In Ukraine, Finding Home and Rewriting History

Im astonished that Jewish life in Odessa and other former communist countries is thriving and almost unrecognizable to the stories of my youth.

For AJT participants, making new friends and peer connections are critical draws to this year’s Jewish teen conference. Photo courtesy JDC.

By Elissa Katz

When I was younger, it took me a long time to realize that my parents were actually the ones with the funny accents, countering my belief that all of my childhood friend’s parents sounded a bit strange.

Rukhi Verh and Verka Serduchka, the famous Russian-language singers, were often played on full volume during long car rides, red beet borscht was served with a dollop of sour cream, and we always fasted on Yom Kippur.

In our family, that’s what it meant to be Ukrainian Jews.

And yet my perspective on what it means to be a Jew from the Russian-speaking world has critically transformed during my recent time in Odessa and among young Jews from the former Soviet Union. Indeed, it has surpassed all my expectations.

In truth, I’ve always been on a path toward working with these Jewish communities.

With extensive informal Jewish education experience with the youth movement Habonim Dror which culminated in my powerful aliyah experience, and then by serving as a counselor in many summer camps throughout the former Soviet Union with The Jewish Agency, I’ve developed a unique passion for working with Jewish communities, especially among Russian-speaking Jews.

But this journey started well before I was born.

As a child, my mother often remarked about leaving Odessa in 1979 because she wasn’t granted “Jewish freedom.” This was paired with other countless stories of Soviet times in “the old country”: my grandparent’s secret Jewish wedding, with a chuppah, in 1948; tales of bringing flour to a store and bribing the woman behind the counter to make matzah for Passover; and my father’s family’s secret holiday celebrations, hidden from everyone to avoid reprimand or a demotion at work.

My parents also told beautiful stories of summers in Odessa, swimming in the Black Sea, taking long walks down the lovely Pushkinskaya Street, and buying vegetables from the old lady screaming that she had the best tomatoes in all of Privoz Market.

My siblings and I dreamt about the fabled “Pearl of the Black Sea” and the day we’d finally step foot on the land that our family lived in for generations.

It was therefore fortuitous when one day I found myself online and a random Google search led me to the website of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Entwine initiative and its Global Jewish Service Corps, a year-long opportunity for young people to work in overseas communities where JDC is active.

So I took a chance, applied, and was selected as a JDC-BBYO Fellow, joining nine others whose placements focus on Jewish teen programming and where we utilize the vast resources and support of the world’s largest Jewish pluralistic teen movement, BBYO.

And where was I to serve? Odessa, of course.

My work in the family-fabled city is focused on strengthening the Odessa-based Jewish teen group Derech and volunteering at the Beit Grand Jewish Community Center. The rich Jewish culture that exists here is exactly what a charming, but fairly nerdy Jewish girl like myself, can’t get enough of.

And yet, aside from all this, Odessa in itself felt a bit unfamiliar to me. The pace of life, attitudes towards political correctness, and having to build a new social life have been challenging.

But two experiences have been a homecoming.

First, the food – who doesn’t love a good pickled herring under a gallon of mayonnaise?

And second is Active Jewish Teens (AJT), JDC’s rapidly expanding Jewish youth movement made up of young Jews from across the former Soviet Union, exploring and strengthening their Jewish identity and leadership skills to build Jewish community in their hometowns.

This effort grew out of a confluence of enthusiastic grassroots efforts, and growing demand, by Jewish youth in Ukraine to build a local youth movement, the combined guidance and resources of both JDC and BBYO, and the expertise of JDC-BBYO fellows, placed in Ukraine, who helped provide critical tools to shape and build the movement that these young Jews dreamed of. In just three years, AJT has grown to galvanize its members in local chapters throughout the FSU, provide volunteer opportunities, and bring teens together at an annual conference each year just like their teenage peers in JDC-BBYO partner communities around the world.

I attended this year’s gathering where more than 350 teens and guests from nine countries – Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Israel, and the U.S. – spent four days exploring our Jewish identities, participating in a multitude of educational programs, and electing the new teen presidents of AJT.

During my time there leading sessions and connecting with participants, I was exposed to so many different Jewish voices – some were the only Jewish person in their school; others had little Jewish culture at home; and some came from a variety of Jewish family backgrounds.

And yet, for all of them, AJT has been one of the places where they feel completely comfortable expressing themselves Jewishly. In fact, it has become their community and laid a path towards building and living a meaningful Jewish life. Many even remarked that their friends, Jewish and non-Jewish like, often express confusion about why they participate in AJT, especially in a post-Soviet landscape that still casts volunteerism in cult terms. Proudly, they have a simple answer to the question of what they do at AJT: we are changing the world.

As a child of parents who left a different reality behind almost four decades ago, I’m astonished that Jewish life in Odessa and other former communist countries is thriving and almost unrecognizable to the stories of my youth. More than that, I’ve found home and deep connection with young Jews here, understanding their search for meaning, Jewish identity, and enthusiasm to build strong communities for tomorrow.

That experience is invaluable for those of us committed to a Jewish future – together, we can make these opportunities possible for every young Jew searching for connection. In these efforts, we can upturn history, and find ourselves in the process.

Elissa Katz is the JDC-BBYO Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Odessa, Ukraine.