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After weeks of anticipation, I finally made it off the waiting list for a free Birthright Israel trip through Oranim: Let Israelis Show You Israel.

I was excited for this incredible opportunity - my chance to explore the Jewish holy land, meet new people and inhale a vibrantly historic culture that still thrives today.

Under the guidance of a brilliant Israeli leader, I joined 40 Americans and eight Israeli soldiers for an incredible two weeks that strayed from the confines of typical tourism.

The soldiers and Americans in our group mingled seamlessly, and we formed instant connections that will hopefully remain lasting friendships. Many of our soldiers even joined as soon as the trip ended.

"It was enlightening to see people from other cultures," said Bar Cohen, a 20-year-old Israeli Defense Force commander and member of my Birthright group. "It was devastating to go back to the army after that week."

"The soldiers were all really easy to get along with," said Towson University junior and fellow group participant Jason Melker. "I thought I was going to have to live up to their standards, but that wasn't the case."

When we first greeted the soldiers (five men and three women), I sensed a certain maturity among them, shaped from military experiences that we as Americans could never even begin to imagine.

But, as Melker noted, this initial difference faded quickly as the soldiers shed their uniforms and joined our ranks. The men in particular seemed to have little trouble adopting the fraternity boy ethos required of a 20-year-old American male; paratroopers and intelligence agents could easily fit in at AEPi.

Meanwhile, the female soldiers shared their distaste for Israeli men to us from afar, as our multi-national assortment of men quickly bonded over a dance masterpiece called the "Sexy Shuffle."

Perhaps the most moving segment of our journey was our coupled visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and Mount Herzl National Cemetery.

At this military memorial, we honored rows of martyrs who perished in last year's conflict with Lebanon.

Captions bore the icy inscriptions "Born: 1987, Died: 2006," chilling words that shook our emotions to the core. The most heartrending moment of all was when our own eight soldiers showed us the specific gravestones of their friends.

"There's not one Israeli soldier who doesn't know someone who was hurt or killed," Cohen said. "Everyone felt 'more important' when being with" the soldiers, who have to spend three years in the army.

Without the dedication of soldiers like Cohen, Israel could not withstand the trauma it has continuously overcome since its creation.

But the trip wasn't just about interacting with those who serve in the military during what many Americans consider to be the college years.

Shlomo ("Momo") Lifshitz, the endearing yet uncompromising father of Oranim held the personal goal of making every birthright traveler "fall in love" with Israel, with Judaism and with each other.

He even promises a bonus incentive: If you meet your future spouse on your trip, Momo will personally pay for your honeymoon to Israel.

But Momo promotes a serious type of fun that hopes to lead to future "Jewish babies" and will solidify our roots in Israel. His aim is to help preserve the State of Israel's future by trying to reinvigorate young Americans with Zionism and passion.

Here at Penn, we Jews claim a weighty 33 percent of the campus's population. And sure, just like at Smoke's, you can expect to run into Penn Theos guys at a Jerusalem bar - I know I did.

But when you set foot in the holy land, you experience something strangely shocking and new - a Jewish majority.

As soon as I arrived in Israel, I felt immediately at home.

Through every city and rural area that we traveled, we were uncovering our personal histories and interconnected pasts.

There is no other place in the world where a Jew can feel such a sense of belonging, where religion and culture is never something to hide.

Birthright allowed me to meet the very people who are defending my homeland and to truly understand the nature of what exactly that homeland is.

To all Jewish Penn students, take advantage of this amazing opportunity, and register for a Birthright trip as soon as possible. Because regardless of your ethnic group, it is vital to be able to experience the sort of solidarity and heritage that a trip like Birthright provides.

Sharon Udasin is a 2007 College alumna from East Brunswick, N.J. Her e-mail address is

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