By JDC Staff
We recognize the accomplishments and sacrifices of women across the globe on International Women’s Day. These are women from all walks of life – old and young, rich and poor – who have broken barriers and dedicated themselves to the greater good, leading a path for a better future.
In places like the former Soviet Union the holiday has special resonance, especially among the resurgent Jewish communities of the region. As JTA reported, growing numbers of women leaders, especially professionals, are sources of pride and role models for rising generations.
Alla Magas, who turned her passion for building Jewish life into her purpose, is one such leader creating positive change for today’s Jewish youth. But before she dubbed herself the “Mother of Jewish Dragons” – a Game of Thrones-inspired term of affection regarding the Jewish teens impacted by her work – her journey started with a surprise.
When Alla was 13, she received the phone call that would change her life – an invitation to a Shabbat dinner celebration.
Though she had one Jewish friend growing up in the small Ukrainian city of Poltava, he’d moved to Israel years before, and Alla couldn’t understand why she would be on the Jewish community’s list of area teenagers.
She turned to her mother, who told her the truth: They were Jewish.
“This was the beginning of a transformative experience,” said Alla, “When you are poor and you come from my side of the world, there is no sense of belonging, no sense of community. But at that Shabbat meal, I met intellectuals and had interesting discussions; I also ate great food and heard beautiful songs – but most importantly, I felt like I was home.”
Flash forward to today, Alla is the director of Active Jewish Teens (AJT), the rapidly expanding youth program of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
“AJT began with the simplest of ideas – a very simple idea – creating a space in the Jewish community for teens, for whom there was absolutely no space or platform there before,” explained Alla.
In just five years, AJT has grown to include more than 3,000 teens through local chapters in 57 cities in seven counties in the region. A partnership with BBYO and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, AJT empowers teens to build Jewish life, connect with one another, and serve their communities.
“The program took off like wildfire, because these teenagers want to be successful and to lead meaningful lives,” Alla said. “They want friendship and love, and they want support from young Jews like themselves. They want to belong to the community. It’s their identity.”
Alla said she views her role as something of a coach or cheerleader: It’s her job to empower the teens she works with, most of whom are between 13 and 17.
“We need to build a new generation that knows how many ways there are to be Jewish,” she said. “’Open your mind,’ I tell them. They need to find their own personal Jewish story.”
Sonia Volovik was one of those teens who found her Jewish story through AJT. She said she doesn’t like to think about what her life would look like if her mother hadn’t run into Alla in a supermarket in Kharkov, Ukraine. Until then, the 16-year-old had little knowledge of or connection to her Jewish identity – but Alla cornered her mother near the produce aisle: “You’re Jewish, right? And you have a teenage daughter?”
Three years ago, Sonia concluded her tenure as AJT president.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I first attended that AJT event,” she said. “Now I know that was my job – to come back home and take responsibility for my community.”
For Alla, celebrating a proud, vibrant future for young women like Sonia, and empowering them to lead the future of their Jewish community is an essential part AJT, and the future for the Jewish people.
“Through AJT, my hope is that these teens are not only learning about their Jewish identity, but about their worth and power to lead as young women,” said Alla.
Twenty years since finding out she was Jewish, Alla is now the one helping surprised teenagers realize they’re part of a global Jewish family.
“I – like many young people in my country, and I guess around the world – am still looking for my way of being Jewish,” she said. “AJT is one of the ways of being Jewish for me – we are the ones building a Jewish future now.”