Connecting with my Jewish Heritage in Israel

By Josh Azia

(This article also ran in West Hartford LIFE magazine.)

Israel was a mysterious place that I had visited once when I was young, but didn’t remember much. That’s why I was intrigued by the idea of spending the summer in such a revered and fabled land. An Israel Experience Scholarship from JCF supported my second visit to the country, sparking a profound connection to my heritage and hope for the future of Judaism…”

I chose to go on Ramah Seminar, having attended Camp Ramah New England for many years before. My trip began in the north, at the Hodayot Youth village. In the first few days, I questioned if I’d be able to last six weeks in such a hot climate; however, I quickly adjusted. While in the north, I hiked the rocky mountains of the Golan Heights. The incredible views of rural Israel were quite the refreshing change from West Hartford. Mountain goats and ibexes scaled each cliff, somehow balancing themselves on the treacherous terrain.

On one of our hikes, our travel group passed the first Aron Kodesh (ark that houses Torah scrolls) to ever exist. Despite what you may expect, it looked like a typical ark. In fact, the ark that I delivered the Torah to on my Bar Mitzvah, or sat in front of every Shabbat morning, was just like this one. It was fascinating to see the birthplace of such an ordinary, yet intrinsic, Jewish tradition. For a few weeks, we continued to explore Jewish historical sights, many of which held biblical significance or just proof of Jewish existence in ancient Israel. After many dusty days of sore legs and strenuous hikes, we packed our bags and headed south to Jerusalem.

As we drove to Jerusalem, the scenery around our bus vastly changed. We were no longer surrounded  by red, rocky cliffs, but rather cracked, limestone walls that seemed to be on their last breath. Flocks of Orthodox Jews lined each sidewalk, going about their regular day. The bus bounced and rocked on the old, polished cobblestone as it made its way toward the Kotel.

We got off the bus and continued the journey on foot. We shuffled through the narrow streets of the old city, occasionally bumping into children with payos (side curls) longer than arms, until we reached an opening. The opening revealed the Western Wall in its entirety. At Hebrew school, at synagogue, at camp, we would face in the direction of this wall to conduct our prayers, and I was now standing right in front of it. I felt extremely privileged to be able to experience and witness the greatest sight in Judaism.

Until this moment, Jewish existence in ancient Israel didn’t interest me. Stories from that time seemed like folklore that I couldn’t personally connect to. After all, my ancestors are Eastern-Europeans who never lived in Israel. Why, just for the fact that I am Jewish, should I feel a profound connection to the land of Israel? I realize now, why Israel is, and should be, so venerated. The birthplace of Judaism, every Jewish tradition is somehow rooted in, or connected to the land.

Traveling to Israel was a life-changing experience for me in many dimensions. First, on a possibly more superficial note, I got to see amazing sights. From hiking Masada, to swimming in the Dead Sea, Israel satiated all of my American tourist desires. Second, it provided me with an extreme sense of pride. For years, I avoided wearing clothes with Hebrew or leaving my Magen David outside of my shirt, hoping to conceal my Jewish identity. In Israel, however, I didn’t feel the need to do such things. I strutted around the streets of Jerusalem with pride, knowing I could exist completely free as a Jew in Israel.

“For me, Israel is a true testament of the Jewish journey and triumph. For thousands of years, the world hoped to destroy Jews. Despite how many times they tried to eradicate us, we endured, we survived, and now we prosper in our ancestral homeland. With Israel’s existence, I have hope for the future of the Jewish people.” 

Josh was one of 10 students who received the Foundation’s Israel Experience Scholarship. Supported by donors who established endowed funds at the Foundation, this scholarship provides financial assistance for immersive programs in Israel to help teens explore their Jewish identity.

Pictured above: Josh stands in the Negev Desert in Southern Israel near Kibbutz Sde Boker.

Pictured below:

Josh gets ready to hike the mountains of Har Tsfachot in Eilat, Israel.

Josh poses for a photo at a popular tourist “lookout spot” in Jerusalem.

Read about Tziyona Goldfischer’s experience in Israel, which was published in West Hartford LIFE.

Israel Experience Scholarships

We call it an immersive Israel travel experience. Teens call it a “life-changing experience.” The Foundation’s Israel Experience scholarships provide financial assistance for immersive programs in Israel to help teens explore their Jewish identity.

“There’s no way I could have gone to Israel without the Foundation’s scholarship,” says West Hartford teen Ryan Howe. That’s Ryan inserting good wishes for his family in the Western Wall.

The Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford offers scholarships worth up to $6,000 per student for programs in Israel lasting from 4 weeks to one semester.  To learn more about the Israel Experience Program, read the Frequently Asked Questions.


To apply, please fill out the Israel Experience scholarship application.

Applications for the upcoming year must be submitted no later than January 31.


All applicants must meet the following criteria:

– Jewish high school students currently in grades 9, 10 and 11
– Residents of Greater Hartford

Students who have not previously traveled to Israel and demonstrate a financial need receive first priority for scholarships. Rising seniors will have priority over all applicants in this group. If additional scholarships remain available, students who have previously traveled to Israel and/or do not demonstrate financial need will be considered.

Scholarship FundsIsrael Experience Scholarships