Seeding Homegrown Innovators in St. Petersburg

by Katya Potapova

St. Petersburg is the Paris of the North. Actually, it’s better. And colder. It boasts what we think is the world’s worst weather and what we know is the breathtaking White Nights. It is the most snobbish, vibrant and Western-leaning city in our enormous country. We, the locals, with our opulent architecture and great restaurants, still travel to Finland five times a year to do grocery shopping and because the Fins’ gloomy Northern Art Nouveau is worth seeing. We consider ourselves Europeans, but with a harder fortune, and although we consider leaving on every rainy day, the city has caught us and never sets us free.

Our parents do not talk about the Shoah with us, not because it is difficult to find the words, but because they do not completely relate. That’s because the Jews of our city struggled through the Siege of the Leningrad along with everyone else and that is both a source of pain and pride. Our grandparents were professors, musicians and doctors – they spoke little-to-no Yiddish, even though their family names spoke for themselves.

Like many other young Jews in our late 20’s, I have decided to stay here and make a difference. But my Judaism comes through Chagall and Amichai rather than through a Siddur and kashrut. My friends come from mixed-Jewish families and hope to find Jewish matches. (Maybe we’re not so different from everyone else?)

Many of my peers and friends became much happier when they left their “normal jobs” and chose more meaningful paths. The floor is ours, after all: we are the first generation raised in a new society, inventing our own little Jewish universe. In the vacuum left by the abandonment of Soviet ideology, with unclear values, it was my generation that took the lead. We are here – in the forefront of social innovation, in arts and media, creating the emerging middle class and shaping the future.

What have we achieved so far? Dynamic Jewish camps, family programs and young leadership initiatives that were created, in many cases, from models we did not grow up with and with incredible help from various organizations like the Schusterman Foundation that invested in our communities 20 years ago. It’s hard to believe, but just two decades later, young people whose parents were afraid to say out loud, “I am a Jew,” now have chuppot at their weddings and arrange britot for their babies. And yes, our parents think we are crazy, but they are also very proud of us.

I love the programs I run, volunteer at, supervise and participate in both as a member of the St. Petersburg Jewish community and as part of my work for the JDC. I have this pride because in many ways I do this for myself and not just for the “clients” that we serve (who are also, incidentally, my neighbors, friends and relatives). My friends and friends of friends initiate and take responsibility because we care. We are creating something that has never existed before, and this is exciting!

The task of young Jews here is to shape the Jewish community and make it the most competitive and appealing for assimilated people. That’s why the St. Petersburg Jewish community programmatically is very advanced. And yet we need help. We continue to need true partners who will be mentors and challenge us, but also respect our opinions and point of view.

In that atmosphere, the Schusterman team has launched the ‘Make it Happen’ micro grant program in St. Petersburg to ensure that the authentically Petersburgian innovation of young Jews is a top priority. While great ideas are important, timing is everything, and there couldn’t be a better time than now to offer this very different kind of support, in which young people like myself can apply for small amounts of money to create Jewish experiences for our peers.

While for years we “imported” programs as passive participants, we now want to be the vanguard of our community and, by extension, of the Jewish world. Perhaps by seeding homegrown innovators, we may discover yet another Jewish revolutionary – no pun intended.

Katya Potapova is director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Lehava program in St. Petersburg.