“I was a teenager when I first found out I was Jewish,” said b’nai mitzvah participant Ilia Buzunov.
“From that moment, my life was completely changed, and today, six years later, I am a proud Jew, doing what I love—working to make my community better every day.”
More than 400 Jewish teens from around the world are gathering for American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) sixth annual Active Jewish Teens (AJT) Conference in Kiev this weekend to celebrate their growing role in fostering local Jewish identity and community.
A bar and bat mitzvah ceremony for five teens (a conference first) will serve as a model of commitment to Judaism, leadership and taking action in regional communities.
“My hope is that when I stand up there in front of my peers for my bar mitzvah, I serve as an inspiration for what is possible when you embrace Jewish values and commit to community,” said Ilia Buzunov, one of the b’nai mitzvah participants from Kiev who works with Jewish youth at the Halom JCC, one of JDC’s flagship community centers in the former Soviet Union. “I was a teenager when I first found out I was Jewish. From that moment, my life was completely changed, and today, six years later, I am a proud Jew, doing what I love—working to make my community better every day.”
The gathering from Nov. 7-10, which is created and run by AJT teens, draws participants from across the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The theme—the Jewish experience in communities around the world—will be examined in 150 different workshops.
“In much of the rest of the world, a b’nai mitzvot marks the entrance of young people into adulthood and the obligations of Jewish community life. But for AJT teens, this sense of responsibility and identity are already on the fast track,” said Michal Frank, director for JDC’s former Soviet Union operation. “They are the emerging leaders of the post-Soviet Jewish space, engaging their friends, parents, grandparents and wider communities in peer-to-peer Jewish learning, volunteerism and the need for shared responsibility. Their enthusiasm is key to building not just the future of Jewish life in this part of the world, but globally as they build bridges to other Jews the world over.”
The conference includes song sessions, dancing and art workshops, Shabbat and Havdalah ceremonies, as well as classes on tikkun olam (“repairing the world”), Jewish mutual responsibility, volunteerism best practices and contemporary interpretations of classic Jewish texts.
Participants will hear from AJT teachers and inspiring speakers, including a Jewish para-Olympic champion from Ukraine, in addition to directors of youth clubs and well-known local educators to deepen their Jewish knowledge. The conference also features a project fair where teens present their grassroots initiatives.
AJT, which partners with Genesis Philanthropy Group, BBYO and private philanthropists, connects some 3,200 Jewish teens through local chapters in 60 cities across the former Soviet Union.