At the time when I was 18-years-old, I had wanted my first trip to Israel to be with my Israeli mother. I had thought that it didn’t make any sense to go with anyone else, especially not an organized tour group.
But boy was I wrong.
Fresh out of high school and never having left the Western Hemisphere, my first trip to Israel with Taglit-Birthright changed my life. Since that first visit, I felt at home in Israel. It was a place I had never been and a language I had never learned; a place I had heard about all my life as my mother told stories about where she grew up, and the language she and my grandmother had always spoken to each other. Unknown yet still seemingly familiar, no place had ever made me feel so comfortable and welcome. I was at home.
That first trip allowed me to fall in love with this faraway land I’d always heard about. It helped me learn and connect to my culturally-Jewish roots. As a teenager, visiting the kotel for the first time on Shabbat was probably the most spiritually-moving, astounding experience I’d ever had.
I saw people whose mannerisms, style and personality identically matched my mother’s. I found pieces of her in everyone I saw or bumped into at the crowded shuk.
I think if my mother wasn’t born there, I might not feel such a soul-deep connection to it.
The following year, at the end of my freshman year of college, I jumped at the opportunity to participate in a community service trip to Israel sponsored by my university. Having family that lives there, I extended my return plane ticket to two months later and lived with my family, most of whom I’d never even met, for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks, my mother and sister would join me.
I returned to Israel with nothing more than a large suitcase and high expectations. Traveling as one in a group of 40 American tourists was fun, but it was so vastly different from living absorbed in Israeli society. Ashkelon, the small coastal city on the Mediterranean Sea where my family lives, had no tourists. No one spoke English. It wasn’t the bustling metropolis of Tel Aviv or the historic, majestic yet tourist-trapping Jerusalem.
Traveling on my own away from my parents, friends and everything familiar was the best learning and growing experience I’d had up until that point. Over the course of my time in Israel on those two trips, I did things I had never done before. I hiked up and down mountains, spent the night in a Bedouin tent in a desert, bonded with people I could barely converse with due to a language barrier, drove a car on an Israeli highway, visited a Druze village, and worked at an Israeli soup kitchen, to name a few. All of these activities and destinations visited were unfamiliar to me. But it all felt right. Despite my inability to speak Hebrew (or Arabic) fluently, I somehow felt like a native Israeli.
For the third year in a row, I returned to Israel yet again. And yet again, it was for something I’d never done before and wasn’t sure I ever would. I made the life-altering decision to study abroad in the small desert city, college town of Be’er Sheva.
The semester I spent studying in southern Israel was undoubtedly the most amazing, fun, incredible, adventurous, crazy, enlightening experience of my life. At the time, I’d had no idea that the experience would have such an everlasting impact on me. I fell in love with the city, the school, lifestyle and pretty much everything else about it. I couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling, exciting adventure.
The Birthright trip changed my life because it opened my eyes to the world around me. Before that trip, I’d never traveled outside of the United States. Despite having grown up in New York City, I’d never spent much time with people that different from me. I had never been to a place where I didn’t speak the language. It’s difficult for me to talk about, but only because it’s difficult for me to stop. I could go on about this country, this experience and how it’s changed my life for days.
A lot of young people go on overseas trips to Europe or Asia, and a lot of college students study abroad. But there’s something so uniquely special about visiting your ancestral homeland, especially when that land is the target of so much hatred, violence and terrorism. Having experienced Israel as a visitor, a tourist, a resident and a student, I’ve had such a vast variety of experiences all over the small country that collectively make up a (mostly) unforgettable story. No matter what, it will always be my favorite place in the world.