I never thought I would go on Birthright. Not because I had some sort of problem with Birthright, but for the first five years of being of age for their trips, I was not qualified. I was lucky enough to spend three weeks in Israel with my high school class, and that trip made me ineligible for the free trip. I couldn’t complain – those three weeks with my peers were a life-altering, incredible experience that I wouldn’t take back for anything, even a free ten day trip to the same country.

So when Birthright changed their eligibility rules about two years ago, suddenly marking me a potential participant, I leapt at the possibility. “A free trip to Israel?! Hell yes!” I thought, as I quickly researched trip organizers, ultimately choosing IsraelExperts, submitted my application, arranged an interview, and patiently waited for my assigned trip. As I waited though, I started to have my doubts. What if I don’t get along with the other participants in my group? What if I pick the wrong trip? Should I wait until I have at least one friend who will go with me? What if I’m judged harshly for not dating someone Jewish? What if I’m uncomfortable with the overtly Zionist and/or anti-Palestinian messages that will be inevitably thrown at us? After discussions with my rational parents and many friends who had already participated in trips, I decided to ignore all those fearful voices in my head.

On December 28, 2014, I found myself in Newark Airport with a huge group of young Jews heading off to the Holy Land. As our group leaders dealt with various logistical frustrations, we were left to our own devices to get to know each other before the long flight. We bonded over travel struggles, books, and music. We played Jewish Geography and figured out how so-and-so knows so-and-so who works with so-and-so and so on. Slowly but surely, we were transforming from awkward strangers into new friends.

And surprisingly quickly, my previous doubts were disappearing, as we debated and discussed issues from feminism to the treatment of Israeli Palestinians. When we were joined by a group of young Israelis, several of whom were still in the midst of their army service, I started to realize all I took for granted as an American Jew as well as what life was like for Israeli Jews. Every day of the trip, I found myself considering which Jewish values did I want to hold on to and which were irrelevant to me.

After ten days of arduous and rewarding bus rides and hikes, sampling fresh veggies and fruits from farms and shuks, discussing and debating and agreeing and disagreeing, my soul was full and I had little desire to return home. I wanted to continue the journey I had just begun – visit the places we didn’t have time to see, eat more delicious Middle Eastern and Israeli cuisine, learn about the many cultures and religions and lives of the people of Israel. I sincerely hope I’ll return soon. In the meantime, many of my fellow participants live in the same city as me, and we’ve already had one reunion Shabbat potluck. Cheers to many more reunions with my new friends, both in Boston and hopefully back in Israel.