By Toby Tabachnick
Ofra Abramovich was caught up in the routine of her life as a stay-at-home mom in Kfar Saba near Tel Aviv when an invitation from a friend not only changed her world, but may be leading to changes worldwide.
“I was in my circle of life, with my husband, my daughters — taking them to courses, doing the laundry and everything — and one day my friend asked me to join her to play cachibol,” said Ambramovich, speaking by phone from Israel. “I said, ‘Leave me alone. I don’t have time. I’m very busy with my stuff.’”
But her friend insisted, and Abramovich, who was 40 at the time, finally decided to try the volleyball-like game, known as newcomb in the United States. She went to the all-women’s cachibol class and quickly became hooked.
“This made me so happy because, first of all, I was doing something for myself, and second, I felt like I was 16 years old again,” she said. “It really brought me back to my happy time in high school, and it is a team game, so everybody’s together.”
Abramovich began to regularly play cachibol, bringing her young girls along to cheer her on. Then inspiration struck.
“I said, ‘OK, if I enjoy it so much and I see how much my daughters are happy for me and come to see my playing, I said, ‘Every mother should play it — every mother,’” she recalled.
Such was the genesis of Mamanet, a cachibol league for mothers who are divided into teams based on their children’s schools and compete against each other, just as their children do on their own sports teams. In a reversal of roles, the children sit in the bleachers rooting for their moms.
Since Abramovich’s launch of Mamanet in 2005, the league has taken Israel by storm, with thousands of mothers participating in more than 90 cities across the Jewish state. The sport is now spreading to other countries as well, including Austria, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and the United States.
The rules of the game are based on those of volleyball, with the main difference being that the ball is caught before passing it to the next player or over the net.
The game is more than 150 years old. It was invented by a woman, Clara Baer, who was a physical education instructor at Sophie Newcomb College at Tulane University in New Orleans. It was the second team sport to be played by women in the United States after basketball.
The women who play in the Mamanet are having fun, Abramovich said, but the requirements to participate are serious.
“It’s a required obligation to come once a week to training and once a week to a game,” she explained, adding that she modeled the league on the rules of the National Volleyball Association, with games starting on time and strict adherence to such details as the height of the net.
While Mamanet provides physical activity and comradery for the players, their families have been reaping significant rewards as well, Abramovich said.
“What happens is two things,” she explained. “First of all, when the children see their mother doing sports, they also want to go to play like her. In every municipality where there is Mamanet, the number of children playing in a sport club, and volleyball specifically, raises up.
“Second, when mothers start to do sports, they become aware of an active way of living, and they see what they are eating,” she continued, adding that because it is typically the mother who does the cooking, the whole family benefits from a more healthful diet.
“In Israel, women in sports is very subordinated in terms of money and in terms of facilities, in terms of everything,” Abramovich said. “And we are now 16,000 mothers just in Israel. Every day, we open another league.”
In the States, Mamanet leagues can be found in New York and New Jersey, and teams and classes are forming in Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.
Merav Livne-Dill, senior shlicha, or Israeli emissary, at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus, decided to bring Mamanet there as a way to bring people together, as well as to bring them closer to Israel.
“People are really excited about it,” Livne-Dill said, adding that she eventually hopes to organize a tournament between Mamanet players in Columbus and those in its Partnership 2Gether city of Kfar Saba.
So far, Columbus has 36 women playing Mamanet, divided onto four teams. After each game, there is time to socialize and to plan community service programs, such as volunteering at a women’s shelter, according to Livne-Dill.
In Washington, D.C., the Jewish Community Center has hired an experienced volleyball coach to get its Mamanet program up and running.
Patti Westenberg, who played Division I volleyball and has coached at the college level, has about 20 women — from their late 20s to early 50s — registered to play.
“We have a riot,” Westenberg said. “It’s so much fun. My experience is coaching young girls. Now I’m coaching these women, making them run drills. I yell at them; we laugh about it. We’re not only there to play, but to have a good time.”
The players run the gamut from former competitive athletes, who are finding Mamanet to be a good workout, to middle-aged women who have never played on a team “but are improving every week,” Westenberg said.
Back in Israel, the game is forging connections not only between the Jewish mothers on the teams, but across the cultural divide as well.
Last month, Mamanet opened a local league in Israel in Wadi Ara, “with five teams that combine mothers from all the settlements in the valley including Jews, Muslims and Druze,” said Sharon Vanek, who does international outreach for Mamanet.
“This is a true example to the change that we hope to bring, as those mothers who are engaged in Mamanet will bring their kids and families to watch the games, and it will change their perspective regarding their neighbors,” she said.
The first U.S. Mamanet seminar, training and tournament will be held in Tenafly, N.J., from March 1 to 5, and will bring together Mamanet leagues from around the country.
Abramovich has volunteered her time running Mamanet for the last 11 years because she is confident in its potential for positive change.
“You would not believe — women that were only going to work, and cleaning house, and taking care of the children, and going back home,” she said. “The circle of life was so routine, and now they found themselves. Mamanet is a club for them to do a lot of things. It’s a blessing for them, and they appreciate it.”
Toby Tabachnick is a staff writer for the Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.