It’s simple: I am the person I am today because of Onward Israel.

Growing up, I was a handful, especially when it came to being Jewish. If there was a world record for the number of times someone faked being sick to stay home from Hebrew school, I would hold it. In fact, if you asked my Rabbi who was more likely to show up, Julia or the Pope, he would say the Pope.

Nonetheless, when I was a senior in high school, I was convinced to go on the March of the Living, a two-week trip to Poland and Israel.

Initially, I agreed to go on March of the Living due to the fact that I would miss school for two weeks. However, after visiting concentration camps throughout Poland and hearing the stories of numerous Holocaust survivors, I was starting to feel a new appreciation for my Jewish heritage. More so, after Poland, we flew to Israel and celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. It was truly remarkable to go from death camps to standing in the only Jewish country where we celebrated the strength of the Jewish people.

I began to want to understand more about Israel and what it means to be Jewish in today’s world.

In Israel, I had never felt so at home. It was a feeling I never wanted to lose. So, I did what most Gen Z’s do when they want to learn more about something, I turned to Google. I typed in “summer trips for college kids to Israel.” First, I found Birthright Israel, which looked incredible, but I knew I wanted to be in Israel longer than 10 days. Then, after more searching, I found Onward Israel, an 8-week immersive experience where I could live and intern in Israel. I was devastated to see that the application deadline had passed. Nonetheless, I now had plans for the following summer, and I immediately started counting down the days.

When the day finally came, I was bursting with excitement!

On Onward Israel, I lived in Florentin, which was Tel Aviv’s equivalent of NYC’s SoHo or Miami’s Wynwood. It was full of graffiti, coffee shops, and lots of dogs! I made friends with many of the local shop owners and had my regular “spots.”

I learned how to take the bus, or “rav”, to and from my internship. It was challenging at first to navigate the transportation system in a language I didn’t speak, but I quickly got the hang of it. I felt like a true local.

My internship was in Tel Aviv City Hall at the Tel Aviv Foundation. Coming from America, my expectations for an internship were getting coffee and making copies. However, I was in for a surprise. They trusted me with real responsibilities. I helped develop the Foundation’s CRM system, sat in on board meetings, and researched donors in preparation for solicitations. They treated me like a full-fledged employee.

Outside of my internship, one of my first memories was attending the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade. I was in awe at the fact that while all of the countries that surrounded Israel had a clear opposition to such an event, thousands of us danced and sang together without a second thought.

One of the most meaningful memories of my Onward trip was a Shabbaton to our sister city, Zichron Yaakov. I was hosted by a local family who welcomed me with open arms. It was incredible to experience a Shabbat dinner in an Israeli home and to see the similarities and differences to my own Shabbat dinners. Their daughter, Sivan, even gave me a tour of the city, brought me to her prom pictures, and took me to her friend’s birthday party in a chicken coop (yes, you read that right).

Another memory was when we took an aerial yoga lesson in HaYarkon Park. We were all very out of our comfort zones but had a blast.

I could not have imagined Onward Israel would forever change the course of my life. It was more than a summer trip, it was the experience of a lifetime. There is something truly magical about spending eight weeks in a land that your body and soul are connected to with truly unique people.