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Alysha Clark only discovered last year the advantage of having Jewish maternal grandparents when playing in Israel.

Arie Livnat
Arie Livnat
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Arie Livnat
Arie Livnat

A simple conversation in a car among Hapoel Rishon Letzion teammates a little less than a year ago made a big difference in the life of Denver native Alysha Clark. Rivka Ross, a member of the women's Premier League club, recalled this week that she told Clark it was too bad the small forward didn't understand Hebrew. She said Clark surprised her by telling her she knew how to count to 10 in Hebrew. "My grandparents speak Hebrew," Clark added.

Ross was in shock and asked her African-American teammate from which side of the family, and Clark said her mother's parents were Jewish. Ross excitedly informed Clark that according to Jewish law she, too, is Jewish.

Clark going up for a shot against Maccabi Ramat Hen, January 5, 2012. Credit: Sharon Bukov

"It was as if she didn't get the significance of it," Ross told Haaretz this week. "She knew it was in her genes, but she didn't know that it was worth something. Her mother is white and her Dad is dark. They went to church and she lost it."

Clark says her family did not celebrate the Jewish holidays, but her grandparents did mark some of them.

The friends soon recounted their discovery to Clark's agent, Gili Goshen. The revelation drew the interest of Ramat Hasharon. "Goshen approached us mid-season and told us that Alysha is Jewish and he wanted to bring her to our team," says Rachel Ostrowitz, the chairperson of Ramat Hasharon. "We have some new immigrants and we know the process they have to go through, but we didn't want to do it mid-season."

Digging through the family tree

After the season, Elitzur Ramle got into the picture, but things didn't work out and Clark found herself without a team and without Israeli citizenship. Her American agent approached Ramat Hasharon, and this time closed the deal. Ramat Hasharon agreed to help her immigrate if she committed to playing for the team on condition of being an Israeli citizen.

Because Clark lives near Nashville, she had to go to Miami to find a rabbi who knew her parents and would vouch for their status as Jews. Clark, 24, says she had a lot of interviews and had to prove her roots, but that the process was worth it.

Clark is contributing 10.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Orna Ostfeld, her coach, says Clark could score more but had a bad ankle injury and only recently recovered fully. Ostfeld said she moved Clark from her usual position at the 4 spot to the 3 spot because she has more room to develop there.

"She shoots three-pointers the best on the team (50 percent)," says Ostfeld. "She's a great rebounder and passer."

The coach added that Clark is a leader who is organized both on and off the court.

Ostrowitz, the chairperson, says Clark is an amazing person, always positive and demonstrating sportsmanship.

At 7-2, Ramat Hasharon is second in the Premier League. Clark says she is optimistic about the remainder of the season. She says the players are friends off the court and work well together on the parquet, which gives the team a good chance to win the championship.

Eli Rabi, the coach of the national women's basketball team, says he plans to ask Clark in the coming days to play for him this summer. "A player like Clark can contribute a ton to the squad," he said. "She's a scorer, a rebounder. Her offensive skills are exceptional and she can guard at any position."

Clark says no one has spoken to her about the national team yet. She says she does not rule out the idea, but right now she is focusing on her season with Ramat Hasharon. After that she wants to go to the training camp of the WNBA's San Antonio, which drafted her 17th out of Middle Tennessee in 2010.

Regardless of the national team, Clark says she wants to strengthen her ties to Israel. "I want to understand the language in the country I live in, to communicate with people as well as with grandpa and grandma," she says.