In Georgia, A Love Letter to AJT and My Jewish Community
Georgian Jewish life is thriving — thanks in no small part to young Jewish leaders like Keti Kvaliashvili.
By Keti Kvaliashvili - AJT Chapter Head; Tbilisi, Georgia | September 6, 2023
Since she was a toddler, Keti Kvaliashvili has been an active member of her Jewish community in Tbilisi, Georgia — a life her parents and grandparents could only have imagined for themselves. When she turned 13, Kvaliashivili devoted herself to the Active Jewish Teens (AJT) network — the former Soviet Union partnership between JDC and BBYO — and went on to become a leader in her community. Here, she reflects on her beloved community and why AJT is vital to Georgian Jewish life.
Every time I meet with my Jewish community, it feels like coming home. We are small — there are only a few thousand of us — but we are also mighty, with a history in Georgia that spans 23 centuries. Everyone treats each other like family. The elderly are basically all our grandmothers and grandfathers, and when newcomers arrive, they adapt so fast because they feel what I feel — that this community really is kin.
Unfortunately, my grandparents and parents couldn’t do what my generation now takes for granted — enjoy Jewish life and build Georgia’s Jewish future. For them, it wasn’t that Georgians were particularly antisemitic. It was just that being openly Jewish in the Soviet Union was virtually impossible.
Things couldn’t be more different for my generation. I’ve been a part of the Jewish community almost every day since I was a small child, proudly participating in Shabbat celebrations, Passover seders, Jewish classes, and more. My parents couldn’t do that. They couldn’t even dream that.
That’s why they wanted me to have a Jewish life — from Jewish preschool right up through my Jewish adulthood. Each time I participate in community life, I learn about Jewish traditions and more about myself. From a young age, I shared with my family the things I’d learned at school, things they didn’t know or had forgotten, like how to celebrate the various Jewish holidays. (Like most children, Chanukah was always my favorite holiday: I got the most presents!)
Everything would change when I became a teenager. I used to take dance classes in our community, and there was this guy who was always going places and doing cool things. I wanted to know more about his exciting life, and that’s when I first heard about Active Jewish Teens (AJT).
At 13, I joined AJT and attended their regional seminar here in Georgia. I was nervous for two reasons — one, because I wasn’t sure how I’d communicate with teens from other countries, and two, I’d literally be the youngest person there.
But I had no reason to worry. By the end of the seminar, I was excited to take on a leadership role and start a project in my own community (and I did, starting with a Movie Club, where I’d watch critically-acclaimed films with my friends and discuss their various themes). After this experience, I knew I needed AJT to be a part of my life.
I devoted myself fully. Pretty soon, I got to participate in AJT’ IC, and when I saw so many Jewish teens like me, I felt inspired. It didn’t matter that we didn’t speak the same language — we’re all Jewish, and I keep in touch with many of the friends I met there to this day.
Soon, I started changing. I realized that AJT is a space where no one judges you. No one cares if you make a mistake or if you have less experience than others: We’re all here to learn and develop ourselves.
And I grew a lot. When I attended the international madrichim school to learn how to become a counselor, I obtained so many useful skills: how to plan activities, how to work with people of different ages, how to write a speech, how to speak in public, and more. I was exposed to even more Jewish history and traditions, and after these seminars, I could feel myself becoming more confident.
I became a madricha and even got to be part of AJT leadership for two years. I was a Georgia AJT congresswoman and then my role expanded: I became a congresswoman for Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Being a part of AJT’s “parliament” gave me the chance to plan fun educational activities and keep our region’s young Jews excited about AJT. And through the worst of the pandemic, our online activities distracted our teens from loneliness and boredom.
AJT is a place where no one judges you –– no one cares if you make a mistake: We’re all here to learn and develop ourselves.
When I eventually attended JDC’s Jewish renewal (JR) conference, I was a little nervous, because I’d only been an AJT chapter leader for three months. But I loved it — our daily activities included not only activities with our AJT group but with all sorts of Jewish educators and volunteers. This experience exposed me to the work that other people do in their communities — and seeing this work gave me strength as a leader.
I attended seminars by lecturers from Israel, and I learned about communication and team-building. I brought these skills back to Georgia, and when I applied these skills back home, my AJT chapter started to feel a lot more like a true team.
Of course, the JR conference wasn’t only work and study — it was also incredibly fun. While there, I realized I was no longer a teen. I was an adult with major responsibilities in my community — tasked with building Jewish life in my beloved Georgia.
AJT gave me this worldview, this life. It even helped me decide my future career. When I was younger, I always thought I’d pursue something technical, where I’d sit at a desk all day. But at AJT, I realized that I want to work with people. It taught me how to be myself, and the way I see it, that’s the greatest skill.
What AJT gives you isn’t only useful in your community or chapter, but in life as well — it’s about developing the whole person, and strengthening relationships between young Jews. The teens that come to our chapter become close, or even best, friends. And these connections spill over into the rest of life — often, after our formal activities end, we continue to hang out together.
I am so grateful to those who support AJT. Young Jews in small countries like Georgia really need this program, and I want AJT to help even more people find their way in life. We need to keep Jewish Georgia alive, and if we stop doing these activities, I fear future generations won’t know their own Jewishness.
AJT has given me connections — Jewish friendships, Jewish family — that will last my life.
Keti Kvaliashvili, 20, has been part of the Georgian Jewish community since she was 2 years old. She now serves as the AJT chapter head in Tbilisi, Georgia, where she plans events, helps teens realize community projects, and creates a space where young Jews can thrive. She is currently studying law at the Free University of Tbilisi.