For thousands of Jewish teens and young adult leaders in the former Soviet Union, building Jewish life, connecting with one another, and serving their communities have become...

central tenants to their Jewish identity. That miraculous achievement – a generation after the fall of Communism, upending a legacy of Soviet oppression of Judaism and volunteersim – is being celebrated as more than 400 Jewish teens gather this weekend at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Active Jewish Teens (AJT) Conference in Kiev, Ukraine. This fifth annual conference, created and run by AJT teens, will include young Jews from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Israel, and America. The AJT teens will also honor the 11 victims of the deadly, anti-Semitic shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.

“For many of us, the dream of being part of and leading a Jewish community is now a reality through AJT. Everyday, we educate our peers in Jewish culture and practice, work to aid the neediest, and secure the future of our Jewish communities,” said AJT co-President Eva Stupka from Moldova. “Not only are we thrilled to join with other Jewish teens from around the world to make good on our commitment to our fellow Jews and to engage in acts of tikkun olam, we draw inspiration from those tragically murdered in Pittsburgh on how to live lives of profound Jewish purpose.”

Active Jewish Teens (AJT) is JDC’s rapidly expanding Jewish teen program that emerged from enthusiastic grassroots efforts by Jewish youth in the former Soviet Union to build their Jewish identity and connectivity. In just five years, AJT has connected more than 3,000 teens through local chapters in 57 cities in 7 counties in the former Soviet Union. This success has been achieved through the efforts of local teens and has been powered by a partnership of JDC and BBYO as well as the formative efforts of JDC-BBYO fellows who served in Ukraine with JDC Entwine to help shape the network of connections for teens participating in the program.

 

“While it’s always encouraging to see hundreds of young Jews come together in celebration of their identity, it is simply remarkable to note that in a place where many Jewish families once fled, these teens are charting the course for the Jewish future! Their enthusiastic embrace of their Jewish heritage spreads among their peers, their families, and their wider communities and results in the blossoming of Jewish life in this region,” said JDC CEO David Schizer. “We’re proud to partner with the AJT teens and our partners at BBYO, the Genesis Philanthropy Group, and other generous philanthropists to keep the flame of Jewish life burning brightly in the post-Soviet world.”

 

This year’s conference theme is Jewish history – with more than 200 workshops focusing on topics like the development of Jewish music; Yiddish-speaking culture and art; the different streams of Judaism, from Orthodoxy to Reform; volunteerism best practices; and Jewish text study – that will coalesce in the creation of a mural according to a timeline of the Jewish people’s development around the globe. This gathering is AJT’s flagship event among numerous year-long activities boosted through a new JDC partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG).

“Rarely do we have a chance to witness the future of the Jewish people so vividly and so boldly as we do at the AJT conference,” said Ilia Salita, President and CEO of Genesis Philanthropy Group. “This initiative is remarkable in many ways, most importantly in its empowerment of AJT participants, giving them both the inspiration and the tools to dare to lead, to create and to act Jewishly. This generation of Russian-speaking Jews will soon be ready to enter the international stage of the global Jewish community, well prepared and confident to act as equals and as leaders poised to strengthen not just their local communities, but the global Jewish people as a whole.”

Teen participants at the conference will learn from inspiring speakers and AJT teachers, graduates of JDC’s flagship Metusda leadership program, directors of youth clubs, and well-known local and Israeli educators, to deepen their Jewish knowledge. A festive opening kick-off was led by the current AJT president and parliament. Also on the weekend program: Jewish music sessions led by BBYO song leaders, as well as Israeli dancing and yoga, Shabbat and Havdalah ceremonies, and the election of the new AJT presidents.