At 16, Yarik Andrienko discovered something about his family’s past that changed his entire life. Now, Yarik is a leader in the JDC-supported Active Jewish Teens (AJT) and is Head of Youth Club at the JDC-supported Beit Dan Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Kharkiv, working to cultivate a strong Jewish future in Ukraine.
JDC’s Active Jewish Teens was founded in 2014 and is powered by a founding partnership with BBYO and partnerships with Genesis Philanthropy Group and other supporters.
The first time I went to Shabbat, I didn’t even know I was Jewish. I was 15, and my friend invited me to a Shabbat dinner at the teen club in my hometown of Kharkiv — the second-largest city in Ukraine. I remember every minute of it. In the darkness, we gathered around the candles. My friends poured juice and chanted the kiddush. I felt a new and peculiar feeling, something I’d never felt so strongly before or since — that I’d come home. I had no idea that that service, that prayer, that moment, would define my life’s purpose: to serve and lead the Kharkiv Jewish community, and to join together with my global family … Jews all over the world.
But I wasn’t Jewish. At least, I didn’t think I was. If I didn’t have Jewish roots, why did I feel such a strong connection to this community and these ceremonies?
I was walking home with my mother one night, about a year after that Shabbat service, when she spoke a few unforgettable words. By that time, I had become involved in Arayot, my city’s teen club and our local chapter of AJT. I was so excited, and at some point, my mother stopped and looked at me. She said, “Your great-great grandmother was Jewish.” I felt a new lightness and a happiness in my heart: I’d been Jewish all along.
I was grateful to know more about my family’s story, but I still had a burning question: Why had my great-great grandmother, and so many other Ukrainians, lost touch with Judaism? It’s a mystery I’m still trying to unravel.
As Jews, our history lives through us; my great-great grandmother had been there, in some sense, every time I stepped through the doors of the JCC and each Friday night, when I celebrated Shabbat with my friends. She was born in 1918, lived all her life in Kharkiv, and must have experienced the pain and oppression of being Jewish during famine, war, and Soviet rule. She just never had the resources or community I do now.
Luckily, I can live my Judaism openly and fearlessly. Thanks to AJT and my newfound group of friends, I’ve thrown myself into my Jewish identity. One of the most amazing experiences was my time at Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary. Sasha Friedman, the camp director, is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. He makes each camper and madrich (counselor) feel at home. This past summer, I was so excited to be going to camp as a madrich myself, but the pandemic prevented that from happening.
At Szarvas, I discovered more than just my Judaism — I grew as a leader and began to take an active role in building a strong Jewish future. Though Szarvas didn’t take place in person in 2020, I’m grateful I was still able to join Metsuda, JDC’s leadership program in the former Soviet Union. Metsuda transformed me into a leader and allowed me to serve the most vulnerable Jews. As a year-long program, Metsuda enabled me to create and launch my own community project. Selection is competitive; I was honored to be admitted. Thanks to Metsuda, I know I am prepared to help Kharkiv’s Jewish community overcome the challenges of COVID-19.
On our own time, my friends and I prepared online programs for our communities, like game and movie nights, Torah study, and Shabbat services. We conducted interviews throughout January for a project called “Jewie,” in which we’ll study Jewish texts and produce short films based on them.
The virus has isolated us, but we are spiritually united. Every Friday night, I attend Shabbat services with my community on Zoom, always playing my guitar. And just last spring, we had our first Zoom Passover. Each of us stood in our own screens, baking matzah. A few years ago I didn’t know I was Jewish, and now, I conduct online classes for Jewish children on a wide variety of topics: holidays, global Jewish traditions, and anything else they find interesting. It’s not like it used to be, when we all gathered in one room around Shabbat candles, chanting the kiddush and singing, but it’s better than nothing. After all, Jews have always faced adversity with grit and resilience.
As a Jewish leader, everyone’s opinion matters to me. I try to communicate with each participant, to be interested in how they’re doing and what’s happening in their lives. The biggest challenge that Kharkiv’s Jewish community faces, and that Jews face everywhere, is how to maintain a strong sense of connection even during the pandemic. People are tired of Zoom, but even so, most of my friends believe that it’s still very important for them to stay in touch, no matter what. The pandemic has had some unintended benefits, too. Because of online platforms, I’ve gotten to know Jewish communities across Ukraine and the world. Though the pandemic has changed so much about our lives here in Kharkiv, we still solve our problems by joint efforts. We are a team, and we are a family — we always help and support each other.
Even now, I’m not completely alone. Thanks to AJT and the JCC, I leave the four walls of my house. One of these days, we will all be together again — I’m sure of it, and I can’t wait.
It’s so important for Jewish youth to lead our community — from moment to moment, we create the future.
It’s so important for Jewish youth to lead our community — we are the ones who write our people’s history. From moment to moment, we create the future. Judaism is not just an identity. It’s not just sabbath prayers or kosher strictures. It’s a duty — a duty to each other, a duty to keep alive the memory of our ancestors.
They say that when a family forgets its Judaism, the soul of Abraham returns after several generations. Thanks to programs like AJT and Szarvas, the soul of Abraham has returned with full force to Ukraine. When I light the Shabbat candles, or lead a youth group at JCC, I both honor my great-great grandmother and create a Jewish future that is vibrant, open, unbreakable.
An alumnus of Active Jewish Teens (AJT), Yarik Andrienko, 20, works at the JDC-supported Beit Dan JCC in Kharkiv, Ukraine, heading up the city’s Jewish Youth Association.