More than 150 Jewish educators, community professionals, and volunteers from the former Soviet Union and Israel will gather today in Lvov, Ukraine, for JDC’s fourth annual Jewish Informal Education Conference. The multi-day event will engage participants in a variety of network-building opportunities and knowledge-sharing workshops, as well as an exchange of best practices in Jewish education. It will also explore contemporary Jewish life in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and the significance of the Galicia region to Jewish history.
Conference participants – who work for Jewish community centers, JDC-supported Hesed welfare centers, youth clubs, family camps, kindergartens, and other Jewish outlets throughout the FSU – will lead sessions on spirituality, assimilation, Jewish culture and history, Israel and religious practice. Additional workshops relate to the development of Jewish arts with an emphasis on crafts, theater and music. Participants will also tour several fortified synagogues, a rare and unique architectural style that once proliferated in the area.
Among those attending are Kolya Rilan, a Kishinev-based social entrepreneur who founded a Jewish youth club five years ago that today boasts 400 members and hosts a range of cultural and social activities on weekends and Jewish holidays; Kharkov educator Zhenya Loftnik, who is devoted to the revival of Yiddish in Eastern Europe and organized a series of Yiddish-language and cultural events including music concerts, dance contests, and poetry readings; and Alla Magas, 30, also of Kharkov and a graduate of a progressive Jewish educators institute, will share her experiences as an educator in Eastern Europe.
For centuries, Galicia and its capital Lvov were home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. Known for their spirituality and candor, “Galitzianers,” as locals were called in Yiddish, were immortalized in the novels of Sholem Aleichem and paintings of Marc Chagall. Despite their communities being decimated by the Holocaust, about 5,000 Jews still call the area home.
Following, participants Alla Magas and Nikolay (Kolya) Railean respond to questions from eJP. The pair shared their excitement for the conference and reflect on JDC’s role in the FSU.
What is important about attending events like this?
Alla Magas: We only have the opportunity to meet with our colleagues once a year. This meeting gives us a huge chance to share experiences, strike up acquaintances, and receive information about the progress of Jewish life in the whole former Soviet Union.
This conference is very special for me, because for the first time, we’ll get together with Jewish youth leaders from the whole former Soviet Union. It allows us to study, to speak, and to create – all while speaking ‘the same language.’ When you work alone in your city for a long period of time, you feel like you have no support. But when you have the possibility to meet up with people who do the same work as you, who have the same problems as you, who work with the same age group and facilitate the same programs as you, you understand that cooperation and teamwork are critical for the towns and cities of the former Soviet Union.
Nikolay Railean: The conference helps us meet colleagues from all over the former Soviet Union. At these meetings, we share our experiences over the past year. We talk about the successes of our work and the difficulties we have had. For me, this conference is a professional platform that helps me get new professional perspectives on my work.
Tell us about some of the opportunities and experiences JDC has helped make possible for you.
AM: Three years ago, three leaders from different youth clubs had the idea of meeting with the leaders of all of the former Soviet Union’s youth clubs. They wanted to start a process to upgrade the level of Jewish education in youth clubs. JDC endorsed this idea and in a year we created a chain of seminars for young leaders from the former Soviet Union. It gave us a powerful incentive to develop our ideas. Today most of the leaders are intimately in contact with each other. At the seminars, we plan and share experiences and in general, we help each other with programs, grants and ideas. The most important thing is that we are not alone. It’s safe to say the Joint supports all ideas that help the personal and professional development of the Jewish world.
NR: Thanks to JDC, I began to understand the concept of non-formal education. JDC has given me the opportunity to learn from other countries how to work in my community. For me, it’s very important when people share their successes and provide an opportunity to use them in their work.
Personally I have always found it important to focus on youth. I learned from my own experience that being involved in the community during my school years meant that I didn’t spend my childhood on the street. Now I try to offer a variety of youth programs, so that young people’s childhoods can take place in the community center. JDC helped me to realize this dream, with the Jewish youth club Haverim, which now has more than 700 participants. JDC has helped me to understand who I am and grow. JDC continues to motivate me to help Moldova’s Jewish community.
What do you see as the role of JDC in the former Soviet Union today?
AM: It supports and develops Jewish living in communities and cities, supports small and big projects in Jewish education, and creates new directions for the Jewish community. I’d like to have more support for youth clubs, because young people are the future of the Jewish community.
NR: The role of JDC is to support communities. If we speak about Moldova, thanks to JDC, the Jewish population in Moldova – from children to the elderly – receives monthly financial assistance. Thanks to JDC, there are cultural community centers, where every day people can come and take part in their Jewish identity. Thanks to the JDC, there are programs for young people. Unfortunately, young people nowadays do not often think about the future, but we are attracting an active Jewish youth in the community, enabling them to understand that their future and the future of their community is in their hands.
How has your relationship with your Jewish identity changed over the course of your life?
AM: These changes began when I was 13, when my mom told me I had to have a part in the future of the Jewish nation. Today I live a full Jewish life. I love my work in Kharkov’s JCC Beit Dan. I preside over talks on Jewish informal education for workers from Jewish organizations in the former Soviet Union. I create new projects directed at the development of Jewish youth in cities, and I respect and uphold traditions.
NR: I grew up in a Jewish family, but unfortunately after my grandmother’s death, all of the Jews began to leave our family. I remember the holidays; I remember how my grandmother used to bake donuts for Hanukkah. In Soviet times, it was not customary to say that you were a Jew, and Jewish identity began to leave my family, even though my father decided to send my sister to a Jewish school and me to a Jewish Sunday school, where I was able to study Jewish traditions. Every year, I became more and more invested in my connection to my heritage. I connected my life with the Jewish community in Moldova, and I feel proud of my involvement there. My Jewishness is my community and my contribution to it.
The Jewish Informal Education Conference in Lvov is supported by an anonymous federation.