BBYO, the leading pluralistic global Jewish teen movement, providing enriching social, cultural and leadership experiences for teens across the world, recently partnered with a Joint Distribution Committee program called Active Jewish Teens (AJT), which provides similar opportunities for Jewish youth living in the former Soviet Union. Our two organizations came together this fall for an inaugural exchange, of which BBYO New England Region (NER) was one of only three communities selected for the program.

As NER’s regional director, I was honored to represent BBYO and grateful to all those who took part in giving my colleagues and me an incredible glimpse into our respective communities.

As I packed my bags and headed to our sister city of Dnipro in Ukraine, I became instant friends with my Ukrainian colleague, Katya Vatulova, director of AJT Shahar Teen Club and Solomonika Teens. Katya was an incredible host. As she told me about the history of the Jewish people in the former Soviet Union and their struggles and successes, I could clearly see the importance of the work she and many others do throughout the former Soviet Union, in areas such as Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Over the last 20 years, Jewish leaders have been forming groups and creating a support system for the Jewish people of Dnipro, who previously suffered severe discrimination under World War II German Nazi occupation. I was so impressed by the revitalization of the community. Seven years ago, in the fall of 2012, they opened the Menorah Center, an amazing cultural and business center, to support Jewish life. The Menorah Center is a giant menorah-shaped building, which houses the Solomonika Center for Jewish Life, two hotels, two kosher restaurants, event and business space and more!

While the building is magnificent, the community is even more incredible. I truly felt how much people care about each other by the way everyone interacted and by how welcoming they were to me, a complete stranger to them. I met with teens from AJT every day and was dazzled by their projects, which included an English Club, a Leadership Club, a Community Service Club and a Politics Club. The teen club meets for Shabbat every Friday evening, and I was fortunate to be there for an extra special Shabbat when we celebrated in one of the three sukkahs at the Menorah Center.

The community in Ukraine provides experiences and extra support for young adults, seniors, families and those in need. I got a taste of the warmth of participating in a kiddush with the older adults in the community. The senior group meets every Shabbat to have lunch together and listen to Jewish music. During this time, they chant the Sabbath blessings prior to sundown in order to celebrate together as a community. On Saturday of Shabbat, I was able to spend time with young adults from Ukraine and Germany and learn about the ways they are impacting their communities every day.

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Meeting with young adults from Ukraine during Shabbaton (Courtesy photo)

I was sad to leave such a warm and vibrant place, but I also couldn’t wait to get back to my teens and share with them what I learned about the caring community in Dnipro. I also couldn’t wait to introduce them to Katya, who came here for the second part of our exchange. Katya spent a few nights with a group of teens from our North Shore and Newton chapters, and I’m grateful to three of our local families who provided us with an amazing Shabbat experience and dinner, ensuring that Katya felt as accepted and appreciated here as I did there.

I had the pleasure of introducing Katya to various leaders from community organizations, including CJP’s Dnipro Kehillah Project, Alexander Muss High School in Israel, Jewish Teen Initiative, Kehillah Israel, Congregation Mishkan Tefila and Jookender Community Initiatives. We both took in New England’s gorgeous foliage on the way to Rhode Island to visit the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and the Touro Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in the U.S.

At the end of our journey, while I was sad to part with my new friend, I was filled with a commitment to continue strengthening the partnership between our communities. We have since set up a pen pal group through WhatsApp and would be thrilled if local high school teens join us as we connect and enrich our communities with upcoming projects. Please connect with BBYO New England Region if you are interested in getting involved!

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