Some of my earliest memories include the Jewish community.
Born and raised in Cherkasy, Ukraine, Jewish culture and tradition have been part of my life since I was just 2 years old—attending Prakhim, the local Jewish kindergarten, Sunday school, Shabbat services and even family retreats.
I have always loved the sense of togetherness that came with partaking in these rituals with my family and friends. Over the course of my childhood, I was blessed to witness Jewish life in Cherkasy and the larger post-Soviet world grow before my eyes.
I always knew this was something I wanted to be a part of, and I wanted to inspire others to want to do the same. So, as I got older, I looked for ways to continue my Jewish journey. That obvious next step would be to join Active Jewish Teens (AJT), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish teen network in the former Soviet Union.
Powered in partnership with Genesis Philanthropy Group and BBYO, JDC’s AJT works to inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders in the region. Today, it connects over 3,200 Jewish teens like me in local chapters in 60 cities.
I remember very clearly my first regional AJT Shabbaton in 2018. From the moment I arrived, I felt I had found a group of soulmates with whom I truly connected, as well as teachers and mentors who inspired me with their knowledge of Jewish culture, tradition, and values.
That first in-person experience has never left me. However, in the last year plus, quarantine mandates and pandemic restrictions forced much of our in-person gatherings to be reimagined for a virtual setting, creating programming such as Zoom meetups, classes, seminars and entertainment.
It was through these online offerings that I gained the unique experience of connecting with people from around the world – an opportunity that perhaps would have never presented itself if it weren’t for the pandemic – supporting each other during a time when we all had to be separated.
However, in the last few months, as restrictions loosened and in-person gatherings started happening, I jumped at the opportunity to reunite with my AJT soulmates at an in-person regional seminar for club leaders in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
This was my first time attending a seminar since becoming an AJT leader. It was also the first time we were gathering in over a year, making me feel very anxious. Of course, my anxiety quickly vanished when I saw the other participants and felt their warmth. Being together after so much time apart, I felt my truest, most complete, self. I was determined to enjoy every minute spent with them, and I did.
Conducted within the strictest safety protocols, the seminar focused on developing leadership skills, program building, team building, networking and much more. We also discussed more tactile topics such as social media, grant writing and fundraising. The classes were informative and engaging. But it was the sharing of personal stories of Jewish identity and individual struggles, and the support, advice and guidance of the coordinators and lecturers that stuck with me the most.
I missed these non-scripted moments that happen when you are together in person. It’s the quick hello in the hallway, a chat over lunch, a random conversation as we were running to another seminar where the true connection happened.
Now home from that seminar, I am looking ahead to what it might mean to lead my local AJT club as we balance our mostly virtual programming with small numbers of safe, in-person programming. I believe that the pandemic challenges, which forced us to reinvent how we inspire Jewish life under the most challenging circumstances, presents us with an invaluable opportunity to continue to reassess and reinvent our approach moving forward.
I think of Cherkasy in the early 90s, where building Jewish life was a definite post-Soviet challenge. And yet, with the help of some inventive, and very determined, internal and external forces, a path was forged. Through a mix of classic Jewish tradition, and a bit of custom adaptation, a Jewish community was built – and is now thriving.
We need to harness this moment and build on it. Like the fall of the Soviet Union, the COVID-19 era is offering us an opportunity to innovate and expand Jewish communities from the ground up and in our own image. The borders and boundaries that we once thought existed have been flattened by the use of technology, and we teens led efforts to reach not just one another, but those newcomers who sought out Jewish community during this time.
These were people searching for meaning at a time of devastating loss. They also include those most vulnerable to COVID-19 — the elderly, people with disabilities, the immunocompromised and the poor — who reached us and continue to reach us through online platforms. And, of course, there are those who are now seeking us out as we ride the ongoing pandemic wave to the new normal.
That is perhaps where my fellow teens and I land in all of this. We’re a bit of the old mixed with the new—a hybrid, emerging leadership inspiring Jewish life and engagement around the world.
By Ilona Levit, 18, a local young Jewish leader and head of JDC’s Active Jewish Teen chapter in Cherkasy, Ukraine.