Active Jewish Teens (AJT), JDC’s Jewish teen network in the former Soviet Union, has grown from a small grassroots effort to a formidable, driving force inspiring the next generation of Jewish leaders in the region. Connecting over 3,200 Jewish teens in local chapters in 60 cities across the former Soviet Union (FSU), AJT is powered by partnerships with BBYO and Genesis Philanthropy Group. Its rapid success is due in part to its ability to fill a need for Jewish teens in the region looking to connect with their roots, in a way that speaks uniquely to them.
“I — like many young people in my country, and I guess around the world — am still looking for my way of being Jewish,” explains Alla Magas, director of AJT. “AJT began with the simplest of ideas — a very simple idea — creating a space in the Jewish community for teens, for whom there was absolutely no space or platform there before.”
AJT has become masterful at developing ways to attract and inspire Jewish teens with programming and events that are both fun and engaging and teens continue to flock to its local chapters. However, in the current pandemic reality, quarantine mandates and restrictions have forced AJT, which often relies on in-person gatherings for engagement, to rethink how they interact with their participants.
To do this, AJT has shown tenacity and resilience, meeting FSU teens where they now are — online. And that accomplishment is being noticed.
“GPG is a long-term supporter of JDC Active Jewish Teens network in the countries of the former Soviet Union and the high quality of their work is not a surprise for us. But this year AJT showed amazing results in fast track adaptation of their programs for the online format, suggesting an alternative to almost every in-person activity — from early morning physical exercise to late evening discussions and Q&A sessions. This new experience enabled participants to stay engaged in their local Jewish community, but also to interact with Jewish teens in the FSU and globally,” said Natalie Shnaiderman, Genesis Philanthropy Group Director of Global Grantmaking.
Andrey is one of those teens. From Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Andrey has been involved with AJT since he was 14. A year after first joining, he attended an AJT seminar in Tbilisi, where his passion for AJT grew even more, eventually becoming a madrich in his local chapter — a position he proudly holds today.
Currently, that programming that he fell in love with a few years ago looks a bit different. In-person AJT activities — including volunteering opportunities, educational and recreational programming — have all been adapted for current needs and are being offered remotely. In fact, each week, an average of over 40 hours of programming is being designed, organized and led by AJT members from across the region.
“The pandemic put certain limits to our activities, but also made us think outside of the box,” said Andrey. “Every day I was involved in different digital activities, from online meetups to educational sessions. I was in touch with my mates from all over the FSU and it meant a lot as we did our best to support each other. I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more, so every day had many things to offer and simply did my best to absorb it. We did our best, we learned fast and help many teens to stay connected.”
Anton, a 16-year-old from Murmansk, Russia, tells a similar story of his AJT coronavirus experience. Yet, it wasn’t until recently — right before the pandemic hit, in fact — that he actually became involved in AJT. It was just in February that he learned about the organization from a Jewish educator in St. Petersburg. He decided to give it a try and was getting ready to attend his first AJT seminar when COVID-19 forced all in-person activities to be cancelled.
Rather than put his involvement on hold until the pandemic had passed, Anton, who was diagnosed with and recovered from coronavirus during this time, dove in, headfirst, to the numerous AJT virtual offerings.
“Since the pandemic started, I’ve been involved in AJT with help of online programming. There were a lot of interesting lessons, and I’ve been attending a variety of them. With help of online programming I became coordinator of AJTorah (a series of seminars and lectures provided by local Jewish educators to strengthen teens’ familiarity with Jewish text and tradition),” explained Anton. “As for me, online programming helped me stay tranquil during this hard time.”
“The global online shabbat was AMAZING, I can’t even put it into words.”
One of his favorite virtual activities was the FSU Global Shabbat. In the largest online event of its kind, on June 19th, 850 participants of all ages from 10 countries and 90 cities across the FSU came together to celebrate Shabbat, light candles and recite traditional blessings and songs.
“The global online shabbat was AMAZING, I can’t even put it into words,” noted Anton.
It’s programs like the Global Shabbat that have made all the difference during these trying times. Despite the distance created by the pandemic, AJT has adapted to current realities and continued to serve as a beacon of Jewish connection and engagement for thousands of passionate Jewish teens across the former Soviet Union.
Explains Andrey, “I can proudly say that my Jewish community and AJT chapter are initial part of my identity. They helped me to grow, develop my mindset, and I must say even shaped my current life. This is where my heart lives.”