Alina Shkolnikov: Living Co-Existence on Many Levels

AlinaBy Abigail Pickus

We live in a global world.

But 27-year-old Alina Shkolnikov has lived a very global life.

The Director of Content and Programs for PresenTense was born in Khrakiv, Ukraine, and moved with her family to Israel when she was only 2.

“My parents really wanted to come to Jerusalem and they’ve been in Jerusalem ever since,” said Shkolnikov, whose family settled in Pisgat Zeev.

Growing up, Shkolnikov spoke Russian and Hebrew at home, she understands Ukranian and speaks English fluently.

When she was 14, she had the opportunity to participate in the Seeds of Peace International Camp, a unique summer program that models co-existence by bringing together young people from “regions of conflict to meet their ‘enemy’ face-to-face.”

There she met Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Greeks, Turks and more.

One of her counselors, who was studying at the United World College (UWC) in Canada, told the teens about its international program located in 14 schools across the globe.

“Everyone wanted to apply, except for me, because I’m so attached to my parents so I didn’t want to leave Israel,” recalled Shkolnikov.

But at the convincing of a friend she did apply and soon found out that she would receive a full scholarship to study at the Mahindra United World College of India.

For two years of high school, Shkolnikov lived near Pune, India, studying and living with peers from many different countries, cultures, religions and worldviews.

It was an eye opening experience.

“One of the greatest things from the UWC experience was they teach international relations by giving children the chance to explain about their own countries. So Israelis had to explain the Israeli Palestinian conflict to everyone from their perspective,” she said. “For me, this was a unique experience. Where else would you be able to learn about countries from those who live there and not from the news? So we learned about Tibet from someone from Tibet and Dubai from someone from Dubai.” (Her roommate was from Dubai.)

Likewise, they were also introduced to India not from lectures or books but through immersion.

“They taught about the culture we were living in through interacting with the people,” she said, including the volunteering she did at a nearby orphanage for children with HIV/Aids born to sex workers.

“We got to really learn what India is and not what it looks like to white people. After two years there I really fell in love with India. It is such an amazingly complex place,” she said.

Shkolnikov took away something else from her experiences in India and Seeds of Peace: first hand knowledge of diplomacy.

“For me, Seeds of Peace and UWC were two of the earliest experiences I had with politics and ngo work, which I love and do to this day. They really give children an amazing opportunity to understand conflict in a real, intimate way,” she said.

She also made lasting and deep friendships from these experiences, including one of her best friends, who is a Palestinian Israeli, and her boyfriend, a Russian Israeli Jew, both of whom she met on Seeds of Peace.

For despite an ugly and seemingly endless conflict in the Middle East, Shkolnikov’s experiences are of true co-existence.

“I have to have hope,” she said. “If I didn’t believe that there is a solution I wouldn’t be able to live here. My best friend from Seeds of Peace is of Palestinian nationality. She’s Muslim and she grew up in Jerusalem. We’ve been there for each other throughout it all, through breakups, loss, death and general hardships in life – even though we don’t see eye to eye politically. But we are able to see that there is a person on the other side. The same is true for any conflict, there is always a person on the other side, and that is the way to solve conflict.”

In the army, Shkolnikov served as the Russian Desk Commander in the Foreign Press Branch of the IDF Spokespersons Unit.

“When I started I wanted to be in a boot camp commander,” said Shkolnikov, admitting that she is a meter and half tall. (Not quite 5 feet)

“I lasted a month,” she recalled. “Basically, I’m underweight and was not equipped to deal with combat.”

Luckily, right then a position opened up in the Spokesperson’s Unit for a Russian speaker. It was serendipitous.

Calling it an “amazing experience,” Shkolnikov served in reserve during the Lebanon war and the first Gaza war, through high’s and low’s.

One highpoint during her army service was when the State of Israel brought over the parents of many of the Russian lone soldiers during the Lebanon War, unbeknownst to the soldiers.

After the army, Shkolnikov received a bachelor’s degree in communications from The Interdisciplinary Center, Sami Ofer School of Communications.

While there she hosted three different radio programs for IDC radio. She also honed her skills in new media by working for a variety of organizations, including Green Course, Israel’s largest volunteer organization for the environment for students.

Shkolnikov’s first job after the army was in public relations at a well-known firm in Jerusalem that focuses on education, culture and social change. “One of my favorite clients was Larger Than Life, an ngo for kids with cancer,” she said.

Two years ago, she began her role as Director of Content and Programs at PresenTense, after running its European programs. PresenTense “employs entrepreneurship as a tool to grow local economies, enrich community life and solve critical issues facing society.”

“The reason I love working for PresenTense is that it actually takes some of the biggest problems with ngos, which is they’re not sustainable in the long run, and solves that by teaching all of our innovators how to build strong business plans and to bring about social innovation,” she said.

“PresenTense is solving some of the core issues in society, through its accelerators, seminars, hubs, and more, by growing the local economy. It’s really helping to enrich community life in a sustainable way,” she continued.

Examples include separate programs run by PresenTense that help both charedi women and Arabs start their own businesses.

These days Shkolnikov is busy fueling programs some of PresenTense accelorators in Israel and Europe, creating curriculum and overseeing the partnership between PresenTense and Tedx Jerusalem.

In the midst of all of this, she is pursuing a master’s from Tel Aviv University, volunteers for different organizations, such as one that offers rehabilitation and services for former prostitutes, and she’s involved in the Russian speaking community.

If that isn’t enough, she also hosted a podcast called “Game Changers” on TLV1 radio.

And she credits everything to her family.

“The reason I am able to do everything at such a young age is because of my family,” she said, specifically her parents, grandparents and “baby” sister, who just enlisted in the army.

“These four people [parents and grandparents] have really raised me to be incredibly competitive and goal oriented while also striving for social change,” she said, adding she also credits her baby sister and boyfriend for their support.

As for the future, Shkolnikov is setting her sights high.

“Since I was 14, my dream has been to be prime minister one day,” she said. “We’ll see how ready Israelis are for a young Ukranian immigrant prime minister!”

“Alina Shkolnikov: Living Co-Existence on Many Levels” is part of an on-going series on young Jewish adults – both entrepreneurs and communal professionals – making a difference in their world, and ours.