Lvov, in Western Ukraine, is just a few hours away from Rovno, the city where I was born and spent the first years of my life. In the early ‘90s, my mother was always eager to take us to Jewish events there, but the truth is: None of us really had an idea about anything, not about Chanukah, Yom Kippur, or lightning candles on Shabbat. For us, being Jewish was a very abstract thing. It wasn’t connected to traditions and religion; rather, the “J” in our passports indicated a different nationality and meant discrimination, harder access to universities, worse job opportunities.
It's been 21 years and now I’m a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps fellow, back in the same country my parents once felt forced to leave. Loud Israeli pop beats are all around, and wherever I turn my eyes, hundreds of Jewish teens are bustling about, looking for their friends and their assigned hotel rooms. The AJT (Active Jewish Teens) conference in Lvov is on fire and people came from all over: Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Belarus, and “my” new country: Georgia, where I am currently serving as a Fellow in the community.
It has been less than two years since AJT began as a grassroots initiative, but here in Lvov I encounter a huge and powerful youth movement with self-confidence, agenda, and drive. For almost all my seven Georgian teens, the conference is their first-ever opportunity to meet up with Jewish teens outside of their own national borders. Some cities – like Kharkov or Dnepropetrovsk in Eastern Ukraine – came with huge teen entourages, while others – like us in Tbilisi – brought just a few. I hear how ideas are shared and projects presented. Teens and youth club coordinators from all over discuss their communities.
JDC's AJT network provides Jewish teenagers with an opportunity to participate in a vibrant peer network, similar to youth groups in the U.S. The teens take part in cultural activities, Shabbat and holiday celebrations, and generally build a culture of volunteerism. AJT impacts more than 2,500 teens across the former Soviet Union.
On the third day, I ask Anabela, one of the Georgian teens, what she learned and she tells me, “After seeing what’s possible here, I suddenly have so much motivation that we in Tbilisi will do things like this. Our own projects, our own ideas. It's totally realistic that we can make this happen!”
All three days of the conference, I am torn between bewilderment and enthusiasm. For so many years I had assumed automatically that nearly all Jewish people from the former Soviet Union (FSU) left, just like my own family, to Israel, Germany, or the U.S.
But AJT makes me I realize that for hundreds of thousands of Jews all across the FSU, Jewish life has begun to reemerge in recent years, as the long-lasting impacts of Soviet oppression slowly begin to fade. In Lvov, I see a creative, vibrant, and young generation full of passion for their Jewish identity. We dance, do activities, talk about Jewish mothers, love from a rabbinical perspective, and How I Met Your Mother. We eat kosher food and at the end of every meal, some people stay to sing Birkat Hamazon. Here and there, I hear sentences in Hebrew and Jewish songs.
The whole conference seems like a big Jewish party, a platform for giving and taking equally. We unite in all our diversity, and we all promise to see each other again.
Maybe it is far from being “perfectly” Jewish, whatever that might mean. Rates of intermarriage in FSU countries are high, and keeping kosher is often not a priority. After so many decades of assimilation and discrimination, Jews from the FSU will probably never be as observant as their brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. But for me, that’s not the point. Being born in a country that made any kind of Jewish tradition impossible for my family and millions of other people, I am thrilled to have the opportunity through the Jewish Service Corps to see teens who are actively changing the story.
It is not the same Ukraine my parents left. It is so much more Jewish these days.
Marina Klimchuck is a JDC Entwine-BBYO Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow stationed in Tbilisi, Georgia.