Today’s teens often spend their time navigating the world of adulthood, learning about the world, and themselves, through fast-paced information channels, and ultimately establishing their own unique identity. To support this journey on a global scale, JDC has prioritized supporting Jewish teen life around the world, largely through our global partnership with BBYO, the largest Jewish pluralistic teen movement.
A quickly expanding outgrowth of that effort, and the high demand among Jewish teens in the former Soviet Union to lead their communities and shape their identities, is JDC’s Active Jewish Teens Network (AJT).
A vibrant, inclusive peer network that engages teens and young adults in Jewish community life, AJT also offers them the opportunity to explore and form their Jewish identities.
Catalyzed initially by JDC-BBYO Service Corps Fellows – deployed in yearlong placements and utilize their expertise in Jewish education and teen engagement – and a grassroots enthusiasm among Jewish teens to actively participate in Jewish life, AJT boasts a membership of 3,000 Jewish teens from 55 cities across Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Kazakhstan. As Jewish life flourishes in the region, this younger generation plays a pivotal and central role in building Jewish life-a miraculous reversal of history in a region where the Nazis and Soviets attempted to obliterate all traces of Jewish people and communities.
The success of that evolution was on display in December as more than 300 of those teens gathered for the 3rd annual AJT Conference in Kharkov, Ukraine. Nearly doubling the number of last year’s attendees, the conference also included for the first-time teens from Latvia and Israel.
The conference, run exclusively by the teens themselves, has quickly become the largest platform for Jewish teen networking and communication and leadership best practices in the former Soviet Union.
Participants had an opportunity to meet with inspiring speakers and teachers from different countries to deepen their Jewish knowledge and leadership skills, analyze case studies of successful teen projects, and attend master classes from leaders of youth clubs.
“I have already said a hundred times that AJT has given me the meaning of life. It gave me confidence, and the desire to go forward. My greatest fear is to lose contact with AJT participants. It is only thanks to them that I’m feeling confident and open. Just know that all of you gave me a push to create something new,” said participant Natalia Gavrilyuk from the Ukranian city of Zaporozhe.
Each morning started with a choice of Israeli dancing, prayer, yoga, or morning exercises. Each meal had teen-led blessings. And on Friday night, the teens lit candles in a Kabbalat Shabbat service where they sang Hebrew songs, read from the Torah, and recited more traditional prayers, and listened to a dvar Torah, a commentary on the weekly portion of the Torah. The singing didn’t stop there however, as the festive dinner that immediately followed brought with it more singing and also birthday celebrations for several participants.
In spite of the freezing weather typically seen by Ukraine during this time of year, Saturday morning brought participants outside for a fun yet chilly “Shabbat Quest” where they completed challenging exercises in order to move onto the next level of the activity. At the end of each segment, the group learned something new about Shabbat from one of their peer teachers.
As Shabbat came to a close, the conference was far from over. Teens were then bused to the JDC-supported JCC, Beit Wohl, to take part in a festive dance party, awards ceremony for outstanding AJT achievements, and to cast their ballots for the new AJT presidents, Eva Shepilova and Dmitry Arutyunov.
“I would have never believed that over the last several days I could meet so many interesting people, learn so many new things, and experience such magic! With each new AJT opportunity, I want to further develop myself and my community more and more,” said participant Sonja Bakhtiyarova of Odessa.
This pride and excitement was also evident among the esteemed guests who joinged the AJT teens at the conference. Ian Kandel, Vice President of BBYO, traveled from Washington, DC to attend the conference. Kandel ran several sessions for participants and also spoke about the BBYO’s work and how AJT and BBYO partner together.
“Thank you so much for what must be one of the most inspiring weekends in my 12-year career with BBYO and the Jewish professional world,” said Kandel of his experience at AJT. ” The word ‘proud’ does not begin to summarize my feelings about what we – BBYO and JDC -have been able to catalyze among the former Soviet Union’s Jewish teens, our future movement builders and community leaders.”