Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Sara Hoffen

Discovering my Jewish identity through Israel


Israel used to be just another picture in a textbook. It was another set of dates, another long list of names, another world. It was a photograph that was immensely important yet one could never understand why. Until I spent three weeks diving into Israeli culture through a BBYO summer program called Passport, Israel was simply a distant place—one I had not immersed myself in as I had in Florida, my home.

I traveled through BBYO with 44 other teens from 16 different states and Canada. This trip opened my eyes to new perspectives—foods, cultures, people. It allowed me to see the differences as well as the similarities in our lives. It depicted how traditions shaped current lifestyles and practices. But mostly, this journey impacted my Jewish identity.

My three-week trek through the Jewish homeland began with Jerusalem. The 45 of us planted ourselves before the Western Wall, a structure our ancestors fought for 2,000 years ago. We pressed our palms against the stone, feeling the pain, joy and anger of our ancestors tracing through our fingers.

One can study the wall and the wars that went into preserving it, the persecutions and the triumphs. But touching the wall with our bare hands, standing in the same place our people stood in for years, sliding our wishes and thoughts into the cracks of the wall, and chanting the prayers alongside hundreds of others from all over the world stirs a sense of pride within us. We are proud that we have managed to cling to our customs despite persecution. We have been beaten down yet we still stand strong. The wall represents our faith in not only God, but in ourselves as a community.

I visited several incredible sights: Rosh Hanikra, the slippery grottos with powerful blue waters slapping the rocks and sending a cool breeze through my hair. The Golan Heights, which spilled clear water across red rocks and glistening grass. The Kinneret, with its calming waves soothing my skin. The Dead Sea, burning as it healed my wounds. The Bedouin tents, with camels and donkeys trampling across the surrounding sandy terrain and sweet tea warming my throat. The Negev, dry mountains dotting the desert and a large orange sun heating all its inhabitants. Each was too beautiful to be real, too fresh to be authentic. Every single breathtaking view squeezed into Israel, our country.

However, what makes Israel stand out among other countries is its willingness to help others. Israel takes Jews in from other countries so that they may practice Judaism freely. For instance, “Save a Child’s Heart” provides heart surgery and a temporary home for ill children in developing countries, even including children from places Israel is not on peaceful terms with. Their love for one another strengthens the community and the country.

My Jewish identity has been influenced by all of these colorful experiences. It has been impacted by the brown desert, which our ancestors trudged through thousands of years ago. It has been sculpted by the crystal blue waters, washing knowledge over my head. It has been influenced by green vegetation, the abundance of plants and trees reminding me of the many beautiful traditions I must carry on, planting and replanting them in my descendants’ lives.

Orange is the color of our arms tanned from the sun and wrapped around each other, creating a tight community. Most importantly, the silver stars watch over us every night whether we are in Israel or Florida or New York, guiding our paths with their optimistic twinkles. Despite our different lifestyles, we will all look at those same silver stars as one people, one Jewish people.

Sara Hoffen is a junior at Lake Mary High School. She plays the flute within her school’s marching band. Sara has a passion for volunteering and believes in the power of music for bringing people together. She aspires to start a Jewish Service Teen Corps in Orlando to bring music to hospitals and nursing homes. Sara is involved with USY and BBYO and was an active participant in J-Serve 2013.


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