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Across the Former Soviet Union Cash-strapped FSU Communities Rely on Young Leaders’ Enthusiasm


At 27, scruffy-bearded Julij Reznikov is among the elders at a recent retreat for Baltic Jewish youth. He’s also the only one who brought a child: His 3-year-old son, Baruh, bounds playfully between discussion groups.

Reznikov and his wife, Diana, import and sell Israeli cosmetics from a kiosk in a Riga mall. Diana also works as a kindergarten teacher, which enables Reznikov to volunteer part-time for the Jewish community.

Occasionally he is compensated a bit for organizing events, like this retreat. But in a society where many just scrape by, how much he’s paid influences how many hours he can commit.

"I’m a Zionist, and I believe Jewish youth should volunteer for the community, not do it only for money," he says. "Of course, if someone says I will pay you, I will not say no."

But decent pay is unlikely from the cash-strapped Jewish communities of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and elsewhere across the former Soviet Union, which count on the cheap labor of volunteers old and young, or those with a breadwinning spouse.

That puts these communities in a quandary: During decades of Soviet hostility to religious life, middle-aged Jews across the region drifted far from their Jewish identity. Few in that "missing generation" are prepared to hold positions of leadership in the Jewish community.

The young generation is different. Indeed, many young Jews in the FSU — nourished by summer camps, youth groups, Jewish schools, training as youth counselors and perhaps a birthright israel trip — express pride in their Jewishness.

One 19-year-old Lithuanian Jew proudly notes that he walks around Vilnius, where skinheads are known to roam, with an Israel Defense Forces patch written in Hebrew sewn on his jeans.

Yet young Jews here can’t afford to be just proud and active: Their community increasingly relies on them to help lead.

Cognizant of this, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Hillel and others offer leadership and management training to scores of young FSU activists.

"They are the backbone of Jewish renaissance in the region," JDC Baltics representative Andres Spokoiny says. "Much of their childhood and youth was spent in democracy, in a context in which Jewish alternatives started to exist. Therefore, these kids are in a much better position than their parents to be community leaders because they have a much more Western outlook, more community experience and more Jewish knowledge."

But with the JDC hoping to wean communities from dependence on foreign financing — coupled with the fact that elderly members of the community are mostly impoverished and middle-aged members often disaffected — it’s the younger generation that will foot much of the bill in the future.

These youth leaders face tough decisions in the next few years: Should they stay in the region or emigrate? And if they do stay, how much time and energy can they spare for their communities?

The region’s economies are growing stronger, but immigration to Israel or the West still beckons. Opportunities here are limited, while the cost of living escalates.

Across the board, young people lament the struggle to own an apartment and car or enjoy an occasional night out.

"Everyone is searching for a better life," Alexey Rozenberg says.

The 23-year-old from Riga is vice principal of a home for troubled teens, and he describes how one boy kicked and pummeled a girl, who then went after him with a knife.

On top of his 40-hour work week, Rozenberg gives eight to 10 hours to the community.

"It’s my commitment to my roots," he says.

Rozenberg would like to strike a balance between work and community, but "the main question is how to survive," he says. "You can be a super Jew, but without money you can’t make a proper Shabbat."

Young people in the region say a desirable salary is about $1,000 per month. That’s roughly triple the poverty level, and enables one to buy a modest two-bedroom apartment with a long mortgage.

Yet that figure still is well below what multinational corporations or international organizations offer as they snap up talented, young, multilingual individuals.

Senior community leaders concede they can’t compete with those financial incentives.

"Of course there are discussions about how to keep young professionals within our community," says Masha Grodnikiene, 60, deputy chairwoman of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, whose husband’s business success enables her to volunteer full-time for the community.

Money isn’t the only issue, says Moni Beniosev, 28, who hails from the small Bulgarian Jewish community and helped organized the weekend event in Riga.

Some young leaders, reared in a newly democratic environment, become turned off by an establishment, grounded in the Soviet era, that’s overly bureaucratic, lacks creativity, is inflexible and zealously defends its turf.

"A young person with ambitions doesn’t want that, but to build a career in a cool place, where you can achieve something in your life," Beniosev says.

One way to lure young adults, Beniosev says, is through events like the one near Riga. Held at a wooded, seaside resort 30 miles north of the city, some 80 Jews discussed eclectic topics such as Shabbat traditions, Jewish views on sex and business ethics, the recent gay pride rally in Jerusalem and the dangers of totalitarian mind-control.

The intellectual stimulation gave way to games and dancing at night.

On the sidelines, some young leaders discussed the life decisions they’re confronting.

Julia Lansberg, 21, from the Estonian capital of Tallinn, was a camper attending Jewish school when an older youth from the community recruited her to take a leadership role.

"Now he’s left the community and I’m still active," she says.

That’s an understatement: Lansberg ended up running the camp.

"The camp position was paid, but it was so little, it was more symbolic," she says.

Working toward her degree in municipal management, Lansberg is also the Estonian community’s program coordinator.

"Right now I feel very connected to the community — it’s my heart, my soul," she says. But "if in the future I feel the need for more money, I know it will be a very difficult decision for me."

Lansberg’s former classmate from the Tallinn Jewish school, Aleksandr Zdankevitch, was hired recently by the community to work part-time as youth coordinator.

Zdankevitch also studies international relations, organizes "rave" parties and produces his own music. If the Jewish community were to offer a full-time job after graduation, he says, "It’s 2,000 percent that I would say yes only I wouldn’t be a kid anymore. They’d have to pay me like a staff member."

The equivalent of $1,000, he agrees, would do the trick.

For others, the question is: If not me, who?

Natalja Trusova says she was bitten by the bug of Israeli dance at age 16.

"It’s like a virus, as I call it," says the Vilnius resident, now 21.

She soon started a dance class for adults in the Jewish community center. After attending dance seminars, camps and training in Israel, Trusova has since established Israeli and Jewish dance classes for schoolchildren, advanced students and — her favorite — a group of about a dozen seniors.

"After teaching them I have the greatest feeling," Trusova says. "They went through the Holocaust, and in the Soviet Union, where would they have had a chance to learn Israeli dance?"

It’s also a way to bring assimilated Jews closer to the community, she notes.

While friends and classmates consider immigration, "My business here isn’t finished yet," Trusova says. "I want to leave a footprint in this community."

Moreover, she adds, "If I leave, there may be no more dancing."

For those starting their own families, the decisions are even more serious.

Reznikov, of Riga, has been involved with Jewish life since he was 14.

"I don’t see my life outside the community," he says. His aim is to "show people that the Jewish community is like a second home."

Yet he, too, considers the possibility of emigrating.

"I want to give my son the maximum," he says. "And if I have a better chance to give that to him in another country, then I will."

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