My Jewish identity has always been complex, but my experience with Birthright opened my eyes to more joy than I could have prepared for. In Israel, I found a sense of independence and a deep connection to the land and people. I also found a friend who would become my husband and the father of our two boys.

My introduction to my Jewish identity started as it does for so many Jewish children: religious school. We learned the Hebrew alphabet, studied holidays, and listened to what seemed to me to be tall tales of our past, replete with giant whales and parting seas. The education, though, became very real the day a Holocaust survivor spoke to our class. I was around nine years old. This man with the gentle eyes recalled his experiences. The story of a Holocaust survivor is never easy to hear, but his was particularly troubling. This kind man lost sight of his young audience and went into vivid detail about the manner in which his family was killed, the horrors he witnessed, and his ultimate survival. He finished to a room of twenty silent nine-year-olds. Teachers in tears.

This experience stayed with me in the weeks, months and years following. I feared sleep and had trouble letting these images go. While the intensity lessened over time, my Jewish identity remained intertwined in the trauma of those that came before me. There were moments of levity: latkes on the table at Chanukah, rousing choruses of Dayenu, and high-pitched giggles after my brother hid the matzoh in the VCR. It was difficult, though, to find consistent peace in my Jewish identity. I avoided school lessons on the Holocaust and opted out of reading books on the subject. My predominantly non-Jewish classmates had no such fears.

In 2008, I embarked on a Birthright Israel trip. Upon arriving at the airport, I met Eric: brown-haired and big-eyed, sweet and funny. He’s now my husband. While we like to say we met in Israel, we actually met on the floor of the Newark airport. Immediately, I connected with the attendees of TL-504 (the greatest Birthright group of all time). We spoke of our college days, but also of our Jewish identities. Family gatherings full of gossip, the inferiority of flourless chocolate cake, Bar and Bat Mitzvah themes. I was going to spend the next ten days with Jewish people. I had never spent more than the length of a Hebrew School class with this many Jewish peers. I felt at home.

The trip was a whirlwind. We hiked among ibex, hunkered down in the trenches of the Golan heights, munched on shawarma, and learned more about our history. These were stories not just of oppression, but of triumph of the Jewish people and sprit. This sense of strength was brought home when speaking with the IDF soldiers who accompanied us on our trip. They spoke of what it was like to live in a country that so many wish to be erased. They also simply became our friends. We experienced long bus rides where we discussed our favorite Friends episodes and sang along to popular Israeli songs; tens of Jewish kids singing in Hebrew, some more articulately than others.

On one particularly rainy day, we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum of Israel. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I would need to face the stories I’d avoided for so long. I entered alongside an Israeli soldier, Amir. We walked through the museum side by side, his orange beret adorning his head. We were mostly silent, taking in the images in front of us: hundreds of shoes piled high, the shoes of those we’d lost. I cried quietly, just a few tears. Amir’s eyes seemed to well up, but he was more stoic than me. The surprise of this day came not with the level of sadness I felt, but with the new feeling of pride. The pride I felt witnessing these stories alongside Amir, alongside Eric, alongside my new friends. Instead of a darkness, this experience brought a new perspective. We survived. We are here now. How beautiful.

The following days were among the best of my life. One morning, in the Negev desert, Eric and I awoke before dawn and went for a run. As we watched the sunrise, I took a breath. It was peace.

There are too many moments of importance to recount in one blog, which I fear has already gone too long. Needless to say, Birthright changed my life. It shifted my sense of Jewish identity. I still hold generational trauma. We all do. Now, though, I also carry a light that for some, can only come with taking that first step into Israel, meeting the Israeli people, and getting the chance to truly be yourself.

That light can also be seen in the eyes of our two sons, who know and take pride in the fact that they are Jewish. In the wake of October 7th, we began observing Shabbat every Friday, a tradition I had not grown up with. My two-year-old chants for “challah” even before the first candle is lit, and my sweet three-year-old has learned the entire Shabbat blessing. Once the challah is distributed, we say “Shabbat Shalom”. Everyone gets a hug.

It is impossible to overstate what Israel and this trip has done for me. I’m no longer that little girl, too scared to read stories of the Jewish experience. I am a wife, a mother, an attorney, a proud Jew, and an ambassador for Birthright Israel. It is my privilege to encourage you to take the trip. You have everything to gain.