From the moment I stepped foot in Kiev, I could tell that I would be forever changed by the next few days. Surrounded by new friends in this gorgeous city, I immediately felt connected. I was there to learn — and learn I would.
We soon discovered a lot about the local Jewish community, thanks to our trip organizer, BBYO, which facilitates exchanges with Ukraine’s Jews and Jewish teens from around the world as part of its Ambassadors to Ukraine program. Despite the language barrier, the people we met in Kiev demonstrated an overwhelming love of Judaism and Jewish culture, and I was eager to bring back their sensibility to friends back home.
The emotional climax of the trip arrived when we met Jewish teens from Ukraine, members of a parallel organization for adolescents in the former Soviet Union, Active Jewish Teens (AJT). AJT is the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC’s) growing teen movement in the former Soviet Union and a joint venture with BBYO. It’s a new organization, and part of an attempt to revive Jewish life in countries where communism resulted in the disappearance of communal life.
We were there to take part in AJT’s International Conference, where 500 Jewish teens from across the world gathered in Ukraine to celebrate Judaism. During the last few years, AJT IC always includes 15-20 North American BBYO members, too, and I was fortunate to be chosen to go this year.
I was at first overwhelmed when we entered the hall with hundreds of other teens, almost all of whom were speaking a language I did not know. It was a lot! However, we all quickly figured out how to make our way around. I soon made friends from places as far flung as Moldova, Russia, Israel, Austria, Estonia, and Belarus. I even met up with some people from my BBYO International Leadership Training Conference (ILTC) program this past summer. It was truly incredible. We were split up into different groups for activities, where I made even more new friends, and had fun doing icebreakers, games, listening to speakers, and engaging in reflections.
That Friday night, during community reflections, I heard someone say something so simple, yet so important. My new Ukrainian friend, Polina, was speaking, and she shared her fear of speaking English in the group, and how she signed up for the “international group” to push herself to speak more English. She explained that she was slowly becoming more comfortable with her English, but apologized for her poor speech. I immediately reassured her and everybody in the group how much we appreciated their mere attempt to speak English, our language, with us Americans, almost none of whom spoke Ukrainian or Russian. This interaction immediately sparked a friendship between Polina and me.
On Saturday morning, Polina came up to me and asked if I wanted to learn some Ukrainian words. My response? An enthusiastic “yes!” We began to talk for a bit after that, and I asked her many questions about her experience in AJT and how she became involved. Polina explained to me that a friend invited her to attend an AJT program, and she immediately fell in love with the community. Polina had little knowledge of her roots, and had no idea if she was Jewish or not, but found a home in the Jewish community; she now identifies as Jewish and works hard to inspire both Jewish and non-Jewish teens.
As if I weren’t inspired enough by the impact the Jewish community had on her, Polina continued her amazing story and shared how she makes an impact herself. I asked her how leadership in AJT works, and she delved into the world of projects. Projects are like programs; you can propose and/or lead them, and they are used to enhance AJT and make it a better experience for everyone involved. Polina shared with me how she uses projects to express herself, and how they create a sense of personal happiness and fulfillment. She said, “I do not create projects that are just fun, and then people go home and forget about it. I make my projects unforgettable. I want to be unforgettable.” Something clicked for me in that conversation. This teenager, someone who may not even be Jewish, works hard to create a legacy for herself in the Jewish community, a community that has taken in her and so many others.
I’m so thankful to BBYO, Genesis Philanthropy Group, AJT, and its partners for making this experience possible for me and my peers. I’m optimistic that between our future leaders and the awareness, willpower, and help of the Jewish people, we can keep AJT going for many years to come. With determination and broader awareness, we can help make Polina, and hundreds of other teen leaders in the FSU, truly unforgettable.
Alana Gordon lives in Owings Mills, and is a junior at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School (BT). She is the Regional Mazkirah (Vice President of Publicity) in BBYO Northern Region East: Baltimore Council.