Three years ago, I was afraid of being Jewish.

Now, I’m the co-president of a network that reaches more than 3,200 Jewish teens in 63 cities across the former Soviet Union (FSU).

Let me tell you how it all happened.

When I was 14, my head was full of stereotypes and I had a hard time letting myself feel Jewish or connect with the fact that I belonged to a giant, global Jewish family. Then, one day, something changed: I decided I should try to come to terms with my heritage. It felt like realizing my destiny, but to be honest, it all came together in the weirdest possible way. Somehow, my mom found out about the teen club at our local JDC-supported JCC Yesod — part of Active Jewish Teens (AJT), the JDC teen network across the FSU powered in partnership with BBYO and the Genesis Philanthropy Group. She encouraged me to try it out, which was strange, since we never really participated in St. Petersburg’s Jewish programs and events.

At first, I was afraid. Scratch that — I was terrified. I wasn’t looking forward to spending the night with total strangers in an unfamiliar place watching what I assumed would be weird movies. But guess what? I fell in love with the Jewish community that night. Everyone was so welcoming and kind, and the whole atmosphere was really friendly. Step by step, I slowly began attending more teen club events, getting more familiar with Jewish traditions and holidays, and participating in AJT seminars, which helped me become more mature, more open-minded, and maybe a little smarter, too. I also began volunteering. Three years later, I’m still proud of my first project — “Garage Sale,” where people give me their unwanted clothes and I re-sell them, donating all the proceeds. Through that initiative, I’ve raised $300 for local charity organizations.

I’ve grown a lot over the last three years, from a boy who was afraid of being Jewish to a teenager helping to cultivate a Jewish future across the FSU.

One day, a notification popped up on my phone: AJT was recruiting teens who wanted to become members of the “government,” the group of young people who help lead the organization. I jumped at the chance. Through AJT, I grew up, meeting the best people ever and, thanks to AJT and BBYO seminars and conferences, traveling to countries I’d only ever dreamed of. One year after joining the team, I decided I wanted to make AJT even better. I ran for president — AJT had given me so many opportunities, so how could I resist the idea of giving back at the highest level? Spoiler alert: I won.

I guess I’m “in charge” to some degree now, but honestly, that’s not how I think about being AJT’s co-president. I prefer to say I’m AJT’s “dad,” always ready to help out and stand up for my friends. I’ve grown a lot over the last three years, from a boy who was afraid of being Jewish to a teenager taking an active part in his Jewish community and helping to cultivate a Jewish future for teens across the FSU.

Still, there’s always a fly in the ointment, and mine is COVID-19. Though the current situation doesn’t allow us to gather together, celebrate Shabbat in-person, or enjoy ourselves the way we’re used to, we’re still together online. Even as we’re stuck at home, we can log onto Zoom or Instagram Live and sing Shabbat songs, chill with members of AJT chapters across the FSU, or participate in all sorts of seminars. We’re online all week, from morning yoga sessions to lunchtime art classes to evening AJTorah lessons, where our teens can share their Jewish knowledge. I’ve been teaching English classes! The most important thing is that every teen can do their own thing.

I’m only 17, but I spend a lot of time thinking about Jewish values and what I want to pass on to the next generation. I know now that all Jews around the world are connected to each other, responsible for each other’s well-being. I like to compare us to wooden logs — we’re cool on our own, but when you put us together, we can build something indestructible.

AJT means we’re always united. That’s why we’re stronger than COVID-19 and its plans to separate us. For me, AJT has been a light in the darkness of the pandemic. At the beginning, this whole coronavirus mess made me afraid, but now I call myself lucky: Even in the middle of this crisis, I’ve got AJT.

My friends and I support each other, and thanks to that, quarantine isn’t so lonely. 

By Leonid Rud, 17, the co-president of Active Jewish Teens (AJT).