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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MARCH 10, 2017 PAGE 7A By Andrew Tobin TEL AVIV (JTA)--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 Israe- lis knew about catchball, or "cadur-reshet" in Hebrew, 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. "We like it. We love it. We fully sup- port it." Now the Israel Catchball Association is trying to spread the feminist fever to women around the world. A major step will be catchball's ap- pearance 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 from around the world will be inspired to ask: What is catchball? Catchball is like volleyball, but easier because catching and throwing replaces bump- ing, setting and spiking. Israelis adapted the sport from Newcomb ball, which was named for the Louisiana women's college where it was invented over a century ago. Today, Americans rarely play Newcomb bali outside of gym class. Meanwhile, catchball leagues in Israel boast more than 12,000 female mem- bers. 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 devel- opment for the Catchball As- sociation, to which the team belongs. She said women start playing catchball because it is fun and easy--and stick with it for the sense of community and personal empowerment. "Catchball is a present women give themselves. It's a chance to do something healthy with other women and come back home with more strength and more passion," 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. I'm Hila, and I can do anything." Yeshayahu's twin sister also competes for a team in the association, and their 11-year- old daughters play together in a new girls' league. On a Tuesday evening, Ye- shayahu and her team faced off againstA.S. Moment at a high school gym in Ramat Hasha- ron, not far from Herzliya in central Israel. The crowd con- sisted of a few husbands and sons on the sideline. But the atmosphere was competitive, with a referee, scorekeepers and players wearing num- bered uniforms. When A.S. Momentwon two sets to none, Good Heart players slumped onto the court, and several tearfully threw their knee pads toward the bench. (The first two sets are scored up to 25 points, while a third set in the best-of-3 match would go to 15. The victor must win a set by at least two points.) Good Heart coach Liron Shachnai, 34, a marketing and sales manager by day, said most of her players have little experience losing. Com- petitive sports in Israel are male-dominated, she said, so women do not have the oppor- tunity to learn sportsmanship growing up. "You have women who are over 40 going home crying, saying ]the opposing players] think they're better than us," she said. Still, by the next practice Thursday evening, the play- ers were looking toward the future. It helped that this weekend, they will compete in the Catchball Games in the southern resort town of Eilat. The tournament is catchball's biggest event and a highlight of the year for many players. "You should see all the photos they're posting on Facebook. They can barely wait," Yeshayahu said. In its sixth year, the Catch- ball Games are expected to draw more than 1,500 women from all of Israel's leagues, and even a few teams from abroad. Leaving their husbands and children at home, women will don pink Israel Catch- ball Association T-shirts for four days of competition and socializing. Local schools will host hundreds of matches, and the top two teams will face off for the champion- A match at the Israeli catchbail tournament in Kfar Saba, Feb. 21, 2017. ship. Off-court festivities will include a parade, Eilat's first night road race and a standup come@ show. Alexandra Kalev, a sociol- ogy professor at Tel Aviv University, says the success of catchball in Israel can be seen as a challenge to the roles women have traditionally played in the country's sport and culture. Women's sports in Israel are underfunded and little covered in the media, and women are expected to work and handle most household responsibilities. "Catchball can empower women, especially at a stage in life when they are weak- ened," Kalev said. "They 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. These leagues re- ally come at the right time of their lives and allow them to be empowered. The message is: We are strong." The rise of catchball in Israel began in 2005, when Ofra Ambramovich started Mamanet, a league for moth- ers in the central city of Kfar Saba, where she lives. 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, catch- ball is primarily a morn- powered social movement. "Catchball gives moth- ers something for themselves, a reason to be healthy and part of the community," Ambramovich said. "And the mother is the agent of the family, so she's the perfect role model. When the mother does well, everyone benefits." 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 requiring them to participate through their children's schools-- though they maintained Mamanet's age minimum of 30. Today, the association of- fers leagues at four skill levels. The Israel Catchball Asso- ciation claims 5,000 players, and Mamanet claims 12,500. Sport on page 15A