ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 192

The Kibbutz Tzora pickleball players in their former dining hall pickleball court, January 2023. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Main image: The Kibbutz Tzora pickleball players in their former dining hall pickleball court, January 2023. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Kibbutz pickleballers have a ball while courting more team members

The racquet game is slowly gaining local fans, and so too are walking football and Mamanet, as mature Israelis seek out team sports that are easier on the joints

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Main image: The Kibbutz Tzora pickleball players in their former dining hall pickleball court, January 2023. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

In Kibbutz Tzora’s erstwhile dining hall, where members once tucked into crispy chicken schnitzel and shakshuka, Leon Solomon moved into the pickleball court’s so-called kitchen zone and slammed a wiffleball over the net with his fiberglass racquet.

This is the kibbutz’s pickleball court, a tape-delineated space 44 feet (nearly 13.5 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) wide in what used to be the former dining hall of this central Israel community.

Why the dining hall? Good question. It’s cooled with air conditioning during the hot summer, protected from the elements in the colder winter months, and the surface is a lot smoother than the bumpy outdoor basketball court the players first used.

It is also completely available, since the kibbutz was privatized years ago and the communal kitchen closed, sending everyone home for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

“We checked the balls on the walls and ceilings,” said Harriet Solomon, “and they didn’t do any damage.”

Now, the Tzora pickleball players, about 10 in all, ranging in age from 55 to 85, gather for doubles games most mornings around 7 a.m., hitting ace serves, dillballs, and dink shots over their regulation 34-inch-high net set up on the smooth, linoleum floor.

L-R: Efrat Shechter, Noam Rapaport, Leon Solomon, and Louie Sokolovsky are some of the Kibbutz Tzora pickleball players (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

They are part of the great pickleball trend. The racquet-based game reportedly created in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, combining badminton, squash, beach paddleball and table tennis has swept the US and is now slowly making its way around Israel.

There’s nothing Israeli about the game except for one of its slang terms, the “falafel” (a shot that falls short of the net due to being hit without any power), which was used long before the game reached these shores.

“When we started playing, there wasn’t much pickleball anywhere else in Israel,” said Solomon.

“There wasn’t any,” said his teammate, Mike Levine.

Solomon nods in agreement; in fact, this Tzora team appears to have been Israel’s first. It was born three years ago, after he and his wife, Harriet, were introduced to the game on a visit to Leon’s brother in Phoenix, Arizona. They brought back four racquets as well as the regulation wiffleballs, plastic balls with perforated holes that move through the air more easily than a tennis ball.

“I had been looking for a sport I could play my whole life,” said Harriet Solomon, 73. Pickleball is also, allegedly, the first joint interest that she and Leon have ever had in their 45 years of marriage.

Leon Solomon, left, and his wife, Harriet, brought pickleball racquets back to Israel three years ago from the US. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The Solomons ordered nets online from AliExpress, made two holes in the kibbutz basketball court and voila, a court was created. They later inherited another net and bought one more.

The scoring felt complicated at first, because you have to keep track of the points while playing, said Harriet Solomon, but that’s “good cognitive use of your brain,” she said.

As for Levine, it gets him out of bed, he likes to say.

Louie Sokolovsky, 85, a glass and metal artist who founded and taught for decades at the glassmaking department at Hebrew University’s Bezalel Academy for Arts and Design, is something of a gym rat. But he likes the fact that pickleball is one sport that he doesn’t have to go to the gym to play (he goes there for squash, but spins on his Peloton at home).

“Pickleball is my insurance if I have to give up squash at the university,” said Sokolovsky, who likes the mixture of tennis and squash in the sport, without the need for big, wide swings. “It’s not a game that takes a lot to really be a sportsperson.”

In Israel, however, it is taking time for the racquet-based game to take hold.

“It’s not catching on quite the way we thought,” said Rakefet Benyamini from the National Tennis Center, which offered free activities at centers around the country in order to draw the attention of retirees. “People have to get used to it. The Anglos know it from abroad, but our population isn’t familiar with it yet.”

According to Benyamini, the moment they began charging for pickleball, people weren’t as interested.

“Maybe we made a mistake offering it for free at first,” she said. “So now we’re trying to garner interest in all kinds of ways.”

In other locations as well, including Tel Aviv, Ra’anana, Kiryat Ono, Ramat Hasharon and Kfar Saba, it was the American-born Israelis, or those with ties to the US, who picked up pickleball first.

Beth Newmark (right) and Cheryl Freeman play a doubles set of pickleball in Ashkelon in January 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

In Ashkelon, south of Tel Aviv, American-born Beth Newmark recruited several fellow English speakers who had also relocated to the seaside city from other locations in Israel. They had heard about pickleball, and that it was “enough of a workout that you deserve coffee afterwards,” said Newmark.

Tomer Suissa, a former tennis pro who runs the Ashkelon tennis center, was more than game.

“There’s zero awareness of pickleball here, but it makes so much more sense,” said Suissa. “You need to train for years to play real tennis.”

In January, Suissa set up a pickleball court in a far corner of the center, and now meets the team each week to assign exercises and comment on the play.

It’s easier than her former sport of tennis, said Cheryl Freeman, who retired to Ashkelon from Arad with her husband. “You cover less area, the racquet is lighter.”

Pam Swickley attributed this to the wiffleball, pointing out that it doesn’t require as much energy to hit it over the net.

And, said Newmark, the eventual goal is to get the husbands to play.

“Is it?” said one of her teammates, which made everyone crack up with laughter.

