In first person…Strangers become friends on trip to Israel

And because half of the participants had never taken this trip, which coincided with Israel's 50th anniversary, I felt especially responsible.

After a year of coaxing and marketing, we had a group of 60, nearly twice the number of any previous groups. Among them were some of my closest friends, including one smuggled in from Las Vegas.

We landed in Tel Aviv three days before the other U.S. participants, giving us time to get to know one another.

On a trip to Kiryat Shmona and the upper Galilee, the S.F.-based JCF's partner community, we visited Israeli friends and their welcome gave us a real sense of "coming home."

By the time we met up with the groups from other U.S. cities, our own had become cohesive. (This included playing basketball during our free time.)

For me, the most surprising part of this trip was how caring we all were toward one another. Evidence of this was our first reunion-photo exchange three days after our return: Nearly every participant showed up.

In retrospect, what stands out most in my mind? Jerusalem. It's the most wonderful city in the world. For me, Israel is Jerusalem. Sitting at an outdoor cafe on Ben-Yehudah Street, watching thousands of people walking by and speaking so many languages, I experienced a sense of being among my people. It gave me great solace knowing that so many of those strangers were Jewish.

How can I say it? Jerusalem smells Jewish. You need only go once to understand why so many in the Israeli government, right or wrong, refuse to consider giving up a part of Jerusalem. And standing with a close friend and praying at the Western Wall — how does one ever forget?

I was fascinated by how everyone's experience was so different. Ben Rose, for example, who is a corrections officer in Tracy, was so touched by what he saw in the north that he is considering a temporary move to Kiryat Shmona to experience even more. Shauna Swerland, who works as an executive recruiter, was responsible for encouraging several of her friends to come, and all of their lives were enhanced.

Several months later, a dinner gathering usually results in an attendance of 20 to 30 of us. We are now friends, who perhaps share a concern that, should we not stay in close touch, the magic might wear off with time. For those participants who have recently moved into the area, they now have ready-made friends and confidants.

No matter what one's age or emotional state, Israel has a profound affect on everyone. Personally, I was deeply moved by the ways my friends' lives were changed, altered perhaps forever. The fact that I was at all responsible for bringing these people to a country in which I believe heart and soul made this the best few weeks of my life.