I just returned from my first trip to Israel this morning. On July 10, I flew out with 38 other 18-22 year-old Jews from Canada and the USA for the trip of a lifetime with the URJ (Union of Reform Judaism) Kesher Birthright Program. Visiting Israel has been a dream of mine for years, and as I went to the airport last night, I didn’t want to return home. I had high expectations of Israel prior to the trip, and am pleased to say that they were exceeded. Sure, the drivers were bad and the mosquitoes on the Mediterranean coast were hard to deal with, but there’s something about that small, beautiful, embattled country that has gripped my soul.

For the first few days of Taglit (the Hebrew term for Birthright), we stayed in the north of the country, exploring ancient Roman ruins in Tzipori, jumping off a boat into the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), hiking, visiting Tzfat, looking out over Syria from the Golan, touring olive oil factories, and partying in Tiberias. I unexpectedly fell in love with the north of Israel. The views were absolutely stunning. The cattle ranches, mango plantations and banana farms nestled in the hills overlooking the lake were something I never thought I’d see in an area I expected to be dry and rugged. And although I’m not a very religious person, I really appreciated Tzfat and found it full of charm and history.

Jerusalem was my favorite place that we visited. I wasn’t expecting to like it so much–again, I’m not very religious, and thought perhaps I’d feel a bit out of place in the capital. I was also scared of the possibility of a stabbing attack occurring while we were there. Instead, we were blessed with quiet and safety during our time there. It was nice going out at night and also visiting the Israel Museum, but touring the Old City and seeing the Kotel (Western Wall) was an incredibly emotional experience only matched by when we drove into Jerusalem and saw the view out the window for the first time. Just walking on the cobblestoned streets that have been there for thousands of years is in itself awesome. Some of the more moving moments of the whole trip were seeing the Knesset, visiting Mount Herzl, and going to Yad VaShem.

The Knesset is the embodiment of those lyrics in HaTikvah, Israel’s national anthem: to be a free people in our land. At last, the Jewish people have a home again, and can determine our own fate. But as Yad VaShem and Mount Herzl reminded us, it comes at a great price and after many tragedies. A group of IDF soldiers accompanied us for a few days, and it was so surreal, unbelievable, sad, and also inspiring hearing their stories, those of people they know who’ve fallen in battle, and seeing the graves of olim and others our age who made the ultimate sacrifice for Israel’s right to exist. So, too, was it being led on a tour through Yad VaShem, seeing detailed exhibits on what is probably the darkest moment for us as a people. And yet that ended on a hopeful note, as we looked out over Jerusalem–a sight which our ancestors yearned to see for centuries. Following that was a more lighthearted trip to Tel Aviv-Yafo, seeing some of the inventions coming out of Silicon Wadi, going to the beach, partying, and exploring Yafo.

I extended my trip afterwards and stayed with a friend for a few extra days. But I also made new friends on the trip that I plan on seeing again and talking to regularly. Taglit did more than just bring us on vacation to Israel–it built us as a community, connecting us with each other, the soldiers that joined us, and with Israel. And for that, I’m forever grateful.