Every week, thousands of women across Israel gather to play a sport almost no one outside the country has heard of.
For that matter, few Israelis knew about catchball a decade ago. But in recent years it has become the most popular sport among adult women in the country, with nearly all the players over 30 years old.
“It’s like a disease among middle-aged women here,” said Naor Galili, the director-general of the Maccabi sports association in Israel.
Now the Israel Catchball Association is trying to spread the fever to women around the world. A major step will be catchball’s appearance for the first time at the Maccabiah Games in Israel this summer. The hope is that the thousands of Jews who attend the multi-sport games will be inspired to ask: What is catchball?
Catchball is like volleyball, but easier because catching and throwing replaces bumping, setting and spiking. Israelis adapted the sport from America’s Newcomb, which today is rarely played outside of gym class.
Meanwhile, catchball leagues in Israel boast more than 12,000 female members. That is twice as many adult women as belong to basketball, soccer, volleyball and tennis leagues combined, according to data from Israel’s Culture and Sport Ministry.
Hila Yeshayahu, 41, plays for the Herzliya-based squad Good Heart and handles marketing and business development for the Catchball Association. She said women start playing catchball because it’s fun and easy – and stick with it for the sense of community and empowerment.
“Catchball is a present women give themselves,” she said. “When I step out the door in my uniform, my kids aren’t on my shoulder; my husband isn’t on my shoulder. I’m 18 years old again.”
On a Tuesday evening, Yeshayahu and her team faced off against A.S. Moment at a high school gym in Ramat Hasharon, not far from Herzliya in central Israel. The crowd consisted of a few husbands and sons on the sideline, but the atmosphere was competitive. When A.S. Moment won two sets to none in the best-of-three match, Good Heart players slumped onto the court, and several tearfully threw their knee pads toward the bench.
Good Heart coach Liron Shachnai, 34, said competitive sports in Israel are male-dominated, so women don’t learn sportsmanship growing up.
“You have women who are over 40 going home crying,” she said.
Alexandra Kalev, a sociology professor at Tel Aviv University, says the success of catchball in Israel can be seen as a challenge to traditional female roles. Women’s sports in Israel are underfunded and little covered in the media, and women are expected to work and handle most household responsibilities.
“[Women] are discriminated against in the labor market, overwhelmed by home chores and child-rearing and experiencing the changes that age brings on all of us,” Kalev said. “These leagues really come at the right time of their lives. The message is: We are strong.”
The rise of catchball in Israel began in 2005, when Ofra Ambramovich started Mamanet, a league for mothers in Kfar Saba.
She learned the sport from Haim Borovski, an Israeli gym teacher from Argentina. Thanks to Ambramovich’s entrepreneurship, dozens of municipalities have since started their own Mamanet leagues. In her mind, catchball is primarily a mom-powered social movement.
“Catchball gives mothers something for themselves, a reason to be healthy and part of the community,” Ambramovich said.
In 2009, the Israel Catchball Association branched off from Mamanet in an effort to make the sport more competitive. The association welcomed non-mothers and allowed women to form their own teams rather than participate through their children’s schools. Today, the association offers leagues at four skill levels.
The sport is even reaching into Israel’s most traditional communities. Many Orthodox Jewish women play catchball in headscarves and skirts. And there is a mostly Druze team in Daliyan al-Carmel. When Anaia Halabi, a 35-year-old school counselor, started the team seven years ago, it was a radical idea.
“For women to leave their husbands and their children to play was a big change for the village,” she said. “It is not considered suitable for women to be outside the home at night. Not all the husbands approve.”
But over time, Halabi said, the husbands have grown more accepting, and the local municipality began paying for a van to transport the team to games outside the village. The team has arranged not to play late-night games, and a local league has been formed to allow women to compete without leaving the village.
In order to qualify as an official sport and receive funding from the Israeli government, catchball must be played competitively in at least 52 countries. So far, the only leagues the association knows of outside Israel are in Mexico and the United States.
Gal Reshef, a 35-year-old Israeli lawyer, founded a catchball group in Boston in 2015 and last year expanded it into the U.S.A. Catchball Association. She said the vast majority of the women playing catchball in the U.S. are Israelis. But Reshef is confident catchball will, um, catch on with American women, too.
“If you’re a middle-aged woman who didn’t have the chance to play sports growing up, there are very few options,” she said. “The great thing is anyone can play catchball, and it creates an amazing, uplifting community.”
At least one Boston team is slated to participate in the catchball exhibition tournament at the Maccabiah Games, along with a couple teams from Europe. Reshef predicted that by the time the next games roll around in four years, teams from around the world will be playing catchball in the real tournament – and after that, maybe the Olympics.