In just several weeks’ time, tens of thousands of young Jews from across the world will arrive in Israel on what many will later describe as a “trip that changed my life.” For outsiders, these words might sound cliché, but for a good portion of the 350,000 Jews who have participated thus far in the Birthright Israel program since its launch in December 1999, these words are quite true. I am one such Birthright participant who can say that this 10-day trip literally did change the course of my life.

I first came to Israel with Birthright in January of 2004 with the University of Texas Hillel organization and around 70 other young Jewish students at UT. In the midst of the second intifada, many Jewish students at UT Austin opted not to participate in the trip.

For me, this was never an option. The moment I heard of the chance to travel to Israel for 10 days, I jumped at the opportunity.

Growing up, my family always supported Israel, and I interacted with Israeli Scouts at the Memphis Jewish Community Center day camp as a child and teenager.

I was always fascinated by Israel and loved meeting with and talking to Israelis.

The moment I landed in Israel, I knew that my life would never be quite the same. As one of our first activities on the trip, we were asked to write our thoughts upon landing in Israel and being in Israel for the first time. I remember writing that I did not know if I would make aliya, but that I did know I wanted to spend several years in Israel during or after college.

The trip was a wonderful, exhausting experience. From the Golan Heights to the Dead Sea to Jerusalem and the Negev, we saw all of the “highlights” of Israel and met with fellow participants from other universities, as well as with a handful of Israeli soldiers.

There are those who criticize the Birthright program by saying that it is a “Disney World of Israel” – not exposing the participants to the reality of Israel. As someone who had never been to Israel before, I wanted to see the “highlights” like the Dead Sea and the Kotel. I have now lived in Israel a little over six years, and I still don’t know if I understand all of the intricacies of Israel and its society.

To those who criticize this aspect of Birthright Israel, my response is that the point of the program is to stimulate within its participants an interest in Israel and in connecting further with their Jewish identity. One can’t “get” Israel in 10 days, but one can be so inspired by the country and the experience that they want more, which is exactly what happened to me and many of my classmates on the trip.

Following my graduation from the University of Texas in May of 2007, I came to Israel at the end of July to begin a master’s program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, just as I had hoped I would in my initial reflections upon arriving in Israel on Birthright.

My decision to study in Israel for two years was very calculated; it was my “test run” for aliya. Having no family in Israel, I knew that in order for my aliya to be successful, I would need to learn Hebrew, meet Israelis, and establish a family base for myself in Israel, which is exactly what I did.

Immediately after I graduated from Hebrew U, I made aliya with Nefesh B’Nefesh, and I can say that the experience has been wonderful, although of course there have been small bumps along the way. I am dating a wonderful Israeli and the future for me is here in Israel.

I KNOW that my life would probably have taken a completely different course if I had not come on the Birthright trip. I most likely would be living in the United States, still involved in the Israel realm as a Jewish professional, but I would not be living here in Israel, and I would not want to build a life, family and future here.

I am quite grateful to those who fund and support Birthright Israel because this 10-day trip did in fact change my life. I remember crying when I saw the Kotel after winding across rooftops in the Old City before looking out onto the Western Wall Plaza. When I told my boyfriend this, he of course laughed, but my connection to Israel as my homeland was cemented in that very moment when I laid eyes on the most holy site to the Jewish people.

So at the end of this month and in December when you see thousands of young Jews from countries throughout the world swarm upon Israel, remember that this trip could very well have the same effect on them as it did for me and thousands of previous participants.

Because of my experience with Birthright, I can proudly say that Israel is my home now and forever.

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