Thriving Jewish Life in Ukraine: Could I Ever Have Imagined It?

Jacob, second from the left, with a group of AJT and U.S. teens at the AJT conference.

Ambassadors to Ukraine 2017Teen Reflection
By Jacob Ioffe

When I first learned about Ambassadors to Ukraine, a unique opportunity for BBYO members from North America, Europe and Israel to join our brothers and sisters in Active Jewish Teens – the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s growing teen movement in the former Soviet Union and a BBYO partner through our global JDC partnership to engage Jewish teens worldwide – at their fourth annual AJT conference, my first thought was, how are my parents going to react?

Both of my parents were born and raised in Lviv, a city on the western border of Ukraine and grew up during a time of severe anti-Semitism and oppression. They moved to the United States in 1994 to escape those circumstances and the tough times that commenced after the Communist regime fell. While they were born Jewish and grew up Jewish, they kept it inside the house. Religion to them was not worship or tradition – it was hiding.

Pitching the idea of going back to the country they desperately tried to leave in order to attend a conference with Jewish teens sounded crazy to them at first. There was immediate skepticism on their part, and they questioned how serious I was about joining the trip because they didn’t believe something like an Active Jewish Teens conference would ever take place in Ukraine. After much research, they eventually allowed me to go. While I was excited to travel and experience the roots of my culture and identity, my parents were definitely nervous.

As I headed to New York to meet my delegation, my parents scrambled to give me tips on things I should – and shouldn’t – do on my trip. I learned how to speak Russian growing up, but I was warned not to use it outside of with my peers due to the political conflicts going on with Russia.

When I arrived at JFK airport, my excitement turned to nervousness as I wondered whether the trip was going to be a good use of my time. These thoughts quickly disappeared on my flight to Kiev when I sat next to a recent college graduate from Kiev. He told me about his life and his work, and it turned out he was Jewish as well. I asked him about Kiev, what the community was like, what the people were like, and the effect of the political tension on topics such as language or anti-Semitism. After hearing the perspective of someone from the community, I was eager to experience what lay ahead.

The learning began immediately after stepping foot in Kiev. The city oddly felt like home, even without any similar aspects to where I currently reside: the culture, food, and language all reminded me of my family at home. As time went by and I was able to have one-on-one conversations with several people, I began to learn more about Ukraine and the local Jewish community. An especially eye-opening conversation I had was with an early childhood program employee at the Halom JCC, opened by JDC two years ago as part of its large-scale efforts to rebuild Jewish life in post-Soviet nations. She told me a little bit about herself and proceeded to tell me that she wasn’t Jewish but that she wanted to help in the Jewish community because she sees how special our religion is. That was incredible to me because she was under no obligation to spend her time helping young Jewish children develop freely in a land where it once wasn’t possible – and yet she wanted to.

Later that day I had the honor of meeting a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, Lydia Korotina, known for assisting Jews during the war. Lydia now regularly attends JDC’s Hesed social welfare center to speak and educate others. The Hesed is one of dozens of such centers that provides aid to needy Jewish elderly and children as well as providing a safe and enjoyable space for various activities such as Israeli dancing and singing.

It was breathtaking to see how optimistic Lydia was despite all that had happened in her past. While her whole family fell victim to the Nazis, she never lost faith in Judaism or G-d. She continues preaching against violence and war, while advocating for peace and community. What made the experience stunning was how similar her apartment felt to my own grandmother’s. The apartment had the same type of furniture, the same snacks, and oddly enough the same smell. The strong sense of home was unquestionably felt throughout my first day in Kiev.

One of my most powerful encounters in Ukraine was touring Babi Yar, the infamous site in Kiev where thousands of Jews, including my ancestors, were massacred by the Nazis. The power of the site was felt immediately, and seeing the memorials allowed me to piece together how truly expansive Babi Yar is. The most impactful memorial was the children’s tribute to all that were killed. This was because my grandparents were children at the time of this genocide. At the base of a menorah monument, we said a prayer as a tribute to all who died. The prayer was the perfect way to commemorate and pay our respect to the victims of the Holocaust.

Heading into the Active Jewish Teens conference in Kharkov, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first few hours I was completely lost, however, as more and more AJT teens began to help me figure out what to do, things started to pick up and I realized how committed each teen was to make sure we had an incredible time. I reflected on how my friends and I have done the same for international delegates at other BBYO global gatherings, and realized that it’s special how ‘at home’ we all work to make one another feel at these events. These teens, who attended by the hundreds, were not only passionate about who they are as Jews, they were determined to help others just like them, and eager to bring more teens into their movement. These are the same teens whose parents and grandparents were treated differently in their home environments because of their Judaism, but who are today proud of their people and committed to serving their community. These teens reminded me that I should never take the open practice of my religion for granted.

Being able to visit the community my parents grew up in and see the thriving Jewish life in Ukraine today is something I never thought I would be able to do. As a young Jewish American, BBYO and Genesis Philanthropy Group, a global foundation committed to strengthening Russian-Jewish communities around the world, offered me an opportunity like no other. It’s amazing to see that JDC’s Active Jewish Teens movement – which has grown to more than 3,000 teens in just three years – is providing these same opportunities to teens whose parents didn’t have the opportunity to connect as participatory Jewish teens. It’s even more heartening to know that former teen leaders just like me, who as BBYO alumni chose to serve as JDC-BBYO Fellows through JDC Entwine, helped build the Active Jewish Teens movement with our expertise from BBYO’s global teen work.

Ukraine presented so many enlightening moments that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Trips like these form unforgettable memories. They spark a passion for involvement in globalization. They spur involvement in local communities to invigorate the passion for Jewish youth. As a proud Aleph, AZA member of BBYO, I am motivated to work towards inspiring a similar hunger and lifelong passion in Jewish teens around me so that they, too, can make the important case for a united, interconnected global Jewish community welcoming to all.

Jacob Ioffe is from Prospect, KY, and a member of BBYO Kentucky Indiana Ohio.