When I was 7-years-old, my life changed forever.
I was quietly watching a movie with my mother in our post-Soviet Moldovan apartment block.
Glued to the images on the screen, my mother interrupted me and said very gently, “Evochka, would you like to learn Hebrew? This is the language of our ancestors.”
At the time I couldn’t clearly comprehend what my mother was saying.
After all, what did I know of Hebrew in a society that was Russian-speaking and had, until that point, banned Jewish religion and culture for seven decades by Communist edict?
And what did I know of ancestors?
After all, my mother’s maiden name was Tzitnya, hardly Jewish sounding. And there was never a semblance of Jewish tradition, whatever that was, in our lives or among the relatives I knew.
My mother, it turned out, was a keeper of secrets. And her relatives, including a great-grandmother, were Jewish.
During the Second World War, when Moldova was decimated by the Nazis and tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, the entire family changed its name to save themselves.
Since then, the issue of “national identity,” or ancestry, was not raised in my family.
We were Soviet citizens, like all others. To intimate, acknowledge, or to even whisper a connection to the Jews would have been a frightening prospect.
But as a little girl with no knowledge of this historical legacy, of the taboo or stigma, or any sense of the wider world outside our home, I responded yes to my mother’s brave offer. I was eager to explore the unknown.
This was the beginning of my Jewish journey. An early education at the B.Z. Herzl ORT Lyceum paved the way to deeper connection to my roots. With every lesson, every Hebrew word, historical figure, or game, the Jewish people drew close to my heart.
At 13, I joined the local Jewish youth club, Haverim, which was founded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) as part of its work to rebuild Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. It was at Haverim where my Jewish identity solidified. From volunteer activities to holiday celebrations, I experienced the full scope of what Jewish community could, and should, be.
In a short span of time, I became an activist and evangelist for Jewish life among my peers. My energy, aspirations, and passionate interest were noticed and I was invited to participate in a training program for young leaders called a madrich (counselor) school.
I agreed without hesitation, because at that time I was 100 percent sure that I wanted to engage myself with the activities of the Jewish community. More than that, I wanted to pass my enthusiasm on to others.
That’s when I had another life-changing experience, but not one of self-discovery. It was something much bigger.
Just as I was developing a greater sense of my Jewish self, taking on responsibility and leadership in Kishinev, there were other youth on the same journey in the region.
Three years ago, JDC and Jewish youth in former Soviet Union founded a grassroots movement called Active Jewish Teens together with a JDC-BBYO fellow who helped build the initiative. This group, which has grown to more than 3,000 Jewish teens across the former Soviet Union, allows us to explore and strengthen our Jewish identity, gain leadership skills, and engages us in the building of our local and global Jewish communities.
It was at the Active Jewish Teens second conference – which I attended as a leader from my youth club in Moldova – where I found home.
Hundreds of Jewish teens, like myself, gathered to learn from one another, to express our Jewish identity on our own terms, and to create a network of like-minded Jewish youth to create change and build community for ourselves. But it did not end there.
I attended seminars on Jewish holidays and volunteerism, rallied my friends and youth club members in Moldova to join in our teen activities, and launched the “Shabbat Party” project which every week features a themed Shabbat experience from relaxation and mindfulness to one focused on the arts, all tied to Jewish learning.
I also had an opportunity to visit the U.S. as part of JDC and BBYO’s global partnership to strengthen Jewish teen life around the world. I was able to attend BBYO’s International Convention in Texas and meet thousands of my Jewish peers from North America and 30 other countries throughout the world. I learned so much from BBYO teen leaders, as well as alumni, fellows and professionals, who came to the former Soviet Union to help us develop our movement.
These experiences were electric, reminding me at every turn that we Jewish teens are the very future of the Jewish people. We are not just leading teen clubs in our hometowns, we are on a course to be the next generation of Jewish leaders or professionals in our local Jewish communities, in Israel, or as part of organizations that engage the Jewish world.
With that in mind, and some good old-fashioned chutzpah, I decided to submit my candidacy for Active Jewish Teens President, a position filled by one young man and young woman every year.
Valiant as my effort was, it did not work out. Strangely, I did not despair. In fact, my loss drove me to do more.
I attended madrich seminars for Active Jewish Teens participants and supplemented my knowledge with new information, ranging from communication skills, project management, and Jewish culture. In doing this, and expanding my network of peers, the Jewish world opened up to me, giving me the strength and faith I needed in myself, in my people, and my future.
After all, to know that there are millions of people in the world who have the same Jewish destiny you do gives you incredible resolve. And with that resolve – and the wonderful group of Jewish teens who I now call my family – I found the confidence to try again for President.
And last month, I won the election at the fourth annual Active Jewish Teens conference.
Together with my co-president Nikita Belevich of Belarus, we are going to passionately advocate for more volunteering in Jewish youth clubs in the region, build our ranks by increasing the number of teens involved, and continue the legacy of previous presidents by fostering cooperation between different clubs and providing assistance for projects being created and carried out by those clubs.
Today we are a confident generation that is not afraid of identifying as proud Jews, ready to change the world for the better, build bridges with our fellow Jews around the world, and know what we want in the future.
That’s a far cry from when my great grandmother and her family had to hide who they were just to survive. I think about her often when I am gathered with my peers, lighting Shabbat candles, delivering aid to the needy, and learning Jewish traditions without a single worry. What would I say to her?
Have no fear, babushka—everything I knew about myself, everything I thought about my identity, changed in an instant 11 years ago.
And for that, I am very lucky.
Eva Stupka of Kishinev, Moldova is the co-President of Active Jewish Teens.