Editor’s note: Ben Levkovich was selected by BBYO to serve as an ambassador for the 2017 Active Jewish Teens (AJT) Conference.
The conference, which is an annual gathering of Jewish teens from the former Soviet Union, was held in Ukraine last month. This was the first time that U.S. Jews participated in this conference, and Ben was one of two BBYO ambassadors on the trip who was a child of a Ukrainian refugee. His mother Svetlana Levkovich, of Plano, immigrated to the U.S. from Soviet Ukraine as a direct result of the policies put in place following the 1987 March on Washington allowing Soviet Jews to emigrate.
Her family never returned.
Today, a resurgence of Jewish life is taking place in the land of our heritage. After centuries of destruction and hatred for Jews in Europe, we have a glimmer of hope. The past has set the foundation for our future, and today things couldn’t be more different.
Growing up I heard stories from my parents of the time when they were kids. They were treated differently because they were Jewish; it’s what I’ve heard all my life. As a proud Jewish teenager in America, I felt a responsibility to travel to Ukraine when BBYO presented the opportunity to me. I learned about our people’s past firsthand. I put on my tefillin and wore my kippah proudly in a land in which my parents could not.
I saw the fields and memorials of Babi Yar, the trenches of terror, the memory of the horrid moments of my ancestors — thousands of hopes and dreams crushed and broken. Bodies that held much more than a bundle of bones were trashed and burned.
But we stood. The once seemingly invincible empires are gone, but we remain. The great powers of Greece or Rome no longer threaten the face of this earth, but we are still here, stronger than ever. The curtain fell but we still stand.
I left Babi Yar and watched 400 Jewish teens from 10 countries gather from all corners of the former Soviet Union to celebrate their Judaism and to pronounce their love for their heritage. These are teens whose Jewish lives were reignited by their youth group, Active Jewish Teens. It’s the place they can truly express themselves and their outlet to Judaism.
Resurgence is celebrating Shabbat with these 400 teens, whose parents weren’t allowed to do so during their childhoods. Singing Havdalah with them, arm in arm, as one circle formed by representatives of countries once associated with the oppression of Jews showed the world that we are still here and stronger than ever.
These are our brothers and sisters; they are our leaders. Being connected to the global Jewish community isn’t about speaking the same language or sharing the same culture, it’s much more than that. We share the bond of Judaism. Our communal tradition has survived for millennia through trials and tribulations. We share music and prayer, and so much more. To sit together on Shabbat, singing songs that we all knew despite the oceans that separate us — this is only the start of a new bond between Jews from all over the world fostered by BBYO.
I have never seen or felt the pride of Jews around me like I did this weekend. Jewish life in the former Soviet Union is flourishing like never before. The community supports one another and takes care of each other’s needs, and now, I support them too. These teens are the ones who will build a strong Jewish future — mark my words.
Ben Levkovich, son of Svetlana and Alex Levkovich of Plano, is a Yavneh Academy junior and a member of Morton Lewis AZA.
Did You Know?
The March on Washington for Soviet Jewry was a massive rally — more than 250,000 Jews participated from across the country — held on the eve of the December 1987 Washington Summit between President Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev demanding that Reagan put pressure on Gorbachev to put an end to the forced assimilation of Jews and allowing their emigration from the USSR. The Metroplex sent a large contingent to the March led by then JCRC Chair Janice Sweet.
See the original TJP coverage in the Dec. 10, 1987, issue at http://bit.ly/2AYnkp8 (use the right arrow above the TJP masthead to scroll through the issue).