Youth Movement Inspires New Generation of Post-Soviet Jews
October 3, 2017
It’s easy to celebrate Active Jewish Teens (AJT)—JDC’s flourishing Jewish youth group movement connecting 2,600 teens in 50 cities across Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, and more—on the macro level, but Alla Magas prefers to savor it on a human scale.
Magas remembers the story of a boy from a small Russian city who participated in his first AJT seminar and was instantly hooked; he’s now part of the group’s leadership team, serving as a congressman in its peer-led government.
“After that first seminar, I received a call from his mother, and she was crying as she told me how he’d changed his whole vision of his future,” said Magas, 31, AJT’s project manager. “Something changed in him, and he understood he was responsible for the future of his Jewish community.”
In just three years, AJT has grown to galvanize its members in local chapters throughout the former Soviet Union (FSU), provide volunteer opportunities, and bring teens together at an annual conference just like their teenage peers in JDC-BBYO partner communities around the world.
The initiative now has four different tracks: AJTeam, an international madrich (counselor) school for graduates of the youth movement; AJTravel, a chance for teens from across the FSU to visit their peers in other cities and make new friends; AJT Contest, monthly competitions between individuals and cities to win a trip to the JDC camp at Szarvas or the youth leadership camp in Bulgaria; and AJT Government, which gives teens a chance to be elected to AJT parliament or become AJT president and influence the movement’s programmatic direction.
Eva Stupka, 15, is an AJT leader in Chisinau, Moldova—for her, the youth group has helped her realize she’s proud to be Jewish.
“AJT helps you develop a try-anything spirit, and it’s helped me believe that the future is great—more teens, more cities, more countries,” she said. “To be a Jewish teen in Moldova is great, too. You can develop yourself in different ways, try things out, and discover who you want to be.”
Each teen participates in AJT for one year before “graduating”, and all of the movement’s members are expected to complete a volunteer project benefiting their local Jewish community.
Stanislaw Apenko, the 21-year-old coordinator in Kharkov, Ukraine, said AJT is helping catalyze the potential post-Soviet Jews who feel they are a part of and are committed to improving the Jewish future.
“Being a Jew in Ukraine is about feeling like you’re not alone, that you always have support and great opportunities,” he said. “Our aim is to educate teenagers who will be able to create exciting projects, participate in leadership development, and maybe one day even work in the Jewish community.”
Teens have spearheaded more than 100 volunteer projects across the FSU.
What’s most radical about AJT, Magas said, is that it puts teens at the forefront, transforming them from passive consumers of Jewish programming to the spark of energy, optimism, and innovation that powers communities forward.
Teens, Magas explained, are perhaps the best pathway to sustainability and continuity for the Jewish communities of the FSU. “These days, you can see that teenagers are everywhere in the FSU. They volunteer, lead projects, conduct Shabbat services, celebrate holidays, create new programs, and more,” she said. “It’s a new Jewish generation.”
That goes for Magas, too—and her remarkable journey from being one of the only active Jewish teens in her small city of Poltava, Ukraine, to empowering thousands of her peers in five countries.
“I’m 31, and I’m learning from teens that everything is possible,” she said. “They teach me how to dream—and never stop.”