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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at FSU chapter.

Growing up, I received my education in Jewish schools and had been constantly surrounded by other students who had a passion for Judaism and the state of Israel. Once I came to college, it was a complete culture shock meeting other students who had never met a Jewish person or were anti-Zionists. Because of my travels to Israel and my held identity with the state and culture, I had become even more passionate once I was in college and away from my home.

When I was twelve years old, I had my first visit to Israel for my Bat-Mitzvah. I had traveled throughout the state, and I had decided it was a future home for me. It was an emotional trip. I had felt such a strong connection with the state, especially Jerusalem. I cannot even express the innate closeness my heart felt with Israel. It truly was an experience I describe as magical. While I will never forget the love I felt for Israel during my first visit, I always wish I could relive it again.

By the time I was 18 years old, I had then visited Israel twice. After graduating high school, I traveled to Israel in the summer with my graduation class where we were all able to receive the closure of leaving our community and venturing out to university. This is when I began to understand why Israel means so much more than just being a homeland to many Jewish people. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Not only this, but it poses as a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community as well. When I was walking the streets of Tel Aviv, I noticed all of the pride flags on each lamp post. It felt to me like there were many different cultures and religions within the state itself, symbolizing freedom in democracy and ideologies.

I then visited Israel with my university in December for a Birthright trip. My appreciation for Israel had only kept growing. It was as if I had found myself in the state during every transition in my life. I was growing up in Israel — my Bat-Mitzvah, high school graduation and now college. This visit was more emotional for me. In December, there was a rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Zionist rhetoric due to the complexity of the political issues surrounding Israel. However, I felt frustrated that others were so against a state that held a place so close to my self-identity and heart.

My relationship with Israel began as a religious and cultural connection, and as I grew up with the state, my appreciation for its democratic representation in the Middle East developed as well. Although I have now been in college for almost a year, I still have been able to maintain my passion for Israel through upholding my Jewish traditions and meeting others in the same community. Israel has acted as a motivating factor in my desire to advocate for others. It will always be a home for me.

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Natalie Willis is from Miami, FL and is studying Editing, Writing, and Media with a minor in Political Science. Find more through socials! Instagram: _nataliewillis_