I was the child who walked into my fifth-grade family history project with a family tree rolled into a scroll that I had to rubber-band shut. It had everyone in my family on it — from my great-aunt who came to the United States from Lithuania, to my cousin who was born in California, to my great-grandfather who was born in Ukraine. As I began to unravel the scroll and learn about the history of my ancestors, I was fascinated by just how many of my family members came from the former Soviet Union. Upon learning, earlier this year, that 2017 was the 30th anniversary year of the March on Washington for Soviet Jewry, I decided it was my responsibility to explore the place where my family had such a rich history.
And so I embarked in November on Ambassadors to Ukraine, a unique opportunity for BBYO members from North America, Europe and Israel to join our brothers and sisters in Active Jewish Teens, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s teen movement in the former Soviet Union and a BBYO partner through our global JDC partnership, at its fourth annual AJT conference. After spending a week in Ukraine with hundreds of Jewish teens from around the world, I walked away with a renewed passion for stewarding Judaism around the world and a deepened sense of Jewish pride.
During our trip, I walked away from the place where my ancestors fell. I looked into a pit with eyes wide open where they, and thousands of others, perished. I stood in Babi Yar, a place where the hopes and aspirations of my people were crushed and destroyed by gunshots. My ancestors entered with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the people they knew and what they believed to be true. They did not have the opportunity to walk away, but I did. I entered with 14 of my peers, and we walked away with a renewed commitment to live and breathe Judaism throughout our daily lives.
I discovered a renaissance of Jewish life among many of my peers in Ukraine, who are some of the proudest Jews I’ve ever met. They actively live the Jewish life that many of their parents never got to do as teens. From Russia, to Ukraine, to Georgia, my peers are the drivers, the ground shakers and the catalysts of change who will ensure the longevity of Judaism in their communities.
Living life as a Jew meant something different to every attendee of the convention, yet it held the same significance in each of their lives. Many crossed rivers and roads to reach the convention. They spent as many days traveling to the convention as they did there because Judaism is a priority to them. Whether we lived in communities where being a Jew was celebrated or hidden, we created an environment in which everyone felt comfortable to be their truest self. Everyone who wanted to could light Shabbat candles, everyone could wear a kippah whenever they wanted, and everyone sang with all of their might. In the middle of woods in Kharkov, Ukraine, we created a space for anyone to actively live their Judaism loudly.
We welcomed Shabbat together, all 400 of us squeezed into every seat, corner and inch of the room, with more gusto and morale than the room could hold. We celebrated the satisfaction of knowing that we had already done so much to shape the future of the Jewish people and the knowledge that it relied on us to work relentlessly to ensure its success. We learned that the language of prayer knows no bounds and that when we come together as one, we can only be stronger.
The Diaspora of the Jewish people has never presented itself in a stronger form. The teens in the former Soviet Union show us that our people, especially in the Diaspora, are committed to “Never Again.” The work that they do in their communities, whether through teaching Jewish friends Hebrew or getting together for a game of basketball, makes it beyond clear that the Diaspora is safe in their hands. They renewed my sense of pride and motivation to continue to steward Judaism around the world.
Rebecca Sereboff lives in Reisterstown and is a member of BBYO’s Northern Region East: Baltimore Council.