Largest FSU Jewish Teen Gathering Spotlights Emerging Leaders

Photo courtesy JDC

More than 350 Jewish teens and young adult leaders from the former Soviet Union are celebrating their role in strengthening Jewish life at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Active Jewish Teens (AJT) 4th annual conference in Kharkov, Ukraine this weekend. The gathering, created and run with the teens, includes participants from JDC and BBYO networks in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Estonia, and Israel. And for the first time, American teens active in BBYO are in attendance as part of JDC and BBYO’s global partnership focused on building a worldwide movement of Jewish young people.

Photo courtesy JDC

“It’s nothing short of miraculous that in just one generation since the fall of Communism, these teens are proudly exploring and embracing their Jewish identity and building new avenues for Jewish life through innovative projects, volunteerism, and meaningful leadership roles,” said JDC CEO David Schizer. “We can be quite proud of the role we have played in making this dream – of impassioned young Jews dedicated to Jewish community and the wider Jewish world – a reality, and to have partners like BBYO to support the robust engagement of local teens from Ukraine to Latvia.”

Asi Kaniel, JDC’s Director of FSU Jewish Renewal, discussing Jewish texts with Ukrainian Jewish teens; photo courtesy JDC.

The conference’s overall focus is on Jewish values, with more than 100 workshops exposing the teens to tikkun olam, Jewish mutual responsibility, Jewish laws and customs, volunteerism best practices, and contemporary interpretations of classic Jewish texts. A stand out session will mimic the hit show “Shark Tank,” enabling five teens to present grassroots projects they want to implement in their community. The selected winner will receive a small grant from a committee made up of donors to jumpstart their effort.

“As AJT president, I have learned that creative thinking, good communication, and effective time management are key to getting things done. But for me, the most important thing that AJT has given me is a strong connection to Jewish culture and Judaism. It is this connection to my Jewish heritage that is my source of inspiration and motivation to continue working on behalf of my community now and in the future,” said Dima Arutynov, 18, Co-President of AJT.

BBYO songleaders Eric Hunker and Happie Hoffman; photo courtesy JDC.

Teen participants will learn from inspiring speakers and AJT teachers, graduates of JDC’s flagship Metusda leadership program, directors of youth clubs, and well-known local and Israeli educators to deepen their Jewish knowledge. Attendees can also participate in Jewish song leading sessions led by BBYO song leaders, as well as Israeli dancing and an art workshop, Shabbat and Havdalah ceremonies, and the election of the new AJT presidents.

“No matter where in the world, when teens are given the opportunity to build their own experiences and create their own community, they usually exceed their own lofty expectations” said Matt Grossman, BBYO CEO. “Their optimism and creativity are writing a new history for Jewish organizations and Jewish life.”

Active Jewish Teens grew out of a confluence of enthusiastic grassroots efforts, and growing demand, by Jewish youth in Ukraine and Russia and the wider former Soviet Union, to build connectivity between young Jews in the region. This was made possible by combining guidance and resources from both JDC and BBYO and the expertise of JDC-BBYO fellows placed in Ukraine through JDC Entwine who helped provide critical tools to shape and build the movement of which these young Jews dreamed.

Today, the network connects over 3,000 teens through local chapters in 57 cities across the former Soviet Union.