'You're Going to Israel and Paris? What's Wrong With You?'

Departures / Arrivals: One globetrotter comes to Israel to learn about the past, while another is brought here by her husband's basketball career.

Julia Clark at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Tomer Appelbaum

Julia Clark, 20, lives in Ojai, California; flying to Paris

Hello, can I ask where you’re going?

To Paris. Before I flew here a lot of people said, “You’re going to both Israel and Paris – what’s wrong with you?” But I’m not a coward. (Wipes away a tear)

Is everything alright?

Yes. It’s just that I did the Birthright program here and now I’ve said goodbye to my friends. I’m emotional. I am not a religious person, and when I was growing up, Judaism wasn’t really important in my life. But I was happy to come here; I discovered that I felt a sense of belonging. It’s interesting, because there are so many groups and cultures in America, but I don’t identify with any of them.

So you’re Jewish.

My mother’s side is Jewish. I did some research: The last person from my family who visited Israel was my great-grandmother. My grandparents immigrated from Poland and Russia to New York, and I lost relatives in the Holocaust. I visited the Dachau concentration camp, but I still have a lot to learn about the past.

What are you studying?

I want to learn international studies. I hadn’t thought of studying Israel and the Middle East, but now I’m considering it. I completed two years at a community college near home, and in the third year you can go elsewhere. When I get back I’ll transfer to the university in Eugene, Oregon – about 1,000 miles from home.

A long way. Is that stressful?

No. I already lived away from home. Two years ago I went to South Africa and worked on a flower farm in Cape Town, and then traveled in Botswana and Zimbabwe for another three months. I’ve lived at home so far because it’s cheap and allows me to travel. I work very hard to travel.

At what?

I have three jobs. The first is for an organic farmer. Three times a week I sell fruits, flowers and lettuce that he grows – $1.50 for a head of lettuce. My second job is in a business that prints greeting cards on an old Heidelberg press. I work in deliveries and accountancy. The third job is as a pet sitter, for when people travel. I’ve been working since I was 14.

Sounds a bit young.

It was my choice. In high school I took independent studies – you come to school twice a week for a minimum of two hours, so for the rest of the time I could work, surf, dance.

What did you study?

Everything. Math, language, history. Even sign language and psychology. It’s actually a full-fledged public school, but each student has one really good teacher and not six, and you do the lessons at home and the teacher helps you.

Isn’t it a bit lonely?

The school is on a college campus, and you go there for the social life. A lot of kids go to school there because they feel they don’t belong, because they’re more introverted and avoid social activities. But I actually did it because I wanted to be more active: I wanted more free time. I’m very independent; it was really hard for me to travel with the group now. We were at the Western Wall for just 30 minutes and I would have stayed there a whole day. I also went to a regular school for two years and then realized I wanted to transfer. My older brother went to the independent school, so I knew I’d have more free time there.

Are there many schools like that?

It’s a phenomenon that’s spreading in America, where it’s usually clear that you go from high school to university. But there’s no army in America like in Israel and no gap year for traveling like in Europe, and going straight on to university isn’t good. You learn about the world by experiencing it. At 15 I was already interested in travel, but I had to save up money. My parents supported me, even though they only made their first trip out of the United States just two years ago.

You inspired them.

There was also some envy mixed in. But now they’re my inspiration. They travel a lot. I also have three older brothers, and they all traveled abroad for the first time in the past two years. My family is discovering the wide world, and it started with me, the youngest.

Rachelle Mills at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Tomer Appelbaum

Rachelle Mills, 31, no permanent home; arriving from Detroit, Michigan

Hello, are you feeling alright?

I’m happy to be off the flight. It’s hard to fly when you’re pregnant. My legs got swollen, but I think it’s better now.

What month are you in?

In the eighth – pretty near the end, but my doctor gave the okay to fly.

Where are you planning to give birth?

At Carmel or Rambam [Haifa hospitals]. My husband and I live in Kiryat Ata [a Haifa suburb]. He plays for the Kiryat Ata basketball team; before that he played in Ashkelon and Netanya. We’ve been here four years already.

What do you think of Israel?

I like living here, it’s a beautiful country. That’s one of the reasons we keep coming back.

Is it your choice to come back?

We never know whether we’re coming back or not. We thought Ashkelon would be the last place, then Netanya was a surprise and Kiryat Ata was, too. The playoffs start in April, and if you win, the games go on until June. Then we spend the summer in the United States with the family, and wait to hear about the next contract. In the Israeli league you can only play as a foreigner for five seasons, so if we play here again next year it will be our last time.

How did you meet?

I grew up in Detroit. I was 13 when I started to play basketball. We both played in college at the same time, and that’s how we met.

Did you ever play one-on-one?

Yes, and he pretty much wiped the floor with me. I stopped playing after college, although when we lived in Netanya I worked out with the local women’s team; they were in the top league then. I love basketball.

Then why did you stop?

He likes playing more than I do and he gets a better salary. There’s a very big difference between the salaries of women and men in basketball. I started to travel only after we were married. We’ve been to all kinds of places because of basketball: Hungary, Australia, Poland, Holland, and I think there were more ... We were all over.

Is it hard to move all the time?

It was only hard this time, because I had to bring so many things over for the baby. I came with six suitcases.

Where was it the easiest to live?

In Australia. We lived in Queensland, by the coast. In Detroit it’s usually really cold. Everything was just right in Australia. Everyone spoke English and the team helped me find a job at the university. In Israel it’s impossible to work, or at least that’s my feeling.

It’s hard to get a work permit?

Absolutely. I only got an extension of my tourist visa. I tried when we were in Netanya, because I wanted to get out of the house and work in Tel Aviv, but it’s complicated, especially if you don’t know where to go. It’s also hard to find a company that will ask specifically for you. It’s easier to employ an Israeli.

So what do you do all day?

I stay home, clean, cook and travel around when possible. When we lived in Netanya, I learned how to surf, which is why I like that city. I always go to the home games, and when the men travel go to away games, the wives and girlfriends get together and go out.

Is there a social scene?

The wives are usually really nice. I can’t say about the men – everything is really competitive on the court – but off-court it’s usually very friendly. The pressure disappears in most cases.

Do you talk about basketball among yourselves?

All the time. It’s really fun. We watch his latest game together and analyze his playing. I tell him what he’s doing wrong.

Like what?

It varies. There was one game when he didn’t shoot enough, and in another he was bad on defense. But he’s good at fixing mistakes. He’s a shooting guard. The team is in first or second place in the second league, and they’ll make the playoffs.

So you’re all set with basketball – but what about the baby?

It’s my first child. I’ve been both a little worried and also not so worried. But my husband is here and he’ll help. And as long as he is around, I’m happy.

By the way, can I ask if you know

It’s a boy!