Ken Sims (right) returns the ball while Susan Sims looks on during a game of pickleball at the University Club in Palo Alto, July 30, 2023.  (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins).
Ken Sims (right) returns the ball while Susan Sims looks on during a game of pickleball at the University Club in Palo Alto, July 30, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins).

‘Kosher dills’: Jews can’t get enough of pickleball, so JCCs are making room

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Wendy Sims, a 56-year-old video editor, wasn’t interested in learning to play mahjong with her Jewish friends. She craved the social, fast-paced fun of a sport.

Last year she found it in pickleball.

For Wendy, who lives in Foster City, the sport has not only offered the fun she was seeking; it’s connected her family in a way no other activity has before.

Pickleball resembles tennis but has a unique set of rules and equipment. The game is played on a court that’s a quarter the size of a standard tennis court. Players hit a hollow, plastic ball similar to a Wiffle ball over a net using large, table tennis-style paddles. 

Nearly every weekend for the past year, Wendy and her husband, Steve, have played with his brother Ken and wife Susan. They meet at the University Club in Palo Alto, and occasionally play at the courts by their home in Foster City. They rotate partners after each game. When play is over, they eat lunch together.

On a Sunday in July, J. interviewed the foursome on the pickleball court, where it was evident they are skilled players, though Susan claims “We’re mediocre.”

Once in play, they get into “kibitzing and talking” in between serves and what are known as “dinks,” said Steve, a 59-year-old tech executive using the term for hitting a controlled, soft shot.

They definitely enjoy themselves. “There’s activities that we’ll do with our husbands where I feel like we’re schlepping them along with us,” Wendy said. “This isn’t one of them.”

Steve agreed and added, “It’s a good sport for Jews.”

Why?

“It’s social,” he said. “And there’s food afterward.”

The Sims family put their rackets together after a game of a pickleball at the University Club in Palo Alto, July 30, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
The Sims family put their rackets together after a game of a pickleball at the University Club in Palo Alto, July 30, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

It’s also a sport you can play at any age, Wendy said.

“On Friday night, we played with people that were in their early 20s, and it’s wonderful,” she said. “We killed them.”

Pickleball allows for more schmoozing than a game of tennis because the courts are small enough that players don’t run far to hit the ball, she said. “We talk the entire time.”

The game’s unique terminology is also amusing. In addition to dinking the pickleball, “you have to remember to stay out of the kitchen,” said Ken Sims, a 64-year-old Los Altos tech executive, referring to the rules around the zone closest to the net.

Pickleball has become such a fixture in Jewish circles that it’s spurred the creation of Jewish tournaments.

The first “Kosher Dills” Jewish pickleball tournament  is set for Aug. 13 in Park City, Utah. The volunteer-organized event includes time for schmoozing at the bagels-and-lox station, followed by a “warm-up stretch & kvetch.” There’s a Mensch’s Oath and a group l’chaim, followed by the ceremonial sounding of a shofar to kick off the tournament.

Susan Sims will compete there, along with her older sister who lives in Park City.

“Everything has a Jewish theme. It’s really cute,” said Susan, 58, a Los Altos real estate agent.

The Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael hosted its first pickleball tournament in April, bringing 10 pairs of players of all ages from around the Bay Area together for a day of competition.

A dad and his teenage daughter played together, and other adults played with their parents in their 70s, said Elissa Coleman, the JCC’s fitness and aquatics director.

Coleman was inspired to organize the tournament after witnessing how quickly JCC members were gravitating toward the game. Last fall, the JCC offered a once-a-month intro-to-pickleball class.

Wendy Sims (right) returns a serve while Steve Sims looks on. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Wendy Sims (right) returns a serve while Steve Sims looks on. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

“We’ve gotten so many people and so many requests that now we’re doing two a month,” Coleman said.

The Marin JCC now has three indoor pickleball courts in the fitness center gym. Two more are set up on the Swig Field basketball courts, a space shared with Brandeis Marin day school. During the school year these outdoor courts are available on evenings and weekends.

Noticing similar growth in demand for pickleball, the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos resurfaced two tennis courts last summer to allow for both tennis and pickleball play, according to Danielle Patterson, the JCC’s marketing director.

The Los Gatos JCC also hired pickleball coaches and introduced clinics on Monday evenings and Wednesday mornings that consistently fill up, Patterson said. Since January, more than 720 reservations have been made by JCC members booking pickleball court time, Patterson said.

Before the pandemic, just one group of four regularly played pickleball at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, said Michael Baer, its assistant fitness director. He’d watch from his office facing the indoor basketball court as the group played, bringing their own plastic court divider and equipment.

“I don’t know when the switch got flipped,” Baer said. But once pandemic restrictions loosened and indoor fitness returned in 2021, pickleball “completely blew up.”

The Peninsula JCC in Foster City began offering pickleball classes back in 2016, but those ended when Covid-19 lockdowns began. Pickleball hasn’t returned to the indoor gym there yet, but the JCC plans to reintroduce the sport during open gym times in October, according to Sharon Giordano, director of marketing.

The Sports & Fitness Industry Association reports that pickleball participation increased by 158.6 percent between 2020 and 2022, making it the fastest-growing sport in America. According to the Association of Pickleball Professionals, in data shared with CNBC, more than 36 million people played pickleball between summer 2021 and summer 2022.

While the pickleball craze is new, the sport isn’t. Pickleball was invented in 1965 by then-U.S. Rep. Joel Pritchard of Washington state and two friends who visited him that summer at his home on Bainbridge Island, according to the USA Pickleball website.

His wife, Joan Pritchard, is credited with naming the sport “pickleball,” though the reason behind the name is disputed, according to the website. It’s either a rowing reference to the “leftover non-starts in the ‘pickle boat’ of crew races,” or it was named after the family dog, Pickles.

To accommodate growing demand for pickleball, Baer said, the Palo Alto JCC has official markers on its gym floor and nets set up across three courts for pickleball play. There are two hours designated on Tuesdays and Saturdays exclusively for pickleball.

The Sims family poses with their pickleball rackets. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
The Sims family poses with their pickleball rackets. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

“Some days we’ve got the full courts going, and a line along the side of people looking to come in and play,” Baer said of growing participation. He hopes to introduce classes and hire coaches in the future.

At the Palo Alto, San Rafael and Los Gatos JCCs, Baer, Coleman and Patterson have each observed a similar pattern among pickleball play: It’s multigenerational.

During the school year, Kehillah Jewish High School students play on their lunch breaks with older adults they’ve never met before, Baer said.

“I’ve never seen a sport that welcomes literally every demographic,” he said.

Pickleball, in some ways, plays on the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger.

It’s a “microcosm of what we’re trying to do with the campus and with our Jewish values,” Baer said.

Traditionally, JCC swimming pools have been the standard gathering place for mingling age groups, Patterson said. She said the pickleball court now serves the same function.

Pickleball’s multigenerational popularity appeals to the Sims family, too. Wendy and Susan are drawing up plans for a Sims family Thanksgiving pickleball tournament that will include their two families’ five adult children, ranging in age from 24 to 30. Custom T-shirts are in the works.

“It’s funny, because we could never find something that the four of us could do because, invariably, if you’re taking a hike, someone’s always complaining,” Wendy Sims said of finding an activity her two kids, ages 27 and 24, would both enjoy doing with their parents.

With pickleball, there are no complaints.

“When we play pickleball as a family, it seems like we’re always rotating. No one dominates the game,” Wendy said. “If someone is having a really good game, you’re psyched because they’re going to be your partner.”

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.