Five young men from south Charlotte boarded a plane together in May for the journey of a lifetime.
Their destination was Israel, for a 10-day exploration of the country, its culture and their religion. The best part was the trip was free.
Zach Maniloff, Ryan Balick, Josh Kipnis, Andrew Fishkin and Sam Ehrlich have been buddies since preschool, tied through family friendships forged in Jewish temples.
All but Kipnis, a Charlotte Country Day alum, graduated from Providence High School, and all five just completed successful first years at prominent universities.
Growing up, they'd heard about the "birthright trip," and while home from college during the last winter break, Kipnis suggested they try to go together.
As the application period was coming to a close in February, he urged the group to make the deadline for applying online with Taglit-Birthright Israel. The organization arranges and pays for educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults, funded through private philanthropists, the government of Israel and donors.
Participants are responsible only for getting to JFK airport, and a $250 deposit that is refundable at the end of the program.
Applicants must have completed high school, be 18 to 26 years old and never have taken another organized trip to the country. The organization's goal, according to its website, is to "diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world ... and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people."
Of course, when you're 19 and traveling with best friends, it's also about having a good time.
The group hiked, toured a winery, rafted on the Upper Jordan River, took in the sites from an observatory on top of a volcano and descended into Syrian bunkers built into the hills of Golan Heights. That was just the first day.
"We were up every day at 6 or 7 in the morning. (The tour) was jam-packed," said Maniloff.
While they were swimming in the Dead Sea, taking in the sunrise at Masada (a fortress where 900 Jews killed one another to avoid capture and enslavement by the Romans), and camel-riding, the students were discovering a lot about Israel and its culture.
"I kind of thought of Israel as dust roads, but Tel Aviv was like Miami," said Balick. "The people were very nationalistic; they had a lot of pride."
The most religious aspect of the trip was a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Built in 20 B.C. as a retaining wall that once enclosed the Second Temple, it is considered the holiest of Jewish sites and is now a gathering place where prayers take place day and night.
"It was a very moving place. There were millions of pieces of paper with written prayers stuck in the wall," said Balick. "We went back that night to experience Shabbat (the Sabbath, a day of rest; Saturday in Judaism) and the entire bottom row of the Western Wall was packed with people. They were celebrating. Soldiers were singing, dancing ... it was awesome."
For Kipnis, Shabbat in Israel was eye-opening.
"In Jerusalem on Friday, we went to the busiest market in the old city. There were people everywhere, most trying to get their last minute supplies before sundown and the commencement of Shabbat," Kipnis said.
In the market the next day, "there was not a soul in sight, not a single shop open," he said. "That to me was the coolest part of the trip because it really showed me the polar opposites between the regular week and Shabbat. I realized then what was meant by 'the day of rest.' "
The following day, the group visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum, and spoke with a survivor who told them about being separated from his family as they were being taken away to a concentration camp.
"It was very powerful. I put myself in his shoes, and if my mom was telling me to go somewhere and be strong even though we both knew she was about to die. ... It's just crazy," said Maniloff.
Fishkin was equally moved.
"It has been at least five years since the last time I had the honor of listening to a survivor tell his/her story, and with those years of maturity came a greater appreciation for what they went through and how important it is for their memories and stories to live on in our hearts, minds and history books long after the survivors have all passed," he said.
For these five friends, Taglit-Birthright Israel surpassed its goal. They said they came back feeling more culturally aware, more connected to Israel and more appreciative of what they have in America.
Of course, they also had a good time.