In May, I was granted the gift of taking a Birthright trip to the homeland of Israel.
The 40 people in my Birthright group were other students from the University of Rhode Island, as well as from Penn, Syracuse, American University and Tufts. Eight Israeli soldiers also joined our trip, giving us an understanding of them as people, not just as soldiers.
We explored and experienced Israel over the course of 10 days, starting in the mountains of the north. Seeing the beauty of the Golan Heights and learning the history of its importance to Israel, tasting unique, award-winning wine in the Galilee region, and visiting the mystical city of Tzfat (Safed) all in the first couple of days showed us the diversity in the country. And that was just the northern region!
Arriving in central Israel, we overlooked East and West Jerusalem, identifying the distinctive walls of the Old City – its breathtaking beauty somehow outshone all the newer, modern establishments surrounding it.
We walked through the Old City, seeing the different quarters, hearing its stories, and of course getting the opportunity to pray and simply feel at the Western Wall.
Waking up in Jerusalem was like a dream come true each morning. I would tell my Israeli roommate how lucky he was to wake up in a city we talk about in temple every week.
We also made emotional trips to the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance center and Mount Herzel, where soldiers are buried. Our Israeli soldiers explained what each stone said and signified about the fallen soldiers.
Moving toward the coast, we spent time in Jaffa and at the Mediterranean beaches of Tel Aviv-Yafo. Tel Aviv is a very progressive, modern and vibrant city, rich in shopping, food, drinks and art.
Haggling with the vendors in the shuk is still something I need to work on, but it is all part of the experience!
We also enjoyed the nightlife in the partying city, before heading south toward the Negev Desert.
In the Negev, we met with an Ethiopian Jew, who told us his lost tribe’s story, and we stayed in a Bedouin-style camp.
We ended our trip with a hot hike up Masada, overlooking the arid land and Dead Sea below, then cooled off with a swim in the Dead Sea.
Birthright packs a lot into the 10-day trips, and it went by very quickly.
Between these events, we had meaningful discussions on our relationship with Israel and why it exists as a nation.
During the trip, we all bonded with one another, feeling like a family after just 24 hours. In fact, we called our group Mishpacha, which means family in Hebrew.
Everything we experienced evoked different emotions, for different reasons, but it was all intense and authentic. Visiting Israel brings you closer to Judaism and gives you a better understanding of the land, the reasons and the necessity for its existence.
You feel safe in Israel, you feel close to your culture and your people, and you feel like you are home for the first time.
I want to go back, and I will go back.
Every Jew should visit the homeland and walk away with a yearning to go back – maybe permanently someday.
BRETT RUBEN, of Marshalls Creek, Pennsylvania, is a Physics Ph.D. student at the University of Rhode Island.