The pickleball team founded by American immigrant Beth Newmark (second from left, purple sweatshirt) in Ashkelon in January 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Like the Tzora team, the Ashkelon players are not satisfied with keeping it local. They want swag, and a team at the Maccabiah Games, and a countrywide league, too.

Tzora’s Solomon went to his regional council to drum up interest and posts regularly on the Pickleball Israel Facebook page. He also met with the local officials from the quadrennial Maccabiah sporting event with the hope of setting up a pickleball federation, but recognizes that it may take a while to get to that stage.

There’s walking football, too

The modified doubles game is exactly the kind of exercise that older people need, said Prof. Yuri Rassovsky from Bar Ilan University’s Department of Psychology, who has studied the effects of sports activities on the brain and on cognitive and emotional functions.

Today, “older people are more active because our quality of life has improved,” he said. “There’s a reason why people say that today’s 60 is the new 50.”

sport appeals to baby boomers who, as they age, don’t want to give up on the activities they loved when they were younger.

“They can’t run and they don’t want to get slammed to the ground, but they can still walk,” said Rassovsky.

And so, substitute sports are sent onto the field. In addition to pickleball standing in for tennis, there is walking football soccer (“football” here meaning soccer), which began in Britain and is now played around the world, including in Israel.

Benny Last (center, orange vest), was a longtime amateur soccer player who established the country’s first walking soccer game in 2021 in Ra’anana (Courtesy Benny Last)

Credit for the introduction of walking football to Israel goes to Englishman Benny Last, 64, a passionate amateur footballer who immigrated to Israel in 2013, settled in Ra’anana, and then had both of his knees replaced five years ago.

His surgeon told him he could participate in any sport, except for running. That was a blow for Last, who recognized he could not play football any longer.

That’s when he discovered walking football.

Walking football is played on synthetic surfaces and “the golden rule is that you don’t get injured — like often happens in normal football,” said Last.

He scouted out a Ra’anana field, booked a Sunday night slot and wrote to everyone he knew. Twenty-one players turned up that first time.

What helped the Israeli walking football league take off was an organization that supports amateur soccer leagues throughout Israel, which reached out to other towns to see if there were other interested players.

The game drew the attention of more than a few ex-professional soccer players, who had played on local teams in the late 1980s and are now in their mid-60s.

“They sort of laughed when we described walking football, but quite a lot of them have quite enjoyed it,” said Last. “They’re very, very good, but when you can’t run, the difference gets less noticeable.”

In fact, it doesn’t matter how good you once were, said Simon Davidson, a former professional soccer player who now plays walking football in Petah Tivka.

“You get to your 60s and you can’t play in the regular adult amateur leagues because there’s a big gap between someone who’s 40 and someone who’s 60,” said Davidson, who was a winger for major soccer teams, including Hapoel Tel Aviv.

The Ra’anana and Petah Tikva walking football teams during a recent playoff in 2023 (Courtesy Benny Last)

Walking football, he said, fills the gap.

“There’s a ball and a net, and while it was hard not to run at first, it seems that most people at this age have problems running and that limits you,” said Davidson, who is still able to run. “The walking really lessens the differences on the field. It levels the playing field.”

Former professional soccer player Simon Davidson (left) discovered a walking football team offered the chance to play again (Courtesy Simon Davidson)

Davidson brought along several ex-professional friends and told Petah Tivka Mayor Rami Greenberg about it. Greenberg gave them a field, uniforms and equipment.

“Now we’re really a team,” said Davidson. “I’m not sure we’ll win in the league, but we’re coming for the experience.”

The league recently played a series of matches between competing town teams on the 21×42-meter (23×46-yard) pitch, with six or seven players per team rather than the usual 11.

It doesn’t matter if people have played soccer before or not, said Last. “Most people have some knowledge of the game, but it doesn’t really matter if they do or don’t.”

Sports that aren’t about expertise

Participating in a team sport at older ages offers social capital, said Riki Tesler, a senior lecturer at Ariel University’s department of Health Systems Management.

She has conducted research on another popular team sport for older players, the modified volleyball game Mamanet, established in 2005 in Israel as an amateur community league for moms and grandmothers. It’s basically Newcomb (also known as cachibol) with lower nets.

“It gives you the feeling that you’re part of a community,” said Tesler. “Group sport has mental health benefits, it gives a sense of wellbeing, of being less depressed and lonely, and there’s happiness, laughter, good energy. It’s about not going to the doctor.”

Some of the older players were involved in sports when they were younger, and some were not, said Tesler.

“Mamanet is an easy game. You can find out about it on social media and YouTube. Anyone can figure it out, and that’s the idea,” she said.

Ditto for pickleball and walking football. Both Kibbutz Tzora’s Leon Solomon and Ra’anana’s Benny Last recommend brushing up on the rules by watching YouTube.

For the more mature athletes, it is what happens after the game that really matters.

In Ashkelon, the pickleball players like to head out for coffee after their weekly Wednesday morning game. So do the Mamanet players, said Tesler, who often head to local cafes after a game.

A big part of the experience is getting together with one’s teammates, said walking football player Last.

“In England, they go to the pub, but here we go to Roladin,” he said, referring to the countrywide bakery chain. “It’s a slightly different slant.”

As for the Kibbutz Tzora crew, there’s no coffee in the dining hall any longer, so the retired members of the team usually head to Mike Levine’s kibbutz office for coffee while their still-working teammates head to work.

When they play in the afternoon, however, they often have a beer, said Solomon.

And anyone is more than welcome to join.

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