Rising Jewish Leaders Redefine Community

To an outsider, the link between Ukraine’s Jewish future and the top children’s dance studio in Kharkov, the nation’s second-largest city, might seem tenuous, but Alyona Yakymova is the ultimate insider.

I can’t say that this is my job anymore. It’s my soul.

And as the 28-year-old bounds up the stairs two at a time, she’s so excited to introduce Sasha Sekirin, the owner of All Stars Dance Centre, that she can barely get the words out.

“This is a unique example of how Metsuda can help you create a successful business that can help you in the future and change your life,” she says, referring to JDC’s flagship yearlong young leadership course in Ukraine. “Metsuda helped Sasha realize his life’s mission.”

Sasha, 35, now runs three dance studios, and it all began when he started a dance circle 11 years ago at Kharkov’s Beit Dan JCC, the capstone volunteer project of his Metsuda year.

For Sasha, there’s a clear through-line between hiking in the Carpathian Mountains in his early 20s with two dozen other budding Ukrainian Jewish leaders and employing 150 dance teachers who instruct 2,500 kids.

“Metsuda taught me that life is about giving back, about being useful to society. These are the values of a Jewish life,” he says. “Everyone looked at me like I was crazy. I was leaving my good job for the chance of growing a career around my hobby. But look at what I’ve built in the last 10 years.”

For Alyona, Sasha’s story epitomizes Metsuda—its power and its potential to continue transforming its participants’ lives. Metsuda has about 270 alumni, with 25 new leaders graduating each year; across the former Soviet Union, about 650 young people have graduated from JDC leadership programs.

A graduate herself, Alyona and her husband, Vladimir, 27, now run Post-Metsuda, an informal alumni network that organizes everything from Shavuot retreats in the countryside to Kickstarter-style collections for friends struggling to pay for unexpected medical care.

It’s important for her that the ideas for the projects come from the Metsuda graduates themselves—with some, like Alyona, donating their time, and others, like Sasha, contributing financially.

“I can’t say that this is my job anymore. It’s my soul. I want to develop this moment and transform my community,” Alyona says. “When people graduate from Metsuda, we tell them this is just the beginning. And it is.”

Across town, Konstantin Kuznetzov, also a Metsuda graduate, is eager to talk about Volunteer Platform, the new initiative he coordinates in Kharkov that aims to professionalize the city’s sizable volunteer corps of passionate Jewish teens and 20-somethings.

Since the program launched in May, about 100 volunteers working on 10 community service projects have received training in marketing, project management, and more.

One project nurtured by Volunteer Platform provides birthday celebrations for poor children with special needs or from families at risk. Fifteen volunteers have helped throw parties for dozens of children, either in their homes or at the city’s Gorky Park amusement park.

“If we can make a happy day for a child one day a year, we must do it,” said Alice Davydova, 19, also a Metsuda graduate. “In those moments, you start to appreciate what you have.”

Another project, Paint a Fairytale, brings in young Kharkov Jews to read children’s books to kids, and then help them to brainstorm and illustrate their own fantastical stories. The volunteers then print the books, which often have Jewish themes, and deliver them to the budding authors.

“It’s so important to work with children and give them the first seeds of Jewish tradition,” said Konstantin, 29.

Konstantin said his Jewish identity is now inextricably linked to volunteerism. What Metsuda first sparked, Volunteer Platform has solidified—and now, nascent community service projects can receive constructive feedback and support.

“For me, Metsuda gave my life Jewish content—and now I find in the Jewish community a sense of support, of feeling united together,” he said. “It’s difficult to change everybody, but if we change the minds of those who participate, we can start to change our city for the better, and change Ukraine.”