I did not think my first trip to Israel in 1999 would have much effect on me. In preparing for the two-week journey, I focused on the logistics, not on what it might come to mean. We traveled as part of Project Interchange, an initiative sponsored by American Jewish Committee. For the first week, we met with government and university officials and media, civic and religious leaders. For the second week, we traveled with Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes on a trade mission to meet scientists, technology leaders and medical experts.

This trip completely changed my perspective on being Jewish. Flying into Tel Aviv, we saw nothing but sand, then all of the sudden was this vibrant patch of green — Israel. It is hard to believe that this small country has done so much to help the world in technology, environmental innovations, medical discoveries and humanitarian aid.

Michael Coles

The most moving thing I remember during that first trip was visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Gov. Barnes and I were invited to lay a wreath at one of the memorial sites, and it turned out that it was for the town in Poland where my mother’s family was murdered.

After the trip, I had a much better understanding of my heritage and the source of my own strength. It also shaped my current work as the president of Hillels of Georgia. Today, the anti-Israel movement, which is a veiled attempt to legitimize anti-Semitism in public discourse, is growing. I will do whatever is necessary to combat this corrosive movement. Little did I know that my trip in 1999 would profoundly shape that commitment.

See all the reflections on Israel’s meaning on this special anniversary.