly, and he still uses the tools he learned then to maintain a healthy mindset. His aptitude for carnival games also contributes to his confidence, the same way sports helped him through his school years.

“The games gave me something to look forward to — something I’m good at,” he says.

His skill improved as well, so much so that when he was in high school, Eliezer twice hit 96 out of 100 free throws in one session at the school basketball hoop (once on his own initiative, and the other time to win $10 from a friend who didn’t believe he had done it). As Eliezer got better, his confidence soared, and he perfected his game — a cycle of positive achievement.

Eliezer was one of the students elected to speak at his high school graduation. At a practice run-through, he managed to give the speech without any tics. His proud classmates were about to applaud, but their rebbi signaled them to stop — he didn’t want Eliezer to feel his differences were being highlighted.

Now Eliezer takes that message from his rebbi to heart, trying to make kids in challenging situations simply feel loved.

“I recognize the little guy,” he says.


hen Eliezer plays, people take note, and as he shoots and scores repeatedly, his success garners attention. It’s not uncommon for him to start schmoozing with those around him at the game stands. When he shares what he’s doing, they sometimes donate money for the cost of playing the games — and when they see how well he does, observers will ask Eliezer to play for them.

“Many parks have rules that make it harder — at Six Flags, there’s a limit of two prizes per person, so I can’t,” Eliezer shares.

He’s figured out by now which games are simply not worth playing. For example, he won’t play something with a Nintendo prize, because he knows it’s designed to be too hard to win. Several years ago, though, he was on a cruise with Lesli and he kept trying the claw game well into the night. She was already in bed when he won a Samsung watch.

“At two in the morning, I was running across the ship to tell her,” he says, laughing at the memory.

Ironically, people with Tourette’s syndrome generally don’t perform well under pressure, and while crowds gather to watch him win repeatedly, Eliezer doesn’t enjoy the attention. He doesn’t even like when his family observes him, because it makes him nervous.

“I tell them it’s going to take longer if they’re watching me,” he says, qualifying that it does vary by sport. “When I’m pitching in baseball, I’m okay. But when people watch me in basketball, I buckle.”

Eliezer would love to make his gemach official, to partner with an organization that helps sick children so he can be connected with more of those in need of his unique brand of service. And of course, it’s a personal opportunity as well.

“I would love nothing more than to have more excuses to keep playing,” he says.

How to Score Big
Game instructions:

Basketball: The rims might be tilted, and each one is styled a bit differently. Observe from all sides, and when necessary, shoot at an angle. Also, focus on the ball’s shape (this applies to any game with a ball). Sometimes the balls are overblown or one portion is more filled than the other. “That’s called an egg ball,” Eliezer says. “If I get one, I’ll immediately ask for a new one.”

Skee ball: When you play, aim for the lower numbers rather than the high-point holes. “It’s so much easier to get the 30 than the 50,” Eliezer says. “People always go for the 50, but you’re wasting all this time.”

Ring toss and ball-in-the-bucket games: Hard pass; they’re nearly impossible to win.

Claw game: Never go against the wall. If you feel like you keep missing, move slightly to the left, right, forward, or back. If you’ve done it 100 times with no luck, give up; it’s probably too rigged to win.

Planning a visit:

Personal park ranking: In order of difficulty, Hershey Park is the easiest place to win, followed by Six Flags. The toughest is the boardwalk.

High-traffic days means higher difficulty: On Labor Day, Memorial Day, and other vacation or national holidays, parks and event centers expect higher volume and more players, so they manipulate the games more than usual.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 940)

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