In Kiev, a website reconnects young Jews one post at a time

KIEV, Ukraine (JTA) — Despite the friendly reception and informal atmosphere, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich braced himself for tough questions as he sat down on a recent Sunday in front of dozens young Jews at a conference room near Kiev’s main synagogue.

Bleich, the American-born chief rabbi of Ukraine, was right to expect a third degree. Within 20 minutes, his hosts were grilling him and two other rabbis present – Pichans Goldshmidt of Moscow and Yonatan Abraham of London — with questions like: “Why do seats at shul cost money, are you running a business?” and: “Why should our philanthropists fund synagogues in Jerusalem when we have problems at home?”

But the rabbis came prepared to that Q&A session which was organized in October by Juice — a group of young Ukrainian Jews who use social media and real-life events to connect skeptic young Jews to Jewish life independently from the establishment and institutions that many here have come to distrust and even resent.

In between anecdotes and jokes, the rabbis told the young Jews that selling seats was a way to support and maintain the synagogue while demonstrating that fulfilling mitzvoth is a privilege. As for donating to Israel, it was a long tradition that exists alongside helping the poor locally, they said.

“It was a unique experience because it was the first time I felt I could ask a rabbi anything I wanted,” says Inna Yampolskaya, one of several young Jewish participants and volunteer organizers of the Juice line of Q&A meetings which started a few months ago. Since the rabbis session, the Juice forum has had hundreds of young Jews attending lectures given every other week or so by community leaders, successful Jewish businessmen, artists, journalists and other prominent figures.

But Juice sessions are but one element in an array of recent grass-roots activities for and by young Jews, that began happening in Kiev over the past year following the launching of  a social platform called — a Russian-language hybrid between Facebook and Craigslist, complete with “Jewish news” and “Jewish dating” sections.

Cofounded two years ago by twenty-something IT professionals Roman Gold and Igor Kozlovskiy, Jewishnet’s user base has grown from 50 to 80,000 daily unique visitors daily. It currently has 25,000 registered profiles from across the former Soviet Union and Germany. “The fact that our website isn’t affiliated with any stream or Jewish institution has allowed us to be the portal for any young Jew looking for news; travel buddies; Hebrew books or for a relationship,” Kozlovskiy said.

Both he and Gold are also among the organizers of Juice an they make sure Juice activities are advertised on Jewishnet. Some readers even send in questions online which are posed to the speakers at Juice sessions. The speakers’ answers from the event are then posted back online. “Through Jewishnet, we make sure that real-life meetings reach not only the dozens of Jews in attendance, but thousands more online,” says Kozlovskiy, a thin man wearing a black yarmulke, during an interview at one of Kiev’s countless shushi restaurants. He is careful to avoid the shrimp and other non-kosher seafood.

Ukraine has about 360,000, according to the European Jewish Congress, but only a small fraction belongs to the Jewish establishment. “If we don’t reach out to the unaffiliated, they will assimilate and be lost to the Jewish People,” Kozlovskiy says. “This is already happening.”

Besides the Juice sessions, the Jewishnet platform is used to organize Purim parties, day trips and even shushi & Torah evenings: The name for a study group of young Jews who are interested in Jewish sources but not in coming to synagogue. The meetings in real-life and the online exchange “are interconnected: Different aspects of the same thing because the website functions as a message board for all these happenings,” Kozlovskiy adds.

“Americans know these activities for many years already, but this is something new in Ukraine, where everything including Jewish life included used to work from top to bottom, not the other way around,” Yampolskaya says.

Jewishnet and the activities it facilitates cater “a population of Jewish young professionals who are creating a movement that nobody is orchestrating,” says Bleich. He describes the new movement online and in real life as a rare and “authentically grassroots” show of self-reliance in a region where decades of Communist indoctrination have stymied do-it-yourself attitudes for many years, even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“These young professionals are coming together on their own in a way which nobody could have imagined [because] many people their age are not interested in participating in organized Jewish life,” says Bleich. “As young thinkers and professionals living in the 21st century, they don’t want to be told how to be Jewish: They want to get there on their own.”

Still, the activities facilitated by Jewishnet come with community values, including giving. “At Juice sessions, we don’t charge entrance fees nor do we pay speakers fees,” says Yampolskaya, “but we do place a box where speakers and listeners donate money for a sick Jewish child – a different one every session.”

So far, Juice has been able to help three children with serious medical problems with over $10,000 raised over the past six months. “And in Ukrainian terms, that’s a very, very sizable amount,” says Bleich.

Cnaan Liphshiz is JTA’s news and features correspondent in Europe. Based in the Netherlands, he covers the mosaic of cultures, languages and traditions that is European Jewry. Born in Israel, he used to work as foireign news editor for Ma’ariv and as a reporter for Haaretz.