Young Leader Uses Art to Promote Jewish Culture in St. Petersburg

January 9, 2013


Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia in the years after the fall of Communism, Masha Sergeeva, 21, grew up with limited understanding of—or pride in—her Jewish identity. That’s all changed now.

“My uncle, my mom’s brother was a refusnik, and went to Israel in the first aliyah in the ‘80s,” explains Masha. “But my mom worked as an engineer at a closed Soviet weapons factory. No one was supposed to leave the country—so to have a brother who studied Hebrew, clandestinely went to synagogue, and then emigrated raised a lot of questions.”

Growing up in a secular home, Masha had little exposure to Jewish traditions—that is, until she happened upon the local university Hillel (via their R&B and Hip Hop dance classes). She also found out about the JDC-supported Adain Lo ( community center in St. Petersburg, which offers families, children, and young adults a variety of engagement opportunities.

“I started to get involved and attended Madrich (counselor) and leadership trainings where I got to hear speakers discussing Judaica, psychology, Jewish history, group management, and lots of other topics I found interesting,” she recalls.

Then, through her Jewish circle of friends, she found out about Lehava—“the seminar that changed our lives in significant ways,” says Masha.

JDC’s Lehava program in St. Petersburg is an intensive Jewish leadership development experience spread out over a series of four weeklong seminars and a concluding week in Israel. The participants learn a diverse range of skills, from how to build a CV and fundraise … to writing business plans and assessing risk … to developing their ultimate projects for their community.

“The professionals who put on the trainings come from a vast variety of backgrounds and all love their work in a way that’s really evident and contagious. For this reason, the Lehava program was extremely stimulating for me and very apropos to that period of my life.”

At end of the yearlong course, Masha’s project was one of three to be awarded funding and realized. She curated an exhibit of photos of Israel at a St. Petersburg nightclub to show young people and the general public real images of Israelis and every day life in the often-stereotyped country.

“I wanted people to see what Israel is actually like and to help break long-standing preconceptions about the country and Jewish people,” she explains.

The show was a resounding success. It was also a personal turning point for Masha.

“I’d always loved photography but never got involved professionally. When I went to school for Business I knew I didn’t really love it. Lehava helped me make the right choice for my future,” she says. “It helped me challenge myself and realize my project. That experience was so rewarding, it empowered me to pursue my profession.”

Masha decided to pursue a career in art management. She continued her studies and started organizing other exhibition. Last year, she worked on curatorial projects at the State Hermitage Museum, Russia’s Contemporary Arts festival, and traveled to Israel and US for work, too.

With her current project, Kislorod (or Oxygen), Masha has set out to help young Jewish artists start professional careers and find their own place in the modern art world. Working with her partner Konstantin Benkovich, 30, a graduate of JDC’s parallel leadership track program in Moscow, she won a grant to give young Jewish artists increased exposure and visibility.

Over the past year, they’ve put on a series of educational workshops and seminars, as well as six contests for young artists that received hundreds of submissions and were judged by prominent artists. The winning pieces were curated into six exhibitions in four cities in Russia and Belarus, and received extensive media coverage.

“We are creating an international union of Jewish artists who show their work widely. Historically, we’ve seen the collaborative approach help many artists. We love the idea and are always looking for new partners and collaborators.”

The pair is excited to promote Jewish culture and history in a modern and creative way.

“We want our exhibitions to get people thinking and talking,” says Masha, who evaluates her projects’ success by the impressions of the viewers. “Some visitors are surprised the work they’re seeing is by young artists. Others expect traditional work and are surprised to see really contemporary art. Many find their existing stereotypes about Jews and Israel collapsed by the artwork. For us, more than anything, seeing people moved emotionally is incredibly gratifying.”

The Lehava leadership development program is one of JDC’s many Jewish renewal activities supported by the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories