Active Jewish Teens, or AJT — a JDC program in partnership with BBYO and Genesis Philanthropy Group — brings together thousands of Jewish teenagers in 60 cities across the former Soviet Union to proudly embrace Jewish values and care for their communities. In a region where being Jewish was once a detriment and suppressed by countless people in the face of discrimination, this new generation is building lasting connections with Jewish life and each other, and having fun doing it.
“With AJT, we are realizing the promise we made nearly three decades ago when we returned to the region to rebuild Jewish life. Not only are these young Jews proud and enthusiastic about their identities, they want to shape the future of Jewish life here and lead their communities in strength and creativity. It’s a historic moment for these youth and the global Jewish community and its made possible thanks to the visionary partnership of Genesis Philanthropy Group, BBYO, and other supporters who join us in this task,” said Michal Frank, director of JDC’s former Soviet Union regional operation.
At the most recent AJT Conference, a high-energy event held this November in Kiev, participants from all over the region elected their two new Co-Presidents, Irina Kozak of Kharkov, Ukraine and Leonid Rud of St. Petersburg, Russia, took part in more than 150 workshops on Jewish themes, and even held a first ever B’nai Mitzvah ceremony for their peers. In doing so, they demonstrated their enthusiasm for Jewish life and shared lessons from their model of Jewish engagement with global participants brought by BBYO from America, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Austria, and Germany.
“Today’s teenagers represent the future of the global Jewish community and its leadership — across the former Soviet Union and beyond — so it’s critical that we support this new generation to ensure its success, global connectivity and readiness to tackle the challenges of tomorrow. GPG is proud to partner with JDC and BBYO in supporting the Active Jewish Teens program strengthening Jewish communal life in the FSU,” said Natalie Shnaiderman, Genesis Philanthropy Group Director of Global Grantmaking.
We asked Irina and Leonid about their new roles, their personal connections to their Jewish heritage, and what they hope to accomplish as leaders within the AJT community.
Can you tell us a little about your AJT journey? How long have you been involved? How did you get started?
Irina: I have been part of AJT for three years. In the beginning, I went to classes, lectures, Shabbat, camp. Slowly, I learned about all the possibilities for self-realization, seminars and programs. After some time, I began to lead my own seminars and classes. AJT and BBYO have given me the chance to visit Chicago and Israel and share what AJT is doing with other Jewish teenagers.
You know, I was born in Israel and when I was a little over 4 years old my parents decided to return to Ukraine. Many ask whether this is good or bad for me? I myself cannot answer this question. But one thing I know for sure: if I stayed there, I would not have the opportunity to become part of AJT.
Leonid: My Jewish story starts at 11, when my Mum and Dad told me about our Jewish roots and relatives. I was a little bit shocked. Then, a few years later I found an advertisement about a “Movie Night” sleepover at JCC YESOD in my home city of St. Petersburg. To be honest, I thought that one night wouldn’t change whether I felt Jewish. I didn’t expect something special from that night, but it changed my life. And now, two years later I’m a part of the AJT government.
What are some of the ways you’ve benefited or grown as a participant in AJT?
Leonid: Before AJT I had never been part of the Jewish community; I never took part in Jewish activities, never went to the Jewish camps. After my first movie night, I signed up for a year of classes with the JCC’s Lehava, Jr.program, took part in leadership retreats, and worked on community projects. Then, I became a member of Lehava Jr. Board and represented St. Petersburg in AJT government. Today, I am an active member in JCC and AJT activities and get to meet with visitors to tell them about Lehava Jr. and AJT. I have become not only a member of the Jewish community, but a leader in it.
Irina: What has AJT given me? I often talk about how much I have changed, and that change is due to the people I’ve met through AJT. It is in this communication with peers that we find new connections, knowledge, motivation and support.
Leonid: That’s been important for me, too. As an AJT representative, I faced a number of problems that other regions did not (and vice versa). I have been able to look at problems from different angles and find solutions.
Irina: Through AJT,I’ve been exposed to so many opportunities. I have gained invaluable leadership experience by teaching classes, become a dance leader, and representing AJT in Chicago and Israel. I have also become part of the BBYO Press committee — I now write articles for the Shofar online newspaper about my AJT experience.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish as Co-Presidents of AJT?
Leonid: When I ask other participants about AJT, a lot of them are concerned about aging out. It seems to me that this is a serious problem or, more correctly, inevitability for all of us. That is why I want to create a local management system, organized by region, of older people to help AJT congresspeople with their work. This will give people who have been part of AJT for so long a way to stay a part of the AJT community.
I also want to build a project database. AJT projects unite people. They make the world a little easier for everyone. But they can be hard to start — you need to have a brilliant idea. It seems to me that if we create a database of projects with descriptions and implementation instructions, we make it easier for every AJT club to take on the projects that do so much to benefit our communities.
Irina: I also hope to create an open, accessible database for projects. And I want to create chat groups for project managers, dividing them by field and area of activity. We’ve both talked about how important communication is — chats will help us improved our projects by giving each other advice and sharing our experience.
I want to expand the communication farther by strengthening relations with our American “twin cities.” We have so much to share. We need to develop more of these relationships, by finding twin cities for cities that don’t have one, and build the ones that already exist, by designating point people in each city who will keep in touch online, as well as visit their twin cities in person.
One other thing: I want us to have seminars on modern Jewish culture. Yes, you need to know your Jewish history, but it is equally important to know what surrounds us and what is happening in the present — events, people, literature and modern music.
Q: Anything else you want to add?
Irina: I believe that the main task of the AJT president is to hear members’ ideas and help in their implementation. I’m excited to listen to my fellow members’ idea and make them real. I am confident in our strength as individuals, and even more as a unified AJT community.
Leonid: For 3 years I am a part of AJT and AJT is a part of me. But even within such a short period, I understood that the members don’t follow the president, helping him improve AJT; the president follows the members, helping them realize their goals, because those thousands of teens are the main engine and heart of AJT. And I am extremely proud of it.