Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
When I was six I learned I was Jewish, but for a while it was just another word. I didn’t know what it meant. When I started to attend community events, though, I was hooked. I fell in love with our traditions and began to visit our teen club and become more active in Jewish life.
In February 2020, I learned about JDC’s Active Jewish Teens (AJT) network from a Jewish educator from St. Petersburg who was visiting us in Murmansk. I was so excited to visit an AJT seminar and discover the magic myself, but due to COVID-19, all in-person activities were canceled and moved online.
That didn’t stop me, though! I started our AJT chapter — the newest one in the former Soviet Union — even during quarantine. One of my favorite things to do is AJTorah, where I teach my friends about Jewish holidays and Judaism. I remember how amazing it felt when I learned about all this stuff for the first time, and it’s really cool to now be the teacher. You can check out a video I recorded for Chanukah here.
I know the challenges of this year well. My mom, brother, and I were all diagnosed with COVID-19 and I even spent a month in the hospital. Before the pandemic, I used to volunteer to visit the elderly. Now suddenly, I was the one who needed help.
Through it all, my AJT family was always there for me, cheering me on and helping me get stronger and better. They were the light that kept me going and gave me hope. I spent hours on Zoom with my new friends and mentors. I can’t imagine my life without this technology, which helped me connect online with people all over the world and in all sorts of time zones.
I’ve been working with AJTorah for over a year now, and I’ve learned so much. I try hard to prepare well-constructed lessons, and my friends always give me great feedback, even if I find myself focusing on my small mistakes and the little things I’d do differently if I had the chance. I guess that’s the point of education — learning a little more each day, and bit by bit becoming the person you want to develop into.
I’m really passionate about Torah and Jewish education now, and I find myself talking endlessly about the various parashot (weekly portions). In the past, it seems like there were a few classical commentaries to follow and not much room to find your own meaning in the text, but in our modern times, I’m grateful that there is infinite room for exploration and personal connection to these ancient words.
This week’s parsha, Vayikra, speaks at length about the korbanot, the sacrifices our ancestors gave to G-d at the Temple in Jerusalem. At first glance, you might be tempted to write off this chapter of the Torah since the Temple was destroyed so many centuries ago. I think that’s a mistake, though: We all can find our own Temples in our lives, and we all have something to give.
We all can find our own Temples in our lives, and we all have something to give.
For me, my Temple has been AJT and the Jewish community in my hometown — Murmansk, Russia, which is often considered the northernmost Jewish community in the world. We’re located above the Arctic Circle, almost 16 hours north of St. Petersburg. We have a rather harsh climate, and I think it’s not an overstatement to say that winter lasts eight or nine months here. We have a polar day and a polar night as well, meaning that we’ve got two to three months of total darkness and another three to four continuous sun. It’s certainly a unique place to grow up.
For me, AJT and JDC are essential for Murmansk. Without them, we’d be a city cut off from the Jewish world, but thanks to our connections to the global Jewish family, I’m growing up with the knowledge that I have friends all across the globe. Like Vayikra teaches, I have something to give, too — my passion, my energy, and my faith in the future. I don’t consider it a sacrifice, though; for me, it’s a blessing and a total pleasure.
I can’t wait to see what comes next for me and my friends and everyone involved with AJT across the former Soviet Union. I know that we in Murmansk are made of strong stuff (constant snow outside will do that to you!), and I’m sure that, no matter how our community continues to develop, we will do extraordinary things.
Anton Artemenko, 17, is an AJT leader in Murmansk, Russia.
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.
Across the former Soviet Union, more than 3,200 Jewish teenagers participate in AJT teen clubs in 63 cities.