One of my goals with the Chag Notebook series is to tell stories from our global female Jewish community.
This year, I have a personal goal to feature Jewish women who live outside of the largest Jewish communities (i.e. United States and Israel). To help me reach this goal, I contacted the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which works to help build Jewish life and leadership all over the world.
JDC connected me with Alla Magas, the Coordinator of Active Jewish Teens (AJT), the JDC’s rapidly expanding Jewish youth movement made up of young Jews from across the former Soviet Union. AJT connects more than 3,600 teens in 50 cities in Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and more. AJT is affiliated with BBYO, the largest global Jewish pluralistic youth movement.
Let’s get to know Alla and learn from her.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Poltava, Ukraine. When I was a child, I had dreams of becoming a teacher and loved singing, dancing, and performing for my family in our home. During my childhood, I was always surrounded by my friends and we enjoyed coming up with a different ideas to fill our free time. Fast forward to today, and I still enjoy similar activities.
Currently, I am a Coordinator of Active Jewish Teens (AJT), a key teen movement that was created three and a half years ago and has quickly became one of the most popular activities for Jewish teens across the former Soviet Union. AJT was created to build the new generation of Jewish leaders in the community, assisting the younger generation in taking responsibility for the development of their community. This can only happen after defining the specific needs within their region and then coming up with ideas to solve these challenges, all while building their own Jewish identity.
I have a special formula that I use when I want to teach someone something, which is leading by example. It is important that I maintain my role and stick to the AJT mission, so that I can best guide the teens in their Jewish community building efforts.
I lead an active life, attending different kinds of events, exhibitions, theatre, concerts, and sports games. I also enjoy yoga, and love to travel and spend time with my friends. The only thing I do not really enjoy is cooking.
How do you connect to Judaism?
I was raised in the Reform Jewish community in Ukraine. Now I have my own way of practicing Judaism by keeping kosher, as well as observing Jewish traditions and holidays. As a graduate of Metsuda, JDC’s flagship yearlong leadership training program in Ukraine, I still actively participate in various volunteer and charity-focused activities that are organized by the Metzuda alumni.
How do you prepare to host people for a holiday meal or celebration?
I celebrate all of the Jewish holidays alongside my Ukrainian Jewish community. I don’t traditionally celebrate holidays at home where I would serve as the host because in the former Soviet Union, not everyone is comfortable showing off their home to guests because of needed repairs, or overcrowding due to having several generations living in tiny apartments.
I always feel more comfortable celebrating with my community in a space where everyone feels equal, like a Jewish Community Center for example. Jewish holidays here in the former Soviet Union are always prepared in advance, starting with an interesting program and a beautiful menu full of traditional dishes, and ending in a cozy atmosphere where we can just all be together. I am proud to play an important role in my community’s holiday celebrations.
A few years ago, I made the decision to have a Passover Seder at my home. I invited my friends over for the celebration and it was amazing! Everyone brought a different food to contribute towards the meal and we worked together to cook it. Can you believe that my tiny apartment held fifteen people? We sang songs, told stories, and played table games. Everything was so simple, but at the same time, the holiday was unforgettable!
How does the ideal holiday celebration look and feel to you?
My ideal holiday celebration, or the holiday celebration of my dreams, is a festive and fully decorated apartment, complete with the proper table settings and beautiful silverware, Judaica objects, and tasty food. The most important thing for me is the atmosphere, which is created from all of the small details coming together. I have a fond memory from my childhood of a guest visiting and giving a small book to my family, which then served as a constant reminder of the time he spent with us.
Also, when I was 7-years-old, a friend of my mother presented me with big box of classic books from writers including Duma, Oskar Uald, Stendal. It was the best day of my life, and ever since then I have continued to collect books and now have a nice library in my home. Although throughout the years I have moved apartments many times and even relocated to different countries, I always bring my books with me.
Leading up to, during, and after the holidays, how do you reconnect with yourself?
After each holiday celebration, I need to take some time out for myself. I sleep a little, think deeper into my thoughts including recollecting the holiday, and of course, relax at home.
What is one of your most memorable holiday experiences?
My favorite holidays are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, mostly because of their deep meaning. I like the idea of beginning each New Year with a clean page, as well as analyzing my own behavior and personality to see what changes I may need to make to better myself. These are the only holidays that I celebrate in my synagogue, and they make me truly feel like I am part of the Jewish nation.
I will never forget my first Yom Kippur experience at 17-years-old. I prayed for a long time without any food or water, and had to walk almost ten miles back from the synagogue to my house. The next morning, I finished my prayers and immediately recognized all of the familiar smells of Jewish food cooking in my town. I wanted to eat everything including French fries and grilled chicken, and that day, every type of food smelled extra tasty. Although I didn’t manage to fast until the end of that day, I was proud of myself that I at least tried.
To me, Chanukah is all about the delicious smells of sufganiyot, a delicious round jelly doughnut, and other kinds of sweet foods.
Shabbat represents light to me, with the candles giving off a special type of warmth that create a peaceful environment. I love seeing the room and people illuminated by the light of the Shabbat candles.
Passover for me is all about the sounds. I love singing and in my eyes, the Pesach Seder always looks like a musical production. I also enjoy telling Passover stories through melodies, prayers, and songs.
Yom Kippur is a distinct smell.
What’s your absolute favorite holiday dish?
I keep a kosher kitchen at home. I always have milk, and eggs in my fridge, and of course matzah on hand which I have after each Passover Seder. The most tasty and least time consuming dish I love to make is matzah brei.
Do you have any nontraditional holiday rituals or habits?
A nontraditional holiday ritual in my home is that my guests always leave me with small presents to remind me of them, and in a positive and great mood.
What was something that your mother (or another influential figure) shared with you about the holidays that has stuck with you?
My mother taught me that having guests in your home is both special and important. No matter what situation our family was facing at any given time, having people over to celebrate was always an uplifting time. The table should be covered with a beautiful tablecloth and display yummy treats, and guests should be left well-fed and pleased. My mother is the one who showed me the importance of giving small presents to guests, and over the years, I have kept this tradition alive. None of my guests ever leave my home without a small gift.
What’s your number one tip or trick you’ve discovered that makes the holidays smoother, more positive and meaningful for you?
Everything I do to prepare for the holidays is done with love. To me, the true meaning of each holiday inspires me to come up with new ideas on how to spend the holiday with loved ones.
Your Turn: What part of Alla’s interview do you find the most touching?