It looks a lot like volleyball when it’s being played.

Two teams of six women each line up on either side of a net dividing a court laid out on a gym floor. The players send a brightly colored ball back and forth above the net, continuing until the ball hits the floor and a point is scored. Players can spike the ball to the floor or block shots at the net.

The game differs from volleyball because these players don’t hit the ball back and forth. Instead, they catch it and then throw it. That’s why this young sport is called catchball.

And it’s, um, catching on. At least it is in and around Dunwoody.

Rachel Gurvitch, center, attacks as Shiri Tzuk prepares to block the shot and Hagit Yehuai, Dana Zvi and Debi Tzuberi prepare to enter the fray during a recent catchball practice at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. (Joe Earle)

Catchball was devised in Israel sometime during the past decade, local players say. In fact, the game is so associated with that country that a recent American national tournament brought in a pair of Israeli refs just to be sure everything was on the up and up. “It’s a big thing in Israel…,” said 47-year-old Dunwoody player Yael Matana, who grew up in Israel but moved to the U.S. before the catchball craze started. “It’s meant for women. Volleyball is harder [to play]. I love catchball and I hate volleyball.”

Like many of her Dunwoody teammates, Rachel Gurvitch first heard about catchball from friends in Israel or among the local Israeli community. Talk about the game started turning up on social media or in chats with family and friends, she said.

Gurvitch, who’s 44 and who teaches at Georgia State University, grew up in Israel but moved to the U.S. about a decade ago, before catchball got going. Once she heard Israeli friends describe the game, though, she thought it would be a good sport for American women, too. She and some friends started organizing their own teams.

Gurvitch said they checked around with local churches, Ys and other places where volleyball was played regularly, and ended up at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta after pointing out to leaders there that the game offered a new sport for women that they could add to the center’s activity schedule.

That was about three years ago. The program has grown steadily since and now includes four teams and about 80 players, Gurvitch said, and players say other teams have sprouted in nearby communities. Most of the players are between age 30 and age 50, said Carissa Mindt, a 29-year-old staff member at the MJCCA who never played catchball, but now coaches it.

Coach Carissa Mindt. (Joe Earle)

The new teams have attracted a variety of types of players. Debi Tzuberi first heard about the sport through her husband, who’s Israeli.  “When I was in high school, I was athletic,” she said, “but I never cared about volleyball. It’s hard to hit the ball. I gave [catchball] a try and I thought, ‘This is really fun.’ … My first season, they call me ‘Crash.’ I went through about three pairs of knee pads.”

During the last weekend of February, four catchball teams from the MJCCA traveled to Las Vegas to compete in the fifth annual USA Catchball Games. The tournament drew teams from from California to St. Louis to Washington, D.C., Gurvitch said. The Atlanta teams finished somewhere in the middle of the pack, Mindt said.

They hope to do better next year. In the meantime, they’ll keep trying to improve their skills – when the MJCCA was closed recently to try to hinder the spread of coronavirus, Mindt sent team members drills they could work on home.

Gurvitch sees part of the appeal of the sport is that it gives women something to do outside their homes and families. “In earlier years, when we were young mothers, we didn’t have time to think about much more,” she said before a recent practice. “As kids grew up, we are a community, and it’s our time to switch back to [work on] ourselves. Catchball allows that, in that it can fit everyone. We don’t have to be a super-athlete to be on the team.”

And unlike other sports, the game is easy to learn, she said. Sports such as basketball or softball or even volleyball can be hard to learn and new players can find it’s difficult to make older bodies perform properly on the court or field.

Gurvitch said there’s really only one skill required to start playing catchball: “You have to be able to catch the ball.”

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