Above: UGA students gather near the Western Wall during their recent Birthright Israel trip.

By Sophia Wilder | UGA Class of 2018

I have always had a love for Israel. Growing up in a Jewish community, attending Greenfield Hebrew Academy (now Atlanta Jewish Academy), and going to synagogue on High Holidays all had an impact in forming my Jewish identity.

In eighth grade I went on a school trip to Israel and explored the ancient history and culture I had been studying for 10 years. I left that experience loving Israel and all it had to offer, and I knew that I would be back in the Holy Land soon.

Fast-forward a few years. I attended a public high school and am attending a public university. My exposure to Judaism and to Israel itself has been limited. However, my love for Israel is still strong, and my desire to return was even stronger.

One day a friend mentioned that she was going on Birthright Israel this summer. I had heard countless stories of the wonderful experiences of my friends who had gone on Birthright trips and suddenly knew that I had to use the amazing gift of going on a trip myself.

I was hesitant to commit to a particular trip, as the program offers many types and dates of trips. However, I decided to go through University of Georgia’s Hillel chapter. I went on the trip knowing about half the participants. And, honestly, I am very glad that I did.

I not only strengthened some friendships with other participants who attend UGA with me, but also had the opportunity to meet and befriend all of the other participants from various parts of the country.

Everyone on my trip was amazing. Yoav, our tour guide, was so informative, friendly and funny. Our group leaders, Hillel at UGA staff members Mara Price and Moran Shabo, were extremely fun and engaging. Our medic and security guard, Tal, was always prepared with a joke and a smile, and I can speak for all of the participants when I say that we felt safe at all times.

I can’t forget to mention the six amazing soldiers who joined us for our trip: Lior, Nicol, Oshrit, Tal, Ohad and Dany. It was so cool to experience different aspects of Israel with the soldiers. They were able to offer interesting perspectives on many things regarding Israel’s culture and the political climate of the Middle East.

It was also nice getting to know them as typical 19- to 21-year-olds and learn we aren’t that different as people — we’re just in different situations and circumstances.

Lastly, all of the participants got along so well. By the end of the trip everyone was able to freely share opinions and not feel judged.

We all shared tears as we witnessed our friends becoming b’nai mitzvah. We shared laughter at our “Birthright wedding” and during bus rides. We shared stories as we discussed experiences we have had as Jews living in America. We shared copious amounts of hummus at seemingly every meal. And we shared so many wonderful memories that I would never trade for anything.

Going on the Birthright trip was an absolutely incredible experience. I made friends, strengthened existing friendships, got to experience the interesting culture of Israel and its people, participated in so many fun activities and excursions, and learned a lot about Israel and about myself.

Everyone always says Birthright is the best trip of your life. Now I know this to be true. Birthright is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and will undoubtedly be one of the most meaningful experiences of your life.