By Abigail Pickus
The recent election to the Ukrainian Parliament of a Kiev Hillel alum and Ukraine Hillel’s board chairman was a victory for the global Jewish community on many levels.
But for Yasha Moz, Hillel’s 29-year-old Associate Director of International Operations, it is a testament to Hillel’s cultivation of “not just leaders of the Jewish community but also leaders of the larger community, as well.”
The young director of Hillel’s international operations, the bulk of which centers on the former Soviet Union, is based in Washington, D.C.
But he was born and raised in Ekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city located on the border of Europe and Asia along the Ural Mountains.
His parents were also born in Ekaterinburg as his grandparents were forced to settle there by the Soviet government, a lucky turn of events as it enabled them to flee the German army advancing for Ukraine and Belarus during WWII.
“After university, the government told people where to work and they often sent the Jews to the most remote places, but my grandparents ended up creating a life there,” said Moz. (Its current Jewish population is around 20,000 out of a general population of about 1.5 million.)
Under the communist regime, Moz’s father was very active in underground Jewish life. He taught himself Hebrew, taught others about modern Israeli history, and shared the samizdat materials and books that American Jews had smuggled in.
When The Jewish Agency began organizing Jewish summer camps throughout the FSU in the early 90s, Moz’s father was asked to teach at the camp in the Urals. He agreed on one condition: that his young son would attend as a camper.
“That was the first time I had ever been to a Jewish summer camp,” recalled Moz. “It was an inspiring experience to see living, breathing Israelis, to hear Israeli music, to celebrate Shabbat and sing Hebrew songs. It was all very exciting.”
It was especially powerful as a contrast to his coming of age in the 90s – a time of much transition in Russia. “One system broke and another was just getting started,” said Moz.
But the Jewish summer camp opened a whole new slew of possibilities and joy for him. “Jewish camp became a highlight for me every summer,” he said.
At the age of 13, Moz visited Israel with his family. He later went on a Birthright Israel trip, which allowed him to see Israel in a whole new way.
Proficient in languages, particularly English, Moz won a scholarship to Kansas City, Kansas, during high school, a pivotal year in which he lived with a host family and went to school in America. (Moz had written on his application that he kept kosher, thinking it would lead him to be matched with a Jewish family but ironically, because he also mentioned his interest in chess, he was paired with a Mormon family whose father coached chess. Ever accommodating, the family prepared kosher style meals for him, never mixing meat and dairy or serving shell fish, eventually contributing to Yasha’s decision to start keeping kosher himself.)
After returning to Russia, Moz studied at Ural State University majoring in international relations. It was at this time that he was first exposed to Hillel.
“The Hillel director in Ekaterinburg asked me to lead Shabbat services, saying it was only temporary. I ended up doing it for four years!” he said.
In fact, leading services quickly turned into running all of Hillel’s local programming. “During my final year, my claim to fame was I became the youngest ever Hillel director at the age of 20,” Moz recalled, a position he was supposed to hold temporarily while the organization searched for a more senior replacement.
But that, too, turned into a more permanent gig.
Moz served as Director of Hillel in Ekaterinburg for two years. “It was a very exciting time,” he said. “Compared with large Hillels in US, this was a relatively small operation but we had so many opportunities to do amazing things for the few hundred young Jews that we engaged in Jewish life in Ekaterinburg.”
The exuberance he felt, the sheer element of possibility, reminded him of the mega event from his Birthright Israel trip.
“There we were in Jerusalem with thousands of participants from around the world, including all of these crazy Latin Americans dancing and one grabbed my hand and then I was dancing, too. It was such a moment of joy and I felt bad for all the Russian Jews who didn’t get to experience that,” Moz said.
It was then that he vowed to return to Russia with a commitment to introducing other young Jews to this exciting experience of being part of Jewish life. “I started to recruit other young Jews and it was a great success. I loved it,” he said.
In 2006, Moz’s family decided to leave Russia. His father and older sister made aliyah, while Moz, his mother and grandmother settled in Bethesda, Maryland, joining family that had moved there in 1990s.
Looking around for meaningful work, he realized he missed Hillel.
And so one day he showed up at the Hillel office in DC to convince them to give him a job.
After sharing his knowledge of Hillel in Russia with the new Director of the International Division, Moz recalled him saying, “I don’t have a job for you or a salary, but why don’t you start on Monday and we’ll figure it out?”
Moz has been at Hillel ever since.
A big part of his role is to foster sustainable and locally run Hillels around the globe, which has been coming to pass through the creation of regional boards and locally led fundraising.
“When I first started, 90% of Hillel’s funding came from the States, but now 50% of the funds are raised locally in the FSU,” Moz said.
On a personal note, Moz is engaged to be married to an “American Jewish girl,” Leah Siskin, the Assistant Director of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse.
As he looks forward to marriage and starting a family, he admits to taking it all in, his beginnings in the FSU and the rest of his journey ahead.
“What do I want my own Jewish life to be? What traditions will we start and which ones will we continue?”
As for what is next for him professionally, Moz said, “I love my job. I feel so happy to show up to work everyday and to work with such great folks around the world. We are making great progress but are still far from reaching every Jewish student in the world and connecting them to our global family. But I have always loved a good challenge!”