By Ezra Kone
A few weeks ago, I traveled with 13 other Jewish teens from BBYO to Ukraine on Ambassadors to Ukraine, to join Active Jewish Teens (AJT), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s growing teen movement in the former Soviet Union and a BBYO partner through our global JDC partnership to engage Jewish teens worldwide, at their fourth annual AJT conference. In the week we spent there with hundreds of Jewish teens from around the world, including countries like Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Russia, among others, we learned together, visited the local community, celebrated Shabbat and generally, had an incredible time.
As part of my trip to Ukraine, I was very surprised to see that their Jewish Community Centers were at the center of their cities. In the United States, our JCCs are usually located in areas outside the central city area, because that’s often where Jewish families live. However, in Ukraine, Jews typically live in the central part of the city, and they live a very different lifestyle from the stereotypical affluent American Jew. Ukrainian Jews appear not to live in separate Jewish communities, but in their respective cities, as members of the local Jewish community.
Throughout my travels, I found that we were all connected by a desire to learn. Whether it be about global Jewry, music, Jewish history, a language, or any other subject, all of us had something we wanted to learn. I had a deep desire to learn more Russian while also learning about everyone else’s community. I was able contribute to others’ desire to learn by teaching people some English and about my community at home.
One of the most interesting parts of the program was speaking with local teens about what they did (other than Judaic activities). Through their surprisingly good English and my broken Russian, I learned that these teens live very similar lives to us. Without the barriers of language and physical location, we are all Jewish teens living our lives. I talked with teens about computer programming and engineering—two of my main interests—and really connected with them on these topics. I returned home with the knowledge that Jewish teens in the former Soviet Union (FSU) are merely teens in the FSU who hold a strong Jewish identity.
Jewish identities there are not hidden; they are displayed with pride. People openly wear Jewish symbols in public, something that is on the decline in the U.S. In private, they eagerly learn about and celebrate their Judaism. I wish I could see this enthusiasm in the U.S.; I’ve come back seeing a need for Jews at home to be more vocal about their Judaism, to show people that we’re here and proud of our heritage.
After returning home from this life-changing experience in Ukraine, I see the work I must do in my local community. I want to lead programs that teach local teens about being vocal about their Judaism. I want to teach local Jews about the enthusiastic Jewry in the FSU, in hopes that this enthusiasm spreads to my local community. I have never been more proud to be Jewish.
Ezra Kone lives in Boulder, CO and is a member of BBYO’s Rocky Mountain Region. Learn more about BBYO at http://bbyo.org.