Connecting to Jewish Roots, Young Leader Builds Peer Network

April 19, 2011


Tanya Kirzner was born in Bashkriya, Central Russia, and grew up in a small town of 50,000 in Siberia. But it wasn’t until she moved to Moscow at age 17 that her personal story really began to unfold.

When she arrived at Moscow State University of Lomonosov to pursue a degree in English and Italian, many of her new acquaintances inquired about her family and background, and some inquired whether she was German, based on her surname. She became interested in uncovering her family heritage and started digging. She learned from her grandfather that he originally came from western Ukraine, but he left when the war started, after he lost both of his parents. And then her mother revealed that she was Jewish. “I’d never been to the Jewish community before. I knew nothing about this part of my life.” She was now on a journey of self-discovery and it wasn’t long before she found JDC’s Knafaim program. “Knafaim helped me open the door to the Jewish community,” she beams.

Based in Moscow, the Knafaim program cultivates young, local Jewish leadership. The year-long program provides young adults (ages 20-30) with education and training to enhance their management abilities, improve their professional skills, and broaden their Jewish knowledge, all in order to deepen their connection to the Jewish community and nurture constant and continuous involvement in Jewish life in Moscow.

Tanya learned of the program through a friend and decided to apply, thinking it might be a good way to meet other young Jews. She joined the program’s first class, consisting of 21 of her peers who demonstrate the creativity, drive, and ability to become community leaders. The program encompasses components of personal development, Jewish education, and project management and empowers the participants to design and implement their own ecological, educational, or social Jewish-themed projects that benefit the larger community as a whole and the Jewish community in particular.

Tanya’s project—a Yeda seminar—was inspired by her own success in Russia’s booming energy sector and her desire to create educational and networking opportunities for young Jews in the business world. Because Knafaim participants take ownership of the development, funding, and implementation of their project, Tanya worked hard to get Jewish experts, sponsors, and participants onboard; in turn, she began to feel that she was becoming a part of an expansive community herself.

Following great feedback from attendees of her first session—who felt the program gave them access to valuable networking opportunities and job prospects for the future—Tanya is already at work designing the program for the next session.

“It’s difficult to attract the right people because there are a lot of different ways young people can spend their time in Moscow,” said Tanya, reflecting on the competitive nature of conducting successful programs in her city. But with the vision and commitment of young leaders like herself, it looks like JDC and Knafaim are on the right track.

“I’m very grateful to Knafaim because this program has enriched my life with a new understanding of who I am and helped me connect to my roots,” said Tanya. “It is hard to overestimate the importance of this connection.”

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