A Bright Future in Eastern Europe
Posted on 05/02/2013 @ 02:30 PM
I owe my leadership skills and my commitment to global Jewish people to the Jewish youth group I grew up in as well as my summers spent at Jewish camp. From a young age, I was engaged by leaders in my communities that I would look up to and say, “one day I want to be like him.” This year, I have taken time to explore the Jewish world with the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) as a JDC-BBYO Global Service Fellow in Kharkov, Ukraine. I have traveled and visited other communities with hopes to engage teenagers and develop their leadership skills and Jewish commitment.
Determining how many Jews there are in any city in the former Soviet Union (FSU) is difficult. The first question, generally, is “what is a Jew?” But, even if you take the most pluralistic route, it is still incredibly challenging to establish a number. Unfortunately, many people of previous generations never told their children that they were Jewish because they feared anti-Semitism. Even today, many people are still afraid to come out as a Jew. We estimate that there are 30,000 Jews in Kharkov, but the number can be as high as 50,000. This issue is replicated in every village, town and city throughout the FSU.
What age group is best to work with when creating Jewish leaders and educators of the future? It is, of course, teenagers. Teenagers throughout the world look for ways to be involved in a community, whether it is through sports or clubs. Cities that I had barely heard of, and towns that I had never heard of, have strong teen programs.
I have visited two communities in Moldova – Kishinev and Balti. In Kishinev, there is a youth group (ages 14-25) that meets for Shabbat every week and has a number of other programs. They average over 50 people for Shabbat every week. These are people that want to engage in their Jewish lives with other Jews and want to explore their heritage.
The city of Balti, much smaller than Kishinev, has its own Jewish teen program that meets often to engage in similar programs as ones in North America. They have programs on Jewish identity, social action, their relationship with Israel and many other topics. When I first arrived, I was amazed to have conversations in Hebrew, but – more than that – they were astonished to meet a North American who spoke Hebrew.
Recently, I visited the small Ukrainian city of Sumi. Sumi does not have more than a few thousand Jews. There, however, I met two Jewish youth groups. The first group was for 12-14 year-olds. They love listening to Israeli music so much that their ringtones are Israeli songs. We had a few programs in which we talked about B’nei Mitzvah and what it meant to them to become older and have more responsibilities. They told me they thought it meant charting the direction of education they will have, learning more about their Jewishness and visiting Israel (one of them is moving to Israel now).
The Fellow who was here last year created the teen program and I have developed it. We currently have six programs every month. Every second Sunday, we have a program that is based on the Jewish calendar or a social program, and every Friday night we have Shabbat services, a small program and a kiddish with all the Jewish rituals of Friday night. Our programs range in attendance between 15 to 25 participants. Some of the participants go to Jewish school but, for some, these programs are their only Jewish experiences. We’re developing them into the future leaders of the Jewish community of Kharkov and Ukraine.
I used to be surprised when I met people that spoke Hebrew fluently. I used to be surprised at the knowledge base of people that I met when it came to Jewish text. I used to be surprised when I heard people talking about Israel openly and with glee. None of these things surprise me anymore.
I am excited by the youth I work with and to see the future is bright for the Jewish people throughout the entire world.
Ezra Moses is serving as a 2012-2013 JDC-BBYO Global Service Fellow in Kharkov, Ukraine