In Moscow, Developing Leadership Skills and Building a Jewish Life of My Own

For Anna Okshevskaya, JDC's Active Jewish Teens (AJT) youth movement is a chance to chart the course of her own Jewish journey.

By Anna Okshevskaya - AJT Participant, Moscow | December 1, 2020

Anna, center, is a frequent participant in Active Jewish Teens (AJT) events in Moscow, like this Kabbalat Shabbat celebration.

My family is Jewish, on both my mom and my dad’s sides, but we rarely discuss our Jewish identity together. I guess that’s a souvenir of Soviet times and how my parents were raised. As for my grandparents, they have negative memories from the war and don’t like to talk about being Jewish either.

My Jewish life, I guess, is just mine — but I don’t mind that. My family is very supportive of my desire to get to know my community, and I think they’re proud that I even keep kosher and keep Shabbat.

For me, the best way to explore my Judaism has been through Active Jewish Teens (AJT). 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.

How did I get involved with AJT? Well, that’s one of my favorite stories… 

Anna and friends pose for a photo at the Nikitskaya JCC in Moscow.

My friend Yana and I knew Yasha Shamrin, a former AJT co-president — and of course we knew his bright red hair. Yana asked me, “Do you want to celebrate Shabbat with that ginger boy, Yasha?” I said, “Of course,” and that’s how it all began. In February, it’ll have been two years, which feels hard to believe.

That first Shabbat was amazing. It had such a cozy atmosphere, and I met new friends who helped me to really be myself. About a year after I joined AJT in Moscow, I was invited to attend a regional seminar in Krasnodar, 15 hours south of us and just inland from the Black Sea. That event was incredible, too. I’m such a social person and each person I met had their own Jewish story! That weekend was when AJT began to feel like my second family.

Now my goal is to take on a leadership role and become an AJT congressman for the Moscow region. I have very big plans for the future, and I want to make sure that others can get active in their local AJT teen club and in our activities internationally. Everyone should have access to the same opportunities that have been so meaningful for me.

Anna leads a ‘GeoJew’ workshop with AJT friends in Moscow.

I’m not sure if you know, but every AJT participant creates their own unique project. Mine is called “GeoJew,” and it’s about how different Jewish life is among the different cities in our Moscow region and across the former Soviet Union (FSU). We talk about famous Jewish people from those cities, notable places, important events in history, and of course, about what the Jewish community looks like today with JDC’s support. I just did a presentation about Jewish life in Crimea, and I have six more seminars in the pipeline. In this era of staying at home and social distancing, it’s been fun to do something that feels like travel.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we’re doing all of these AJT activities online. It hasn’t been easy, but we’re all adapting and it’s beginning to feel like normal life. One of my favorite activities in quarantine was the big online Shabbat that united young people from all across the FSU — that’s not something we would have thought to do before the pandemic, and it was so amazing. I was so proud we pulled that off!

For me, AJT is the biggest piece of my Jewish identity. It’s where I can be myself, learn new things, and make friends for life. It’s given me the opportunity to see the world and to develop as a leader.

AJT has given me the opportunity to see the world and to develop as a leader.

And it’s not just me but thousands of others in dozens of cities across the FSU. Through AJT, we can realize our ideas, dream big dreams, and help our community continue to grow.

Anna Okshevskaya, 16, is a participant of the AJT branch in Moscow, Russia — the Nikitskaya Generation teen club.

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

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