Gaga Goes Mainstream as Israeli Dodgeball Game Becomes Fad

Game Takes Off Way Beyond Jewish Camps and Day School

The Circle Game: Schoolchildren in Upper Arlington, Ohio, show their skills at Gaga, which means “touch, touch” in Hebrew.
Courtesy Upper Arlington School District
The Circle Game: Schoolchildren in Upper Arlington, Ohio, show their skills at Gaga, which means “touch, touch” in Hebrew.

By Seth Berkman

Published February 15, 2013, issue of January 04, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

For Jewish summer campers everywhere, “Lady” is not the first thing that “Gaga” brings to mind. Instead, Gaga is the name of an addictive game that provides a great workout — and that’s spreading from Jewish summer camps and day schools to the rest of America.

“You don’t lose the rush,” said Jenna Silverman, 12, of Waukegan, Ill. “It gets your heart rate up when you’re really into the game and usually jumping and dodging. It’s a lot of fun.”

Silverman may have a conflict of interest: Her father, Cliff Silverman, manufactures the pits in which the game is played. But these days, Gaga, a recreational staple at Jewish camps for decades, is even attracting adult adherents and becoming a burgeoning industry.

“When the sessions are done, kids are exhausted, drenched in sweat and get a great workout,” said Don Melnick, an instructor in the Israeli martial art krav magav who opened South Jersey GaGa in Cherry Hill, N.J., last July. “Parents are happy because it gets them off the couch, away from TV. Anyone can play. I don’t equate it as a Jewish sport or Jewish-only activity.”

Video: Nate Lavey


Among counselors and parents, Gaga is regarded as a safer alternative to the popular playground game of dodgeball. The basic rules of Gaga dictate that a number of players open the game standing around an octagonal pit, usually constructed of wood or plastic. A ball is thrown into the middle of the pit and players then attempt to hit the ball at opponents below their waists. Once a player is hit below the waist, he or she is out until the next game. If the ball leaves the pit, the last player to touch it is out. The last player remaining is the winner. Games take no longer than five or 10 minutes.

There is no consensus on where the game began. “Ga, ga” translates to “touch, touch” in Hebrew.

“The word on the street was it was originally an Israeli game, although I haven’t met a whole lot [of Israelis] who are familiar with it,” said Aaron Greenberg, director at the JCC Camps at Medford in N.J.

Others have heard that the game originated at a camp in the Northeast and that Israeli counselors there brought the game back home. Or that the game started in Israel, but gained adherents in Australia.

Whatever its provenance, the formerly under-the-radar pastime is now played in leagues and tournaments at recreational centers and churches. Elementary schools from Washington to New Jersey are replacing jungle gyms with Gaga pits. At Harvard, Curry College and other colleges, students play outside Hillel houses. In Abilene, Texas, the graduating class of 2011 at McMurry University donated a Gaga pit as its class gift.

The game has even become a business opportunity in, of all places, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where two friends founded The Gaga Center.

“People have this love for Gaga tucked away, and there are those who never heard of it before and fall in love the second they walk in the door,” said Alissa Schmelkin, who with her friend, Marcy Singer, opened an indoor facility with three Gaga pits last February.

Schmelkin had never played the game, but about six years ago her four-year-old son became enthralled with Gaga at Coleman Country Day Camp in Long Island. Singer, whose son went to Hampton Country Day Camp in Long Island, also came home singing its praises.

“We were talking and realized they loved the same game and we had never heard of it before,” Schmelkin said. “But there was no place in Manhattan to play.”

The emergence of Gaga has created a new market for entrepreneurs like Schmelkin, who is considering opening up additional Gaga centers across the city.

Chris Guertin, president of Sport Resource Group in Minneapolis, Minn., has been manufacturing Gaga pits since 2008. Guertin estimated he has sold 70 pits in 2012, more than double the sales of the previous year. Sport Resource Group’s pits are available in varying sizes and have been sold across the country in schools and camps. Guertin said that, on average, a pit costs $4,000 to $5,000.

Douglass Mann, an associate professor in the health and exercise science department at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., said Gaga helps children develop better skills in lateral movement and backward movement. Mann was first introduced to the game as a counselor at Tall Pines Day Camp in Williamstown, N.J., about seven years ago. He said the game has long been popular in the South Jersey region, but he has recently received an increase in calls and emails from parents, teachers and YMCA leaders from around the country who are interested in learning the game.

“There’s definitely a fitness element to Gaga,” said Melnick, co-owner of South Jersey GaGa. The game helps hand-eye coordination and trains children to be aware, he said, adding, “These kids are running around constantly, working out, moving, running, dodging, jumping. It’s a very physical game for these kids.”

Schmelkin thought one of the reasons Gaga’s popularity has increased was a decrease in the popularity of dodgeball as parents worry about children being hit in the head. In Gaga, the most common injury is “Gaga knuckles,” which can occur when the game is played with a heavier ball, and players hit it with a closed fist rather than an open hand, causing knuckles to scrape the ground.

Greenberg, of the JCC Camps at Medford in N.J., has yet to hear a parent complain about the game’s safety, which has been played at his site since the mid-1990s.

Of Gaga knuckles, he says, “It’s almost like a badge of pride for campers. Kids are proud to go to the nurse’s office with Gaga knuckles; it’s like an initiation.”

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.