Becoming a Jewish Educator: An AJT Leader Cultivates Jewish Life in Ukraine

As head of her local Active Jewish Teens (AJT) chapter, Ilona Levit, reflects on how AJT educates and empowers young Jews across the former Soviet Union.

By Ilona Levit - AJT Participant; Cherkassy, Ukraine | June 29, 2021

Ilona Levit, 18, is head of her local Active Jewish Teens (AJT) chapter in Cherkassy, Ukraine.

As head of her local Active Jewish Teens (AJT) chapter, Ilona Levit has always felt connected to Jewish life. It wasn’t always like this; for her grandparents, Jewish life was forbidden. Here, Levit talks about her JDC upbringing in Cherkassy, and how JDC has helped her to live an open Jewish life, inspiring her to educate, lead, and empower other young Jews in Ukraine.

I consider myself lucky.

Coming of age in the Soviet Union, my grandparents couldn’t live a Jewish life. Sure, they attended shul before World War II. But after, the synagogue here in Cherkassy, and many others like it, were destroyed. Until the early 1990s, the Jewish community here was practically nonexistent

This history makes me proud: We survived. And JDC was a crucial part of that.

Ilona Levit speaks at a recent AJT International Conference.

For as long as I can remember, JDC has been in my life. From age two, I went with my parents to JDC-supported Jewish programming and Prakhim, our city’s Jewish kindergarten. When I got older, I attended Sunday school and Shabbat services in the community

My earliest memories are from JDC’s family Shabbat retreat, when I was 4 years old. My family gathered there to learn about Jewish rituals. The most amazing thing was that we brought these rituals home and shared them with other families. Jewish life multiplied before our very eyes, and JDC lit the spark that sent it through Cherkassy, across Ukraine, and the former Soviet world.

Today, Cherkassy still has just a few thousand Jews, which can sometimes feel lonely. I find myself wishing there were more young people like me involved in Jewish life. But this only motivates me: There’s such an opportunity here to cultivate community

That’s why Active Jewish Teens (AJT) is so important. 

I joined AJT because I wanted to help my community — to be useful and give back what I once received: knowledge, support, care, and love. Volunteering is one of the best ways to do this.

At 18, volunteerism is a crucial part of my life. I always try to support people who volunteer for the first time, because sometimes it’s not easy. I answer their questions, recommend how to do this or that from my personal experience, and teach them to be sincere, open, and generous.

Thanks to AJT, I have learned to direct my energy in a positive way, and to be a leader for other teens.

After trips to various leadership seminars, including AJT gatherings, I began conducting classes about Jewish history and traditions for local teenagers. I felt that it was my responsibility to share what I knew. I started becoming a Jewish educator, passing on what JDC had instilled in me.

Over the years, I have attended regional Shabbatons, multiple AJT seminars, and even AJT’s International Conference. These events have always given me something to look forward to, making me feel that I was part of a large Jewish community, even though I live far away from many of my friends.

These events are personal, too. At the International Conference, all of us become one big Jewish family. I’m so glad to have made so many friends from other cities and countries, and I feel supported by AJT. They help me to stay strong and self-motivated.

Thanks to AJT, I have learned to communicate with different people, to direct my energy in a positive way, and to be a leader for other teens. At every AJT event, I’m filled with warmth and love. Indeed, I feel again and again how proud I am of being a Jew.

Ilona Levit delivers food to an elderly JDC client in Cherkassy, Ukraine.

Of course, the pandemic has interrupted this. It’s been over a year since I attended Shabbatons, seminars, and camps. And it’s been far too long since I saw my friends in person. Sure, we’ve met over Zoom, but we know that nothing is better than in-person communication.

In the future, I want to continue developing the Cherkassy teen club, and the Cherkassy Jewish community as a whole. I have many ideas, and I’m eager to implement them after the pandemic, even though I’ll be at university, studying geodesics

Wherever I go in life, I will carry the many lessons I’ve learned through AJT and JDC. My greatest hope is that people in my community will remain strong, so that we can continue to pass down Jewish traditions from generation to generation, so that when teens go to community events, all of them feel warmth, love, and the knowledge that their second family is waiting for them to take a seat.

Ilona Levit, 18, is head of her local Active Jewish Teens (AJT) chapter in Cherkassy, Ukraine. 

AJT was founded in 2014 by local teens and JDC, in partnership with BBYO, the world’s largest pluralistic Jewish teen movement. Today, AJT is powered by a partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group and is part of the global BBYO movement.

Across the former Soviet Union, more than 3,200 Jewish teenagers participate in AJT teen clubs in 63 cities.

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