Words cannot describe how dear Birthright Israel is to my heart. To understand why I have to give you context about me and my childhood. I grew up in Buckhead, an Atlanta neighborhood, and as close I was to the Jewish community, I had zero Judaism in my upbringing. I’m a sixth-generation Russian Orthodox Jew, but within the last two generations, the Jewish flame waned in my family line.

Throughout my life, I always considered myself a spiritual seeker. And it wasn’t until I was 13, when Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were happening, that I learned that I was a Jew from my peers who told me I, too, could have a Bat Mitzvah!

They told me because my mother was Jewish, I was too. So being the spiritual seeker that I am, my interest in Judaism spurred. I then approached my mom and asked her to take me to a synagogue. If you can imagine me as a 13-year-old girl with zero Jewish background, sitting in a synagogue and hearing a man speak Hebrew for the first time in my life — it didn’t do much for me. So, I went out and bought myself a Star of David necklace to show the world, “I am here. I am Jewish!” I expected magic to happen when I put that necklace on and to feel this spiritual connection to Judaism, but nothing happened …

I let go of my urge to connect with Judaism.

I was spiritually lost and felt homesick, so I decided to go to a church and see if I could feel a connection to something higher — but let me tell you, praying to Jesus was not my thing. It wasn’t until I was 28 that my sister called me and said, “Let’s do Birthright.” I didn’t even think we had access to something like a Birthright Israel trip because our knowledge of our Jewish heritage was minimal.

Going to Israel was the most transformational experience of my life. I finally felt a connection after all of those years. In Israel, I could almost hear g-d speak to me. I was finally spiritually connected to my Jewish roots, and my ancestors weren’t going to let me go!

I documented my entire Birthright Israel trip and thought it was only fit to share a passage from my journal to explain how transformational it was:

I have found my home

I have found my home

In the people

In the food

In the complexity and the struggle

In the grit

In the Sabbath

In the Divine Feminine, Shekinah

In Kabbalah

In the laughter

In the imperfections

In the ideals of Tikkun Olam

And they want me

I found my family, and they want me back

They want me to stay

They want me for Shabbat

They want my money at the shuk

They want me to be more religious

They want me to marry their sons

They want me to cover my shoulders

They want me to learn Hebrew

They want me and all the ways and more than I’ve longed to be wanted.

I have spent 28 years without a home feeling a burning want in my heart and soul, and finally, that longing is reciprocated. I have been given everything I did not even know I was hungry for, but now that I have it, I won’t let it go.

A Promise to Myself

I made a promise to myself on Birthright Israel that I would make Judaism a priority in my life. Shortly after returning from my trip, I went back to Israel on a Masa Israel program, where I volunteered with Eritrean refugees for a few months. Then I went back to Atlanta, where I staffed two other Birthright Israel trips. And now, my mom and I observe Shabbat every week!

Because of Birthright Israel, Judaism is completely infused throughout my life. I proudly wear my Star of David necklace and feel fully connected to my heritage. My trip built a bridge for me that connected me to our people and my lineage, and without that bridge, my life would probably look very different.

To those of you who are reading this and supporters of Birthright Israel Foundation, I have immense gratitude for this gift you gave me. Your philanthropy put me on a plane and took me to our homeland, which changed the course of my, my sister’s, and my mother’s lives. Thank you.