A week before we left for Birthright, I called my mom - my only Jewish parent - and told her I didn't want to go to Israel anymore. There was too much violence, too much conflict for me to go on vacation there, take selfies, drink wine while men, women, and children suffered on both sides.
I am so glad that I didn't bail out. Israel has been an unforgettable experience from beginning to end. These are the most Jews I have ever been around. It is a wonderful, foreign feeling to be in the religious majority for the first time in my life. The trip has been full of firsts. My first time in the Dead Sea and the Negev, sure, but also my first time seeing the Torah. My first time talking to an IDF soldier about their POV.
I feel connected in a way I didn't expect to. My opinions have changed in unpredictable ways. I was awed at how little of Israeli history I knew before this trip, and it has whet my appetite to learn more. It's good to have these complicated feelings about home, place, belonging, religion, not in a textbook on the other side of the world with people who talk more than they listen. If anything, it has been eye-opening and is, at least for me. A trip that has planted newfound empathy in my garden.