Feature Stories

Investing in the Next Generation: Developing Russian Leaders

Yulia Shesternina has a dream: that one day the Jewish community of St. Petersburg, Russia, will resemble that of … Cleveland, Ohio.

She was one of 21 young Russian leaders to visit Cleveland and New York as part of their year-long participation in Lehava, JDC’s pioneering leadership training institute for young Russians.

Yulia said she was struck by the feeling of togetherness in Cleveland, the sense that yiddishkeit permeated every part of community members’ lives and that Jewish identity was not confined to explicitly Jewish spaces and events.

“The way I see it, being Jewish should not be like, ‘I go to Hillel and now I’m Jewish. Then I go to work and I’m not Jewish.’ I lived like that for three years, and now that’s changed within me,” said the 23-year-old, a Moscow native. “I want Russian Jews to be as organically Jewish as I have become — not only at Jewish events or only through JDC, but feeling Jewish all your life and not viewing it as a problem.”

The leadership institute is operated by JDC in conjunction with PresenTense and is an entrepreneurship model that trains committed individuals to create high-impact projects fostering innovation in the Jewish community.

Participants receive instruction in economics, self-development, and volunteering.

Shesternina said the program’s focus on growth and empowerment was a game-changer for her.

“Lehava helped us take some of the blocks inside us and not break them but work with them and help us understand them,” she said. “It was really a step forward.”

Lehava graduates use what they learn to stage an event or new initiative within the St. Petersburg Jewish community.

Shesternina wants to create a social network aggregating information about the city’s different Jewish institutions.

Her co-participant, Mark Gluzman, said he hopes to launch the “Grandma Café”: a mainstream restaurant in the city showcasing Jewish food and employing elderly community members.

It’s all part of a campaign to boost the Jewish community’s profile in the city and engender greater support and affection among non-Jewish Russians in St. Petersburg, the 22-year-old said.

“The Jewish community in St. Petersburg must be stronger,” said Gluzman, who came to the city from Kurgan, in Siberia. “We must be able to say aloud that we are Jews and we have Jewish organizations and we are not afraid of anybody. It’s our faith.”

Shesternina said JDC’s role in liaising with many of the city’s Jewish organizations and encouraging them to communicate with each other is an important development for St. Petersburg’s Jews.

“I’m involved in many Jewish organizations in St. Petersburg, and JDC is one of the most modern. They bring in new blood, they’re active, and they communicate with other organizations,” she said. “That’s where the future is — in communication. That’s JDC’s impact.”

Lehava is generously supported by the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.

Tags for this story: Education, Youth / Young Adults

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