In Almaty, Kazakhstan, Building (and Coding) My Jewish Life with Active Jewish Teens (AJT)

This young Jewish leader discovered his passion and purpose through Active Jewish Teens (AJT) network — the JDC youth network in the former Soviet Union (FSU) in partnership with BBYO.

By Mark Inger - AJT Participant; Almaty, Kazakhstan | February 26, 2024

Mark Inger (center) arrives in Dallas, Texas, for the 2023 international BBYO convention — a global gathering where Inger met Jews from around the former Soviet Union and the world.

In the small Jewish community of Kazakhstan, one young Jew — Mark Inger — dreamed of becoming a computer programmer. Through Active Jewish Teens (AJT) network, the JDC youth network in the former Soviet Union (FSU) in partnership with BBYO, Mark, 17, found the inspiration and resources to launch his own project, AJCode — an initiative enabling Jewish teens to learn computer programming skills. In this reflection, Mark writes about growing up Jewish in Kazakhstan and how AJT powers his Jewish life. 

Mark Inger

Being Jewish in Almaty is a unique experience. Our community is not very large — out of a population of 2 million people, no more than 1,500 Jews live in Almaty. Our small size makes our community feel very special and close-knit: We all know each other and celebrate all the Jewish holidays together as one family.

Growing up with a Muslim father and a Jewish mother was a great opportunity to experience different religions, and as a child, I became more and more connected to my Judaism as my mom and aunt started to take me to the synagogue. Now, as I reflect on what drew me to Jewish life, I often think it was this solid sense of community that strengthened my initial connection.

I found this same sense of togetherness when I joined Active Jewish Teens (AJT). I first heard about AJT in 2019, when I was 13 years old, during our community’s visit to Karaganda — another Kazakh city about 1,000 kilometers from Almaty. Now, I’m so grateful to know what AJT is and so proud I can participate in its programs.

AJT is very special to me. Its mission, as I understand it, is to connect Jewish teens across the former Soviet Union by getting them excited not only about their Jewishness, but about meeting fellow Jewish teens from all sorts of different places. Connections like that empower our generation and help us believe in the power and potential of our cultural unity.

From the very moment I joined, I knew I wanted to make my mark on the broader AJT community — I wanted to start a program of my own.

That’s where AJCode comes in, the project I launched and still manage today. Its goal is to allow participants to learn what computer programming is all about and create their first website. Initiatives like AJCode allow you to try new things and think outside the box. Through this project, I wanted to show others what programming is in its simplest form. I hope that some of my students enjoy it and will continue their interest in this field.

But that’s not all — AJT has given me the chance to launch and lead other projects, too. Before AJCode, I launched “StandUp, But Jewish,” which aimed to teach my peers public speaking … and present themselves with a dose of humor. Outside of the community, I am interning as a software engineer. AJT, combined with my passion for code and for people, has allowed me to do amazing things inside and outside of my Jewish life.

I took this passion with me to last year’s international BBYO convention, held in Dallas, Texas. This was a completely new experience for me: I immersed myself in the culture of American Jews and saw how much we have in common. My friends and I stayed with a host family for the first week. During this time, we were able to see the normal day-to-day life of a Jewish family and honestly, it was unforgettable. 

After that, the conference itself began and I realized for the first time what 4,000 people in one place looks and feels like — and how strong we are together. I was able to attend various sessions on topics ranging from Jewish leadership to fundraising for charity. I was even lucky enough to listen to the famous speakers invited to the conference, including former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

I wanted to go to this conference to learn how Jews live around the world: How are we alike? How are we different? Now, I realize that I understood and learned 20 times more than I wanted to — it was an explosion of knowledge and new experiences that made the trip so special and memorable for me.

Programs like AJT are necessary. They are crucial for Jews like me living in remote parts of the world. These events and initiatives help us realize how strong we can be together. They make people proud of their Jewish culture and allow them to feel our collective strength. They are a linchpin holding together every Jew in the world — especially those who live far from their brothers and sisters.

It’s hard for me to even imagine what my life would be like without AJT and my community. They have certainly played a key role in shaping me as a person proud of my religion and culture. AJCode has helped me realize my potential and allowed me to make my dreams a reality. Without them, I don’t know if I would be quite so connected to Judaism or quite so proud to be Jewish. I’m not even sure I’d be as active in engineering as I am now. 

Programs like AJT are necessary. They are crucial for Jews like me living in remote parts of the world.

One thing is certain: I know my life wouldn’t be complete.

No matter how far away our community may seem to you, you should know that we are doing our best to show what we are capable of. That’s why I am grateful to my fellow Jews all around the world — and that is why I consider them my family.

I am proud to be a Jew from Kazakhstan. As a Jew, it doesn’t matter where you come from. What’s much more important is who you are and what you want to do for the world. 

And because of AJT, I want to be and do so much more. 

Mark Inger, 17, is an AJT participant in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

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