Sandra Firth of Simi Valley grew up in a Jewish family, but didn't attend temple regularly, never had a bat mitzvah and didn't go to Hebrew school.
"We were very secular, very untraditional," said Firth, 22, a Cal State Northridge junior.
But in college Firth wanted to learn more about Judaism, so as a freshman she joined CSUN's Hillel, the foundation for Jewish campus life. For the past few years she has participated regularly in traditional activities that have helped her get in touch with her Jewish roots.
Soon Firth, and hundreds of Jewish youths from throughout California, will embark on what she says will be the ultimate Jewish experience: a tour-guided, educational trip to Israel.
The best part, she says, is that the 10-day trip is free.
Nineteen other CSUN students will join Firth on the Jan. 5 mission sponsored by Birthright Israel, a worldwide initiative to provide Jews between the ages of 15 and 26 with their first visit to Israel.
Fifteen students from Pierce and Valley colleges also have been selected for a trip, and will depart on Thursday. Students from Claremont College, Loyola Marymount, UCLA, USC and Whittier College will also make the journey before the end of next year.
Birthright Israel will pay all the students' expenses, including air fare, hotel, meals and guided tours.
"I heard about it in May and I was very surprised that someone was actually offering a free trip to Israel," said Firth. "I was in disbelief when I got picked. Now I'm so excited."
Birthright Israel was established by Charles Bronfman, co-chairman of the Seagram Co., and Michael Steinhardt, a former Wall Street money manager.
Philanthropists, including Bronfman and Steinhardt, donated $210 million to the project, which in its first year will send 6,000 Jewish youths worldwide to Israel. About 5,000 of them are from the United States, including 361 from California.
Sponsors say that visiting Israel will enable young people to absorb Jewish values and history.
"We're enhancing Jewish identities and connecting these youngsters with a worldwide sense of Jewishhood," said Michael Papo, executive director of Birthright Israel.
The group spread the word of the free trips by advertising on the Internet and at college campuses throughout the country.
About 15,000 applicants signed up, and a lottery was used to pick many of the 6,000 for the trip, Papo said.
Colleges and universities were allocated some spots, with directors of Hillel programs deciding which students would go.
At Pierce and Valley combined, 30 students signed up, said Leya Witkowsky, director of the Hillel program at both schools. At CSUN, 80 students signed up, said Lonee Frailich, the university's Hillel program director.
At most colleges and universities students filled out applications and were later interviewed by a Hillel committee, which ultimately decided who would make the trip.
"We looked for people not connected with Judaism and not necessarily involved with the Jewish community," Frailich said. "All are Jewish students who have never been to Israel or were maybe born there and don't remember anything."
The itinerary includes bus tours of Jerusalem, the old and new cities, and Tel Aviv.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Alice Feldman, an 18-year-old Valley College freshman who leaves for Israel on Wednesday. "It will really open my eyes."
Feldman's father is from Israel and her paternal grandparents are Orthodox Jews, but she says her family was never very religious.
"We'd go to temple on holidays and stuff, but we weren't truly religious," Feldman said.
Others making the trip were a lot more involved with Judaism while growing up, but say visiting Israel will help them further connect with their roots.
"My parents were born and raised in Israel and I speak Hebrew, so it's a big part of my life," said 20-year-old CSUN junior Oren Ravid. "I want to make a connection with everything there. It will help me learn even more."