From the CEO: Nurturing Young Jewish Leaders in the Former Soviet Union

Alan H. Gill

– Chief Executive Officer

My focus today is on young leadership development for Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union (FSU)—one aspect of our work in that region that was brought home to me in dramatic fashion shortly before Passover. I thought of it again a week ago during our family Seder, a ritual that for so many years incorporated heartfelt prayers that the Jews of the Soviet Union might soon be able to live freely—and dreams that they would take their proper place as proud members of the world Jewish community.

A month ago I had the privilege of seeing the fruits of those prayers and dreams in action, as we hosted in New York a remarkable group of rising young Jewish activists from our Lehava Leadership Institute in St. Petersburg.

Most of these young Russians had not yet been born when JDC was permitted to return to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, 50 years after the 1938 closure of Agro-Joint. The very notion that these young Jewish leaders who had grown up in freedom were now exploring social innovation with us in New York seemed nothing short of miraculous to me.

Yet here they were, part of a thriving generation of young Jews who are looking to expand and deepen their Jewish knowledge and shape a future of their own choosing for themselves and their communities.

Through programs like Lehava, our support for Hillel, and a range of innovative training initiatives, we are giving young leaders throughout the FSU the tools to do just that—building on the Jewish resource materials, outreach efforts, learning opportunities, and community programming that we have been a critical part of developing in this region for nearly 25 years.

I could not be prouder of the role that JDC has played in helping to restore Jewish identity in the FSU to those from whose families it was stolen three generations ago, and producing leaders such as these young visitors from St. Petersburg, who are so committed to our People.

The Lehava group’s “Inside Jewish New York” visit was jointly organized by our JDC field and Entwine professionals. Viewing this as a first-ever “reverse” overseas learning experience, our JDC colleague Violetta Shmulenzon brought a special, personal perspective to this mission. I urge you to read her insightful report:

“Over the past few years, JDC Entwine has sent over 1,500 young adults, primarily North Americans, to Jewish communities around the world, including many to the former Soviet Union, where they volunteer, learn, and build relationships with their peers. Yet, an interesting question was posed to JDC Entwine less than a year ago by Ofer Glanz, Director of JDC’s FSU Program: 'Can young people from the FSU come to you to serve and learn with their peers in the US?' We loved the question, and immediately accepted the challenge.

“The idea quickly grew into a unique collaboration between the JDC Entwine and St Petersburg professionals, led by Duby Rodman and Katya Potapova. Last month the idea became a reality when, after months of planning, a group from JDC’s Lehava Leadership Institute in that city arrived in New York to take part in the overseas learning component of their immersive leadership training program. They came by way of Cleveland, where they had been warmly hosted by the Jewish Community Federation that, along with the Palm Beach Federation, have been JDC's primary partners over the years in strengthening Jewish renewal and vitality in the community.

“Why bring young Russian Jews to the U.S.? The answer is identical to why we send young Americans to Poland or anywhere else—to expose these rising young leaders to new and different cultures, ideas, and communities, and through exchange, volunteering, and networking, help catalyze their sense of global Jewish opportunity and its accompanying responsibility.

“Perfectly suited for this kind of experience, the Lehava program recruits and develops young Jewish leaders in St. Petersburg with a special focus on social entrepreneurship. It works to equip participants with the tools to build authentic and innovative programming in their home community, and aims to create a network of young adults ready to play an active and meaningful role in their city’s Jewish life.

“The young leaders hosted here by JDC had access to the best that New York and its Jewish community have to offer: rising Jewish thought leaders, influential business and community leaders, and experts in various areas of New York City government. Highlights of the group’s hectic program included:

• A warm welcome and briefing from JDC Board member Jayne Lipman, CEO Alan H. Gill, and JDC senior professionals that zeroed in on key trends in global Jewish life.
• A day of site visits, accompanied by JDC Board member Judah Kraushaar, to meet with social entrepreneurs and young Jewish innovators in such fields as new media and education, and explore pioneering models for social action.
• Discussions on the influence and reach of New York Jewry with New York City Council members and the former White House director of Jewish outreach.
• A private lunch at Liquidnet with Board member Ed Merrin and company professionals who are expert in taking new ideas from inspiration to implementation.
• An opportunity to explore the fabric of New York’s Jewish community and the outlook for the future with Professor Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College.
• Shabbat dinner at the homes of local JDC Entwine young leaders and peers, which generated real opportunities to strengthen global connections.

“While this was Entwine’s first time planning a ‘reverse’ overseas learning experience, the program’s success has given us a new model of global collaboration to engage rising young Jewish leaders. Of equal importance, reverse exchanges create opportunities for direct involvement by JDC Board members and key partners, leveraging their skills, knowledge, and connections to support this critically important new generation of leaders.

“On a personal note, as a young Russian-speaking Jew who had the privilege of serving as a Ralph I. Goldman Fellow in Odessa, the same city from which my family fled—with difficulty and with JDC’s aid—over 30 years ago, it was amazing to hear the reflections and ideas expressed by these young Russians following their Inside Jewish New York experience. The options, vibrancy, and innovation that New York Jewish life presents enabled them to recognize what is missing from the mosaic of their own local Jewish community. They were intrigued by the religious pluralism and depth of social innovation they witnessed. It helped them understand the importance of infusing their energy into their community, and encouraged them to think big.

“As Ed Merrin told these young leaders, it’s their generation who will change the world, yet it is up to them to make it happen.

“Surely JDC can and will be there to help these young Jews deepen their connections, and strengthen their commitment to the single intertwined Jewish world we all love.”

While it is incumbent upon the emerging generation of Russian-speaking Jews to steer the course of their communities' future, we as JDC leaders have the opportunity today, and the privilege, of giving continued strength and encouragement to their historic journey of reunification with the Jewish People.

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