Netball and Its Players Take Root in Israel, in Time for Maccabiah

A game that started off as a support group for female immigrants has become a professional sport in which native Israelis excel - as evidenced by Team Israel's showing at the Maccabiah Games.

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Netball? What’s that?

It’s a question Jodi Carreira has answered on a regular basis ever since she organized the first Israeli netball game in Israel in 2000, rounding up a handful of her fellow South African immigrant friends living in Ra’anana and inviting them to come out and play.

Thirteen years later, there is a full-fledged netball league with training and/or teams in Jerusalem, Efrat, Modi’in, Ma’aleh Adumim, Tel Aviv, and of course, Ra’anana, which is playing host this week to the Maccabiah Games netball competition for the very first time.

An international Jewish athletic event, the Maccabiah is held in Israel every four years, with different sports competitions taking place in venues across the country.

For Carreira, staging the tournament in Ra’anana from July 21-28, along with friends, family and other local English-speakers, represents the closing of a circle.

“This is where we started out, a few girls with a ball and an empty basketball court. Who thought we would ever be staging an international tournament of this size in Ra’anana? It’s amazing,” said Carreira, a mother of four who owns and runs a preschool when she isn’t busy organizing netball events. Carreira is assistant coaching both the junior and senior Maccabiah teams. “And I’m just so excited that everyone I know can come watch this crazy game to which I’ve given so much of my life. It’s very special.”

She had an additional reason to celebrate once Team Israel took to the court. On Wednesday, both Israel’s senior and junior netball squads combined for a pair of upsets beating strong teams that had previously defeated them consistently – Great Britain and South Africa. Israel's senior team made it to its first finals ever, when it faces Australia Sunday evening.

Unheard-of in most of the world, netball was first played in England in 1895, and is a popular sport for schoolgirls and women in Great Britain and Commonwealth outposts like Australia and South Africa. A variation on basketball, the game looks very similar, except for two elements: first, the basket is much lower. And most significantly, once a player catches the ball, she must stay in place, and is permitted to pivot on one foot – no dribbling – until she passes it to the next player. When the ball comes in close range of the basket, the player is given a clear shot at the basket. The variations make the game more accessible, with less physical contact than conventional basketball. The fit, young women players wear uniforms that look like a fusion between basketball uniforms and tennis skirts – the athletic yet feminine look of field hockey players.

The Ra’anana Netball Maccabiah is a family affair, with numerous ties of family and friendship between the competing teams – from Great Britain, Australia, South Africa, and Israel and the Ra’anana English speaking community.

Carriera and her sister-in-law Andi Saitowitz, the official manager of the event, are clearly the mother hens of the tournament, constantly circulating to make sure all the teams have what they need – from meals to ice baths – and the logistics and events are running smoothly.

No detail is ignored. In a local park, two days before the Games started, Saitowitz supervised a group of mothers and children at the local park in a pre-tournament activity session of painting signs to hold up as they cheer the teams on. A motivational life coach, Saitowitz played netball herself until she injured her shoulder – with the stops-and-starts involved in netball, injuries are common – and so she took on the managerial role, still “passionate” about the game.

Over its thirteen-year-history in Israel, netball has served as an informal support group for new arrivals for women or girls who played netball in their home countries. “I’ve got so many girls who are new immigrants who tell me that netball saved them; it let them be in their comfort zone in a sport they love in a language they understand,” said Carreira.

Yoni Weil, is a member of Carreira’s pioneer group of netball players, who has gone on to play and coach netball in Israel, England and South Africa, and is now coaching the Maccabiah senior team. “It’s an amazing sport for girls that isn’t violent and is lots of fun. It brings everyone together,” she said. “When I lived in London for six years, I played with a very religious group of Orthodox ladies. They would came to netball, pull off their shaitels (wigs) and skirts, put on shorts, and get on the court and they were all so quick and fast and athletic on the court – it was amazing – one of them had 10 children.”

In London, Weil coached netball at the Keren School in Hampstead Garden, where she worked as a teacher and one of the girls she coached at the time arrived on the British Maccabiah teams. She also has greeted former students and players on the South African teams, who she taught at the King David School in Johannesburg.

In 2012, she moved back to Ra’anana where she now teaches, and was asked to coach the Israeli junior Maccabiah team, which represents the second generation of Israeli netball players. Six members of that team are Israeli-born, most – but not all with one “Anglo” parent. Some of them are “pure” Israelis who were introduced to the games through friends or local workshops. For the first time, the coaches find themselves explaining the game to their players in Hebrew.

This year marked the third time Israel has had teams in the Maccabiah games. Though she’s marched before, Carreira said she couldn't possibly miss the opening ceremonies because “I wanted to go and see the girls' faces, it’s mind-blowing, just for me to be there and see their reaction.”

After many years of effort, the Israeli league was admitted to the Federation of European Netball Associations in 2011, and the International Federation of Netball Associations in 2012.

After the Maccabiah, Carreira will mark another milestone when she brings the junior squad to an international netball tournament to compete against 19 other countries. “My entire junior squad is shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant). We’ve already established that we won’t have to play games on Shabbat; we are bringing our own kosher food. To be able to take a 100 percent Orthodox team to an international event doesn’t happen every day. I am proud of that.”

Girl Power: The Israeli netball team. Credit: Nir Keidar

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