Volunteering for the Future

How Yulia Zhigailova found her place in a new community by kickstarting its volunteerism movement.

By Yulia Zhigailova - Coordinator, Jewish Volunteer Movement, Minsk | February 25, 2020

Community for me isn’t just some Jewish organization or project. For me, it’s a state of the soul. It’s the place where you feel at home, feel safe — the place that unites people together with the sense that they belong to something greater than themselves.

My Jewish life began about 20 years ago, when I was a teenager in the small Ukrainian city of Poltava. Back then, our challenge was that we didn’t have the knowledge or skills needed to make change happen. Still, we always had our team of like-minded people ready to try. Now, it’s with a warm heart that, thanks to the opportunities given to me and to the active Jewish communities I’ve been a part of, I can say: “I’m Jewish, and I’m proud of it.”

When I moved to Minsk after I got married, moving to the big city was almost a bigger change than moving to a new country. For me, it was hard to realize that each Jewish organization here had its own programs and projects, and not everything was run jointly, as it had been in my small hometown. That’s when I realized what I could bring to my new community to help it develop. Here in Minsk, there were a shockingly large number of leadership seminars and successful programs. I wanted us all to experience those riches together. 

In 2016, our volunteer center began. Volunteering had existed in our community for a while — and the impulse to give back was probably always there — but never with such a codified, systematic approach. Now in our community, it doesn’t matter which programs you attend or which clubs you’re a part of: Whether it’s children in dance lessons and art classes or volunteers who dedicate their time to talking with elderly Jews and helping them around the house, we all understand our main goal is to make things better for everyone.

If you ask me why I volunteer, I’ll answer confidently: I want my community to be one where everyone feels responsible for each other. We do that starting with our youngest members who ultimately grow, like saplings, to give warmth and security to everyone who is in dire need of it. Among our volunteers are many alumni of Active Jewish Teens (AJT); they understand why we must do good deeds and what meaning that holds for our future.

These teenagers are different than I was at 15. They are more confident, more open-minded, more ready to build bridges, more ready to do things. I’m very happy that I’m surrounded by young people like this because I believe they are the people who will create even more opportunities for us to grow as a community. They’re our future. 

I often ask myself: Why do I do this, day in and day out? It might sound a little narcissistic, but I do it first and foremost for myself and my children, because I’d really like my kids, as they grow up in the Jewish community, to continue working on the projects we’re doing today and to have the chance to feel the pride I feel. In 10 years and in 20, I want to still see happy people who know they’re just one small part of something bigger and who stand ready to help each other however they can.

I’m inspired by the fact that we’re not alone in Minsk. We’re not some isolated community. There’s a phrase “All Jews are responsible for each other,” and I know there are similar volunteer centers in Kiev, in Moscow, in Chisinau, and all over the former Soviet Union. We’re all part of one larger mechanism, and that sense of global Jewish responsibility is something I try to convey to our volunteers with reverence and love. I try to inspire them by reminding them we are part of something global, something huge: the Jewish people.

I believe our volunteers understand what I know to be true: They have unlimited opportunities to make a difference. Regardless of how old you are, whether you’re a 3-year-old kid or a 120-year-old grandmother, you can always do good deeds, and you can always impact your community and make it better.

Yulia Zhigailova, 34, is the coordinator of the JDC-sponsored Jewish Volunteer Movement in Minsk, Belarus.

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories