My Best Friend Lives in Ukraine

Adam and Juli
Adam and Juli

By Adam Shaw

“Thank you for changing my life.”

That’s what my new Ukrainian friend, Juli Kovaliova, said to me during our last embrace. In a moment filled with the purest sense of emotion, I did not know how to respond. All I could think to say was, “No, thank you. Thank you for changing my life.

It all started with a dream – a seemingly radical idea that we, as the next generation of North American Jewish leaders, could do more with the global Jewish community through our movement, BBYO. The first step was to bring a Ukrainian teen to Chicago so that we could learn what Jewish life is like in another country and explore ways to create stronger connections. This experience, we thought, could really affect change in our community and, more importantly, in a community that we had never been to, thousands of miles away in Ukraine. This is where it all began.

BBYO Great Midwest Region, for teens in Chicago and the greater Chicagoland area, is fortunate to have a long-standing partnership with Active Jewish Teens (AJT), the BBYO partner program in Ukraine, thanks to an organization-wide partnership with The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). But, to go beyond Skype calls with our peers and meet in person, we had the challenge to raise the funds necessary to bring Juli here. We stepped up to that challenge, raising over $3,000 for the International Service Fund (ISF), the scholarship fund through which BBYO provides Jewish teens around the world leadership development and Judaic enrichment opportunities. A few months later, our dream became reality during Juli’s 10 day stay in Chicago.

As I showed Juli around our hometown, introducing her to members of the Jewish community, I saw on my fellow BBYO members’ faces that we were changing the way they saw the Jewish world. This is what BBYO does: it helps Jewish teens take the impossible and the improbable and make it reality, and it reminds us that, with hard work, passion and support from adults who believe in us, we can accomplish anything we want. As a part of a movement bigger than ourselves, we can dream big and accomplish amazing things.

For Juli, she knows now more than ever that not only the Jewish teens of Chicago, but also the Jewish teens of the world, are here for her. This reassurance will allow her to continue to be proud of her Judaism and give her the strength to share this Jewish pride publicly. She has seen what BBYO is like in another place in the world and this first-hand experience will help her grow BBYO in Ukraine to give more Jewish teens more meaningful Jewish experiences.

For me, these 10 days showed me the power of the individual; how one Jewish teen’s dream can change the world. These 10 days connected Jews in Chicago and Ukraine forever. As this partnership expands and more lives are impacted after my time in BBYO is over, I know I can always go back to what my newest Ukrainian friend Juli and I told each other. As long as I live, I will remember that these 10 days changed my life.

Now, I gotta go – it’s time to video chat with Juli!

Adam Shaw is the outgoing Vice President of Globalization of BBYO Great Midwest Region, the BBYO region serving Jewish teens in Chicago and the greater Chicagoland area. He is 18 years old and is graduating from Whitney Young High School in Chicago. He’ll be attending Indiana University in Bloomington in the fall, and looks forward to regular video chats with Juli!