Ofra Abramovich was caught up in the routine of her life as a stay-at-home mom in Kfar Saba about 20 minutes north of 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, decided to try the volleyball-like game, known as newcomb in the United States. She went to the all-women’s cachibol class and very 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 play cachibol regularly, 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, 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. The sport is 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 was invented more than 150 years ago by Clara Baer, a physical education instructor at Sophie Newcomb College at Tulane University in New Orleans. It was the second team sport 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 United States, Mamanet leagues can be found in New York and New Jersey, and teams and classes are forming in Columbus, Ohio and in the Washington area.
The Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville has hired an experienced volleyball coach to get its Mamanet program up and running.
Patti Westenberg, who played Division One volleyball, and who has coached at the college level, has about 20 women of all ages — from 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 good workout, to middle aged women who have never played on a team “but are improving every week,” Westenberg 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 been volunteering 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.”
Toby Tabachnick is senior writer of the Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh.