by Abigail Pickus
Yohanan Kosensko, a 27-year-old rabbi, is building an iPhone App and website to showcase the history of a Jewish cemetery in Moscow as a way to preserve and transmit Moscow’s Jewish history.
Kosensko is one of 13 Russian social innovators who make up the first corps of the Kaet Fellowship launched by PresenTense in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
By June, the fellows will have created 11 working projects to transform Russian Jewish life that run the gamut from a shomer Shabbat youth hostel to a first-aid training program that taps Israeli medical technology to ensure that Russian Jews can help in emergency situations.
“Social entrepreneurship is really hot in Russia right now,” said Michael Podberezin, European program director for PresenTense. “And it’s great that now the Jewish community is leading the way [in this arena].”
The 5-month program gives the Fellows, who were selected out a pool of applicants, the tools they need to turn their ideas into sustainable ventures. As in keeping with the PresenTense model, which runs in 12 communities around the world, the whole initiative began months earlier by building a volunteer team who will act as coaches and professional mentors for the fellows.
In the case of Kosenko, for example, his coach is the man who created the online map showing the locations of 2010 fires that swept across Russia. It was this website that enabled the kinds of grassroots activism where people banded together to help put out the fires.
What is unique about the Kaet Fellowship, which means ‘present tense’ in Hebrew, is that besides being PresenTense’s first venture into Russia, marks its inaugural partnership with JDC.
“One of the cornerstones of our work in the former Soviet Union over the last 20 years has been to build the next generation of Jewish leadership and we’re very proud that together with PresenTense our first class of fellows will bring a new level of innovation and creativity to a Jewish community yearning for new ways to connect and grow,” said JDC CEO Steven Schwager.
The way Podberezin sees it, this fellowship is a response to an “awakening” in Russia in which “many Jews are seeking new gates to the Jewish community and we are helping them build those gates.”
The concept of volunteerism may be new to Russia, but it did not serve as an obstacle in building the steering committee, which often entailed cold calling many leaders in the larger Jewish community and asking them to donate their time and expertise.
“When we first met with them, several people were waiting for me to ask them for money because that is what they are used to, but when we didn’t and instead asked them for their time, they were surprised,” said Podberezin. “I really think this is untapped territory that provides a unique opportunity for people to volunteer their experiences and it’s something that nobody else here is providing.”
photos courtesy PresenTense/JDC