The Wolfond Centre was bustling with activity as nearly 40 students gathered Feb. 1-3 for the annual J.Lead Retreat. This year saw the introduction of a new format of the program, which had evolved greatly throughout the years.
The program is targeted towards Jewish university and college students who come from Russian-speaking backgrounds, allowing them to meet new people, learn about their culture while also working on their professional development skills. The conference included various workshops, seminars and social outings, all focusing on strengthening Russian speaking-Jewish identity, as well as developing leadership, advocacy and networking skills.
J.Lead is the result of the partnering of Jewski and J.Academy, two organizations that aim to engage the younger generation of Russian-speaking Jews. Yana Siganevich, Lily Fostikova, the co-ordinator for Jewski, and Inga Yakhnin, the acting director for J.Projects and J.Academy Camp, were some of the main organizers of this year’s conference.
“It’s important to give this group of students the opportunity to come together and have a space to meet each other, because they’re all across the province and wouldn’t get to meet each other otherwise,” said Fostikova. “We want to help them foster their relationships, explore their identities and realize they’re not by themselves — there’s a really big community. And hopefully they will be part of the community and get involved with other initiatives.”
This was also the first year that they included a student planning committee, as a means of incorporating students’ opinions throughout the planning process.
Among some of the presenters were writer Lea Zeltserman, who discussed whether Soviet food should be considered Jewish food, and Boris Vaisman, an entrepreneur who started a sock company named Soxy. There was also a session with social media influencer Valeria Lipovetsky, who shared her experiences working as a Russian-Israeli Youtuber.
According to Fostikova, they are targeting a demographic that does not necessarily get presented with this sort of opportunity. Though there are many conferences for university-age students, there are not many in this particular format, and aren’t always affordable.
“We wanted to present a new leadership conference that would be interesting and engaging for students,” said Fostikova. “We decided to ask students what it was that they were looking for and put together the planning committee as representatives of the larger student population to tell us what is that they would like to see.”
This year saw the program’s highest attendance, and with Jewski’s expansion to all nine Ontario university campuses that have a Hillel presence, Fostikova hopes that the J.Lead program will only continue to grow. “We have students from not only Toronto campuses, but from Kingston, Guelph, Waterloo and others,” said Fostikova. “There is a lot of potential for this to grow and reach a lot of students.”
Aliza Itskovich, a second-year student at Queen’s University, said that J.Lead has allowed her to greatly expand her network. As someone who grew up in Ottawa, participating in programs like these has allowed to meet new people from Toronto as well as at Queen’s.
“I find that for me, personally, it’s hard to connect with Jewish people that don’t have a Russian background,” said Itskovich. “I think the feelings about being Jewish that were instilled in my family while they were in the Soviet Union were kind of passed down to me, so I don’t feel very connected to religion or the Hebrew language, as many Canadian Jews are. It’s more of a cultural thing for me.”
Since participating in the J.Lead program last year, she has become much more involved in the community. This year, she is working as a Jewski intern, focusing on engaging Russian-speaking Jewish students at Queen’s, and was on the J.Lead student planning committee, along with Eleenoy Umansky, and recieved help from Anna Glotsky and Maria Gorelik.
“I think it’s important to have J.Lead because I feel it allows me to connect with my identity and continue celebrating our traditions,” said Itskovich. “Coming here helps me reconnect and remember how to important it is to be proud of who we are and teach other people about our history.”
J.Lead was done in partnership with Jewski, J.Academy, and the Schwartz-Reisman Centre. The program was sponsored by the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.