I believe the best experiences in life come when you least expect them, and Birthright Israel Academic proved that to me 1000 times over.

Finishing my freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis, I had already been to Israel three times. I had seen the Birthright posters around campus reading “Free trip to Israel” in bright letters. But for some reason, the idea of climbing Mount Masada again did not excite me. I didn’t feel like I had it in me to do another “Israel 101” trip. So, what could Birthright offer me?

Only after I stumbled across Birthright’s pilot program, Birthright Israel Academic, on the website, did these sentiments begin to change. A counter-terrorism themed trip, the chance to attend lectures at IDC-Herzliya and 3 academic credits — it seemed like a cool, unique opportunity. My only hesitation was that turning down my university’s Birthright trip also meant turning down the chance to get to know other Wash U students better. Ultimately, I followed my interests; I accepted the academic trip and hoped for the best.

To be honest, I was always a little cynical about people who said “OMG Birthright changed my life”; how could 10 days change your life? Therefore, I never could have expected the lasting impact that my trip has had on me. For me, the chance to hold an Iron Dome rocket, to visit Erez crossing into Gaza and to see how soldiers train for tunnel warfare made everything I had read about Israel’s security challenges real. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to directly ask Nir Barkat’s advisor on East Jerusalem, David Koren, and former member of Knesset, Ronen Hoffman, about the recent wave of incitement. While our trip did include a hike up Masada and all the usual Birthright programing, the academic portion provided us with many exclusive opportunities. This was a bonus for both students visiting Israel for the first time and those, like me, who had been before.

Traveling with 26 other students from ages 18 to 26 allowed me to get to know people from all different walks of life, from graduate students to a U.S. Navy veteran. Between crossing the Green Line and spending evenings in Tel Aviv, I found friends who were incredibly thoughtful and insanely fun to be around. I learned a great deal about the friend and person I want to be from them, and that’s something I’m going to carry with me for the rest of my life. And, I would definitely say that the serious nature of our trip contributed significantly to the closeness of our group.

I did not think it was possible for me to love the Jewish State more than I already did, but I was wrong. The idea that there is a place where being Jewish is the dominant narrative still amazes me. Going on a counter-terrorism specific trip reinforced just how resilient Israel is in every sense of the word. When you consider all that she has accomplished, in terms of technology, business, and culture, you can not help but recognize the beauty of her success.

Birthright has already proven its own success by bringing hundreds of thousands of young Jews, who might not have visited the country otherwise, to Israel. I think it’s remarkable that Birthright continues to innovate by offering unique programs like Birthright Israel Academic. I am really proud and appreciative to have been part of this pilot program. I only hope that it will continue to grow so that other young adults, who want to get to know Israel more in depth, will have this same special opportunity. Thank you, Birthright and Mayanot, for this amazing gift!