Birthright Israel was an amazing experience, full of wonderful places, people and adventures.

As a first-time visitor to Israel (at the beginning of last January), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, even as I was on the way to the airport. All I knew was that I’d be going to Israel and visiting Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Golan Heights and a few other places with a few people from my school, Goucher College, and several other students – about 20 or 30 — from surrounding schools in the Baltimore area, including Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

I was a bit nervous about who I was going to spend my time with on the trip, considering that most of my fellow travelers were unknown to me. The opportunity certainly took me out of my comfort zone, but it opened me up to something totally new.

In the end, the risk of not knowing exactly what would happen was so worth it.

By the end of my first day, after flying for almost 12 hours, touring Tel Aviv and driving a few more hours to our hotel overlooking the Sea of Galilee, I was exhausted. Even in the midst of all that craziness, I was able to connect with some other students on the bus.

I ended up spending my whole trip with two particular guys – Andrew was from Maryland and Naor was from New York. Developing some wonderful new friendships was one thing that made the trip an even better experience.

It’s amazing how you can go from not knowing someone at all to becoming very close with them over the course of a mere 10 days. Rooming with these folks was awesome because we all had different experiences, but we got along so well.

Birthright was less of a religious experience for me and more of a cultural one. It introduced me to a place thousands of miles across the globe that I can now call home. It allowed me to meet people with whom I share a common heritage. One of my favorite parts of the trip was getting to know the Israeli soldiers who accompanied us. They were delightful to spend time with, and I learned a lot from them about Israeli life.

One thing I was surprisingly comfortable with was the presence of members of the Israel Defense Force. One might think that walking around a place full of men and women in uniforms and with machine guns would be a bit off-putting, but I felt very safe. I really had no qualms about my safety while traveling throughout the country.

In addition, I spent the entire time honing my craft — photography. I love taking pictures, and I really appreciated having so many people around me as the subject to my work. I’m glad that I have those images to remind me of this special trip.

Anyone who has the opportunity to travel with Birthright Israel should do so. It may only be 10 days, but the memories last a lifetime.

Joel Nadler is a Jmore editorial intern.