At AJT, Young Leaders are the Jewish Future in the Former Soviet Union

We talked to newly elected Active Jewish Teens Co-Presidents, Irina Kozak of Kharkov, Ukraine and Leonid Rud of St. Petersburg, Russia about their new roles, their personal connections to their Jewish heritage, and what they hope to accomplish as leaders within the AJT community.

January 8, 2020

Active Jewish Teens, or AJT — a JDC program in partnership with BBYO and Genesis Philanthropy Group — brings together thousands of Jewish teenagers in 60 cities across the former Soviet Union to proudly embrace Jewish values and care for their communities. In a region where being Jewish was once a detriment and suppressed by countless people in the face of discrimination, this new generation is building lasting connections with Jewish life and each other, and having fun doing it. 

“With AJT, we are realizing the promise we madenearly three decades ago when we returned to the region to rebuild Jewish life.Not only are these young Jews proud and enthusiastic about their identities,they want to shape the future of Jewish life here and lead their communities instrength and creativity. It’s a historic moment for these youth and the globalJewish community and its made possible thanks to the visionary partnership ofGenesis Philanthropy Group, BBYO, and other supporters who join us in thistask,” said Michal Frank, director of JDC’s former Soviet Union regionaloperation.

At the most recent AJT Conference, a high-energyevent held this November in Kiev, participants from all over the region electedtheir two new Co-Presidents, Irina Kozak of Kharkov, Ukraineand Leonid Rud of St. Petersburg, Russia, took part in morethan 150 workshops on Jewish themes, and even held a first ever B’nai Mitzvahceremony for their peers. In doing so, they demonstrated their enthusiasm forJewish life and shared lessons from their model of Jewish engagement withglobal participants brought by BBYO from America, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania,Estonia, Austria, and Germany. 

???“Today’s teenagers represent the future of theglobal Jewish community and its leadership — across the former Soviet Unionand beyond — so it’s critical that we support this new generation to ensureits success, global connectivity and readiness to tackle the challenges oftomorrow. GPG is proud to partner with JDC and BBYO in supportingthe Active Jewish Teens program strengthening Jewish communal life in theFSU,” said Natalie Shnaiderman, Genesis Philanthropy Group Director ofGlobal Grantmaking.

We asked Irina and Leonid about their new roles,their personal connections to their Jewish heritage, and what they hope toaccomplish as leaders within the AJT community.

Can you tell us a little about your AJT journey? How long have you beeninvolved? How did you get started?

Irina Kozak

Irina: I have been part of AJT for three years. In the beginning, I wentto classes, lectures, Shabbat, camp. Slowly, I learned about all thepossibilities for self-realization, seminars and programs. After some time, Ibegan to lead my own seminars and classes. AJT and BBYO have given me thechance to visit Chicago and Israel and share what AJT is doing with otherJewish teenagers.

You know, I was born in Israel and when I was alittle over 4 years old my parents decided to return to Ukraine. Many askwhether this is good or bad for me? I myself cannot answer this question. Butone thing I know for sure: if I stayed there, I would not have the opportunityto become part of AJT.

Leonid: My Jewish story starts at 11, when my Mum and Dad told me about our Jewish roots and relatives. I was a little bit shocked. Then, a few years later I found an advertisement about a “Movie Night” sleepover at JCC YESOD in my home city of St. Petersburg. To be honest, I thought that one night wouldn’t change whether I felt Jewish. I didn’t expect something special from that night, but it changed my life. And now, two years later I’m a part of the AJT government.

What are some of the ways you’ve benefited or grown as a participant in AJT?

Leonid: Before AJT I had never been part of the Jewish community; I nevertook part in Jewish activities, never went to the Jewish camps. After my firstmovie night, I signed up for a year of classes with the JCC’s Lehava,Jr.program, took part in leadership retreats, and worked on communityprojects. Then, I became a member of Lehava Jr. Board and represented St.Petersburg in AJT government. Today, I am an active member in JCC and AJTactivities and get to meet with visitors to tell them about Lehava Jr. and AJT.I have become not only a member of the Jewish community, but a leader in it.

Irina: What has AJT given me? I often talk about how much I have changed,and that change is due to the people I’ve met through AJT. It is in thiscommunication with peers that we find new connections, knowledge, motivationand support.

Leonid: That’s been important for me, too. As an AJTrepresentative, I faced a number of problems that other regions did not(and vice versa). I have been able to look at problems from different angles andfind solutions.

Irina: Through AJT,I’ve been exposed to so many opportunities. I havegained invaluable leadership experience by teaching classes, become a danceleader, and representing AJT in Chicago and Israel. I have also become part ofthe BBYO Press committee — I now write articles for the Shofar online newspaperabout my AJT experience.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish as Co-Presidents of AJT?

Leonid Rud

Leonid: When I ask other participants about AJT, a lot of them areconcerned about aging out. It seems to me that this is a serious problem or,more correctly, inevitability for all of us. That is why I want to create alocal management system, organized by region, of older people to help AJTcongresspeople with their work. This will give people who have been part of AJTfor so long a way to stay a part of the AJT community.

I also want to build a project database. AJTprojects unite people. They make the world a little easier for everyone. Butthey can be hard to start — you need to have a brilliant idea. It seems to methat if we create a database of projects with descriptions and implementationinstructions, we make it easier for every AJT club to take on the projects thatdo so much to benefit our communities.

Irina: I also hope to create an open, accessible database forprojects. And I want to create chat groups for project managers, dividing themby field and area of ??activity. We’ve both talked about how important communication is — chats will help us improved our projects by giving each otheradvice and sharing our experience.

I want to expand the communication farther bystrengthening relations with our American “twin cities.” We have so much toshare. We need to develop more of these relationships, by finding twin citiesfor cities that don’t have one, and build the ones that already exist, bydesignating point people in each city who will keep in touch online, as well asvisit their twin cities in person.

One other thing: I want us to have seminars on modern Jewish culture. Yes, you need to know your Jewish history, but it is equally important to know what surrounds us and what is happening in the present — events, people, literature and modern music.

Q: Anything else you want to add?

Irina: I believe that the main task of the AJT president is to hear members’ ideas and help in their implementation. I’m excited to listen to my fellow members’ idea and make them real. I am confident in our strength as individuals, and even more as a unified AJT community.

Leonid: For 3 years I am a part of AJT and AJT is a part of me. But even within such a short period, I understood that the members don’t follow the president, helping him improve AJT; the president follows the members, helping them realize their goals, because those thousands of teens are the main engine and heart of AJT. And I am extremely proud of it.

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