Global Jewish Reflections | This Elul, One Young Jewish Leader in Ukraine Embraces Community

For Izya Kravchenko, the Hebrew month of Elul is a chance to reflect on how every Jew can work to power their community forward.

By Izya "Israel" Kravchenko - Teen Club Leader; Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine | August 13, 2021

Israel “Izya” Kravchenko, 18, is the head of the JDC-supported “Be Jewish” teen club in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

Back in 2014, when I first connected with my city’s Jewish community, everything was very unfamiliar, and the traditions seemed to be incomprehensible and strange. But now — just seven years later — it’s impossible to imagine my life without Judaism at the heart of it: I’m a dedicated volunteer, and I lead our “Be Jewish” teen club.

I thank my aunt for pushing me to explore Jewish life in Kryvyi Rih — a city of about 630,000 people in central Ukraine. She was the one who encouraged me to attend Shabbat celebrations and holiday gatherings, to try to make new friends at the teen club and to volunteer to help those in need.

And soon, what once felt strange became familiar. Before long, I was leaving school early to spend as much time as possible at our Beit Graham Jewish Community Center, housed in Kryvyi Rih’s JDC-supported Hesed Khana social welfare center. I even gave myself a new name, Israel — though most people call me Izya.

It’s a surprising journey when you consider my family history. Many of my relatives died during the Holocaust, if not directly at the hands of the Nazis then due to hunger and deprivation during those difficult years. And even those who miraculously survived are like mysteries to me — in my childhood years just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, my family didn’t talk much about our Jewish roots.

Still, over time, I’ve committed myself to learning more. I’ve discovered that my Jewish ancestors lived all across Ukraine, and I’ve unearthed some incredible stories of relatives who secretly followed Jewish traditions and rituals, even during Soviet times. My great-grandfather even gathered a clandestine minyan in his barn for regular prayers. Being Jewish was always a difficult fate for my ancestors, and there are many stories of family members fired from their jobs and oppressed in every possible way.

Izya Kravchenko

Especially in my part of the world, cemeteries are often the only sites that bear witness to the Jewish life of a particular place. When the Jewish community disappeared from a city, village, or town, sometimes all that was left behind were the graves. This year, when local Jewish leaders visited the cemetery to mark Victory Day, I was stunned and shocked by the state of the place — it seemed to me to be on the verge of extinction, with many tombstones crushed, buckling, or partially buried.

Our responsibility to each other is to neither forget where we came from nor where we have the potential to go together. With that in mind, I gathered together a group of volunteers and in the months since that first visit, we’ve begun to formulate a plan for repairing and reinstalling the headstones. We’re engaged in a dialogue with the local authorities, and our ultimate vision is to turn the site from a field haphazardly strewn with stones into a true cemetery — a dignified memorial to a community that all but disappeared.

Of course, though, our community has not vanished — on the contrary, I am inspired every day by the teens I work with. Our club is called “Be Jewish,” and through our activities, I try to help the next generation live a Jewish life. Even if we don’t face the same challenges my ancestors did, being Jewish is not easy. It means constantly working on yourself, and it means committing yourself to collective responsibility — the idea that all Jews are responsible for each other and the world around them. To me, being Jewish is not a destination but a journey; along the way, you must keep improving yourself and others.

To me, being Jewish is not a destination but a journey; along the way, you must keep improving yourself and others.

That’s certainly one of the key messages of Elul, the Hebrew month that leads up the High Holidays. Elul is a month of searching for ourselves, and during the pandemic, we all had to make a crucial decision: Are we humans or not? Do we care about protecting our loved ones and safeguarding the most vulnerable, or are we too selfish? I like to think that the young volunteers in my community have made the right choice, dedicating themselves to helping move our Jewish community forward even in these difficult times.

Each morning of Elul, we hear the shofar, whose call is meant to wake us up to the truth of our lives. I believe it’s a call to action that’s both simple and profound: We must understand that our every word and gesture affect the world around us. And what’s more, we have the power to do good and build a better future. 

Izya Kravchenko leads a Jewish holiday program for his community in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine.

We also think about teshuvah, which is often translated as “repentance” but literally means return. Kryvyi Rih is a city in which there are still many places that need to be “returned” to their former appearance — like the graves my friends and I are working so hard to tend to. When I clean up the cemetery, I touch the history of my Jewish brothers and sisters who lived as many as 200 years ago! We have the ability to return history to its proper place, to resurface stories that would otherwise be forgotten. That’s powerful and inspiring to me.

Today, the Jewish community of Kryvyi Rih is dynamic and vibrant, full of a wide variety of Jews. We have different opinions on Jewish life, laws, and traditions. Some of us speak Yiddish or know Hebrew perfectly, and some wouldn’t know where to begin. Some teach Torah and love to argue, and some are just beginning to immerse themselves in the Jewish world — as nervous as I was when my aunt pushed me to try out the teen club all those years ago.

But all of us can learn to live together as a community. This Elul, I want to work on myself, which I know means to also work on the world around me. All of us have the opportunity to be a part of building the Jewish world our hearts are yearning for.

Israel “Izya” Kravchenko, 18, is the head of the JDC-supported “Be Jewish” teen club in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine.

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