The two weeks I spent in Israel were nothing short of transformative and to show you how much it changed my life; I need to go back a little bit.

I went to high school in Boca Raton, FL, where my mom and stepfather still live. As many people already know, Boca Raton is a very Jewish community. In the past few years, I have been invited to Shabbat dinners, supported my mother through her conversion to Judaism, I even tried fasting once – it didn’t go well. I’ve had all of these experiences, but I dismissed them as events that didn’t apply to me because I wasn’t raised Jewish.

Fast forward to college, many of my Jewish friends were going on Birthright Israel. All of them returned home with amazing stories, new friends, and of course, many many Instagram posts. It was their awestruck testimonies that made me step out of my comfort zone and sign up for a trip.

Before I left, I committed to having an open mind. As someone without a strong Jewish background, I thought I’d feel lost, inept, and would have to try really really hard not to put my foot in my mouth. I was going to listen and absorb. To my surprise, I did so much more.

We hiked in the Golan, and we camped under the desert sky. Crammed notes into the Western Wall and trekked the streets of Tel Aviv. But more than that, we discussed what it meant to be Jewish in today’s world, explored Jewish identity, and shared our own perspectives.

From start to finish, I felt accepted by everyone I met, my fellow Birthright Israel participants, the Israeli soldiers, even strangers on the street. I felt accepted because I learned through every conversation, that there is no right way to be Jewish.

Kyla's Birthright Israel group outside in Jerusalem

Before the trip, I didn’t feel like Judaism was a part of who I was. I had attended a few services and had witnessed some of the traditions, but it was all carried out in Hebrew, a language I didn’t understand. And I always felt so lost. But in Israel, I could connect with the values of Jewish culture: family, charity, courage, and hope.

In Israel, I gained an intimate understanding of the Jewish people, my brothers and sisters today, and my ancestors of the past. After walking the halls of Yad Vashem, talking to the locals, and learning from the Israelis on my trip, I was astounded by the bravery and perseverance of the Jewish nation.

“After all this, I could never dismiss my Jewish identity. I no longer feel separated from my heritage.”

After all this, I could never dismiss my Jewish identity. I no longer feel separated from my heritage. It isn’t a distant line of relatives stretching decades and centuries into the past. It was right there. Alive and well in the land of Israel, and I finally feel like I belong.

When I was writing this blog, all I could feel was overwhelming gratitude and undeniable Jewish pride to everyone who made my trip possible. By investing in Birthright Israel Foundation, you are investing in young adults like me. You aren’t just turning us into lovers of Israel, you are turning us into protectors of the Homeland. Today, I am joining Jewish organizations on my college campus. I keep Israel in mind when considering candidates for office. In the future, when I am asked to give to Israel to support Iron Dome or the IDF, I won’t think of a distant country that I don’t know, I will think of my Israeli friends, my unforgettable memories, and my deep connection with that land.

And it’s not just me. I was surrounded by 39 other American Jews who left Israel with the same feelings of love, gratitude, and pride. My good friend went on a different Birthright Israel trip, at the same time, and came back with the same understanding. Israel is our home. Our safeguard, protecting our faith, traditions, and way of life. We cannot survive without it.

To protect this land, we need the help of all the Jews in the Diaspora. And the only way to secure their support is for them to see Israel for themselves through this gift made possible by Birthright Israel Foundation and supporters like you, who are reading this now. On behalf of myself and my fellow alumni, thank you.