Global Jewish Reflections | In Ukraine, Living a Jewish Life My Ancestors Couldn’t Have Imagined

Living and working in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Jewish educator Artem Okun is committed to building a Jewish future in the former Soviet Union.

By Artem Okun - Jewish Educator, Beit Dan JCC | December 4, 2020

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

Family means everything to me, and for years, I’ve worked to catalogue the fate of my relatives. Some we know were lost in the Holocaust, like my great-grandfather Yefim Okun. Some disappeared, like six of my great-grandmother’s brothers and sisters. And some of them eked out what a Jewish life could look in Soviet times — difficult, rigid, and limited.

After the war, my grandfather Boris Okun, along with his sister Zhanna and his mother Zoya, returned to Ukraine from evacuation. True Jewish life in those days was impossible — Where could they get kosher food? How could they observe Shabbat when Saturday was a school day? Where would they find Jewish books? — but their passports still listed them as Jewish, with all of the restrictions that brought with it. 

My grandfather had a strong Jewish identity always, but it wasn’t something you could talk about or wear proudly at that time. That changed when the Soviet Union collapsed. Suddenly, Boris became actively involved in the revival of Jewish life in Ukraine, helping to open the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center and Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Myrhorod. My dad then worked to teach about Jewish history and traditions and helping to organize holiday celebrations.

I have the chance to live a proud Jewish life — and if that’s not evidence of a thriving community, I don’t know what is.

My Jewish life is fundamentally different from theirs. I have the freedom to speak openly about my Jewish identity, and my Jewish community provides me with a wide range of opportunities to grow into a leader and continue learning. I have the chance to live a proud Jewish life — and if that’s not evidence of a thriving community, I don’t know what is.

Growing up in Myrhorod, I visited the JCC every week, participating in Jewish Sunday school, and attending Jewish children’s camp. I was always proud that my father was a teacher and leader in the community — maybe that’s what’s influenced my own life and work. When I finished school and entered university, I moved to Poltava and took an active role in the Jewish community there, eventually working at the Hesed as the head of youth programs.

In 2010, I graduated from Metsuda, a JDC young leadership training program in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and began to serve as a madrich (counselor) for various programs across the region. Now I live in Kharkiv — the country’s second-largest city — and work as a Jewish educator in the Beit Dan JCC.

Artem teaches a group of young Ukrainian Jewish schoolchildren.

I created and continue to manage NEO, a platform for informal Jewish educators all over Ukraine to connect and share knowledge and best practices. I’m also part of the team that coordinates JDC’s Active Jewish Teens (AJT), the youth network powered by a partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group and part of the BBYO global movement. Across the FSU, more than 3,200 Jewish teenagers participate in AJT teen clubs in 63 cities.

My story is typical of the third generation of Jews living in the FSU. Many of us who learned about our Jewish roots didn’t know what to do at first, but thanks to the support of organizations like JDC, we’re proud to be Jewish and we’re committed to making our communities stronger. In Soviet times, everyone knew there were Jews in Ukraine, but they hid their identity. Now, even meeting a Jew or visiting a Jewish institution can give people the courage to explore their roots and reconnect with the Jewish community. 

This is especially true in our region. If you ask Jews from Kharkiv, Poltava, Sumy, and other surrounding cities about the revival of Jewish life here, they’ll tell you it’s no longer news. For 20 years, the Beit Dan JCC, where I work, has been powering the Jewish community into its next chapter.

Artem leads a dance for the Ukrainian Jewish community.

Beit Dan helps me feel like I’m useful … like I’m one small piece of something big and amazing. It’s become a second home to me, and it’s given me so many opportunities for personal and professional growth. Like all the best JCCs, we warmly accept everyone interested in Jewish life, regardless of age, political views, or opinions. We’re working to create a safe space where everyone is welcome and can be whatever kind of Jews they want to be.

I love working as a Jewish educator because each weekly Torah chapter contains instructions and guidance — valuable lessons that are like a signpost for our lives. This week’s portion, Vayetze, begins with our ancestor Yaakov going to Haran, to his mother Rivka’s brother Lavan, to find a wife from among his daughters, our matriarchs. It ends with his return to native land of Canaan 20 years later with his wives Leah and Rachel, his children, his servants, and his herds.

From the Torah portion, we learn that “the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the children” — namely, that there are lessons we can learn today from the actions of our ancestors. But what are we meant to take from Yaakov’s story? A midrash (rabbinic commentary) tells us that Yaakov was very worried about visiting Lavan’s house, which had a reputation for uncleanliness; he feared he’d lose his faith. Therefore, the story continues, the angels showed him that the Temple, the cradle of Judaism in that time, could come down from its place, as could the yeshiva on Mount Moriah. He could bring their holiness anywhere, even to Lavan’s house. He could be a Jew there, too.

Artem leads a Chanukah event at Beit Dan JCC in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Yaakov’s life at Lavan’s home is a metaphor for the life of Jewish communities in the diaspora. Lavan tells Yaakov that goodness followed him once he arrived, just as we can imagine that the presence of a Jewish community can bring well-being to wherever they’re living. And the actions of our fathers and mothers to revive Jewish life in the FSU are a sign for us, their descendants, to continue their noble work.

Twenty-five years ago, practically every issue facing the Jewish communities of the FSU was related in one way or another to the Holocaust or to Soviet times or to how to orchestrate a Jewish revival. Now we’re facing the same issues Jewish communities all over the world face: How can we attract new people? How can we raise funds? How can we make Jewish culture and traditions interesting for a new generation?

We must balance preserving the past and building the future, and I hope that for years to come I will continue to be able to say with confidence that we are here, we are alive, and that the Jewish communities of the FSU are stronger than ever before.

Artem Okun, 30, is a Jewish educator at the JDC-supported Beit Dan JCC in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

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