It’s Sunday night at 10:15, we’re in a desert in the middle of nowhere and it’s still 102 degrees outside. A group of 34 American tourists are waiting for the bar at the kibbutz in Kalia to open. I say bar, but it was really an un-air-conditioned room with a pool table, warm beer, warmer water and a speaker. We are about to spend our last night in Israel after an exhausting and exhilarating 10-day trip. At about 10:25, a man rides up on a motorcycle, rolls his eyes and says (in a gruff Israeli accent), “Hold on, I’m coming.” Soon the 34 of us, plus our Israeli tour guide, pile into this small, hot, sticky room, and we start to dance. We play American go-tos like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston and “Despacito” by Justin Bieber, but we also play Israeli music we’ve learned on the trip, already reminiscing about our experiences.

Even though we’ve only known each other for 10 days, it feels like a high school or summer camp reunion. Everyone is dancing and smiling and laughing. Half the group have sinus infections, the other half stomach bugs. Nobody cares. The amount of Imodium passed out on the trip has become a running joke. We managed to create a family in 10 days. How? Because of Jewish identity. You take a group of 22- to 26-year-old Jews and throw them together, and immediately start sharing your life stories. Bonds form fast and grow stronger every day. Yes, the intense Birthright ice-breakers may form the links, but Jewish identity is what the links are made of.

Many people on the trip don’t consider themselves religious. Most had a bar or bat mitzvah and haven’t spent much time in a synagogue since. Personally, I have never thought of myself as religious. I don’t keep kosher, I don’t go to shul every Saturday and I don’t observe Shabbat. But I consider myself VERY Jewish. The things that make me Jewish are not religious observances; they are the strands of my Jewish identity: my love of Mel Brooks movies, my deviated septum, my mom’s matzoh ball recipe, my hypochondria…those things comprise my Jewish identity as much as (if not more than) my knowledge of the Torah. When a group of Jews get together, regardless of religiosity, they will find that they share links. Do you call your mother four times a day? Do you have gastrointestinal issues you are more willing to talk about than you should be? Were you ever encouraged to be a doctor (or marry one)? Judaism seeps into our souls through our bubbies’ chicken soup and turns into an appreciation for self-deprecating humor and a good bargain. We are more than a religion; we are a people and a culture.

Birthright brings people together under the context of a free trip. It successfully packs in a whirlwind tour of Israel, busing you from the Dead Sea to the Western Wall while providing you with the history and education of the Jewish people. But more than that, it sticks you with a group of people you are intrinsically connected to, and encourages you to find out why. The answer? Judaism.

Back at the kibbutz, we’re practicing the classic dance moves we all whipped out at bar and bat mitzvahs. We sing along to the music, unable to believe the time has come to an end. How has the trip gone by so fast when we feel like we’ve been together for so long?

This winter, escape the Boston cold and journey to sunny Israel! If you haven’t experienced Birthright already, now is the time to go. Registration is open for two CJP trips: one for 22- to 26-year-olds, and another (new!) one for 27- to 32-year-olds. Don’t miss this opportunity to eat good food, learn about Israel and make new friends. For more info, contact Karen.