Me: Completely free? As in—no strings attached?
My cousin: Well one of your parents has to be Jewish.
Me: Where do I sign up?
That was the exact conversation, word for word, I had with my cousin when he told me about Birthright. I had never even heard of it, or anyone else that had actually been on this trip and thought this was too good to be true. I told my sister immediately and we made interview appointments within the week.
I should back up and note that I grew up “half Jewish half Christian” –that’s how I would describe myself to my friends and teachers. My dad is Jewish and my mother was raised Catholic. I thought I had the best of both worlds—gifts at Hanukkah and Christmas! Only one downfall, “double the guilt” (as my interfaith friend always says). Funnily enough with all this freedom there was also a huge sense of apathy. I never really connected on a spiritual level with anyone or anything in my life and lost all curiosity for it. I had to travel 7,459 miles to realize that you could be spiritual and not religious. This was a totally new concept for me. What started as a “free trip to Israel” slowly started to seep into everything I do and has made me into the person I am today.
It was a year after my mom passed away from cancer and I couldn’t be more angry with G-d (if there even was such a thing) but, standing at the Western Wall, walking in the Jewish, Muslim and Armenian quarters—seeing men, women, and children of all faiths come together to pray was incredibly moving. Ironically, it was the most peaceful place I’ve ever stood; you can feel the sense of spirituality amidst all of the history and stone. I was hooked and knew I would be back in Israel—someday.
A couple years later I scrimped and saved to intern at a dance school in Tel Aviv for six months. I went back to Jerusalem and wrote a note and placed it in the cracks of the Western Wall. “Help me find my way, find a job, find purpose.” The day I flew home I had an interview with the CEO of JFFS. That was almost three years ago and I’ve been working here ever since. (Of course I also asked for a romantic relationship with a kind, smart man—still waiting on that one!)
I like to think that my grandpa is somewhere smiling, thinking that his first granddaughter Tanya works at Jewish Federation & Family Services and writes for Orange County Jewish Life Magazine. I’m basically a walking ad that this Birthright thing really works, and the influence and profound effect it has had on my life and those around me is pretty amazing.
Tanya Schwied graduated from New York University, studied abroad in Israel, and currently works for the CEO and President of Jewish Federation & Family Services.