Since I was in 2nd grade, I have always been a traveler. My family instilled in me a love of the world, of learning new things, and a thirst for exploration. Not until 2008, at age 25, did I truly consider visiting Israel. Yes, I had heard about Birthright but had never put much thought into taking advantage of it. When would be a safe time to go? Was it smart? Shouldn’t I experience that with my family instead of strangers? Finally, I stopped hesitating and boarded the plane to Israel.

It’s true that I headed to the homeland knowing only my best friend Allie and had very limited expectations, but during the 10 days we were there, a dozen strangers laughed together, cried together, prayed together, sang together, even climbed Masada together. After those 10 days, we flew home as family.

I grew up in a very relaxed Jewish lifestyle – temple 3 times a year, attempting but rarely ever fasting on Yom Kippur, eating bagels on Passover – and I had only a handful of Jewish friends. I never placed a high importance on having friends who shared my religion and heritage because it didn’t mean too much to me. I was friends with people I liked being with, regardless of their beliefs and traditions. It was not until Birthright that I began to realize, and now fully appreciate, that
surrounding yourself with other Jews does mean something.

My new friends, whom I probably never would have met if not for the trip and who probably would have been in different social circles from me even if we did grow up together or went to school together, became so much more than friends. There is something special, intangible, inexplicable about the bond between Jews. I am incredibly thankful to have met Jill, Arielle, Elan, Bradley, Jenny, Natan, Seth and everyone else on Bus 740.

Birthright opened my eyes not only to a new country, but to new values and a new outlook. I love all my friends and cherish our relationships regardless of how we met or whether we celebrate Chanukah, Christmas or Ramadan. But there’s something extra about my Jewish friends – a different level of comfort, a very special bond.

I recently went to Chicago to visit one of my friends whom I met on Birthright. It had been 3 years since I had last seen her and we only knew each other for 10 days, but I immediately felt at home when I saw her. When she dropped me off at the airport at the end of my trip, I turned to her and said “I feel like I am my true self when I am with you.”

To be able to find that is invaluable. And for that, and many other reasons, I am incredibly thankful for Birthright.  It truly changed my life.