By Maia Ferdman
Aleksandr Zdankevitch and Ilja Hagin have been friends for over a decade, first meeting at Olameinu, JDC’s Jewish summer camp for children from the Baltics.
The two friends remained involved in regional Jewish activities throughout their childhood and adolescence – from camp, to youth movements, to student programs, Baltic Jewish life was always central for Ilja and Aleksandr (or Sanja, as he is known to friends).
However, once they graduated from university and entered the workforce, Sanja and Ilja felt something was missing in their Jewish lives.
“It was a gap when I finished the camps, got normal work, and still wanted to be involved (with Judaism),” Ilja said. “We understood that people wanted to be involved but in a different way – they were now thinking about their businesses and professional development.”
The two friends then came together to create a Jewish outlet for young professionals that would span the Baltic region.
“After leaving the activities and seminars for students and young adults in our local communities, we identified the need for connecting professionals and entrepreneurs of Jewish origin from Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia in one common platform,” Sanja said. “Then we started to create a place where people can connect, exchange ideas, and build partnerships.”
This platform turned into what is now called the Baltic Jewish Network. A regional platform for Jewish adults in the Baltics, BJN provides a space for professionals to network, learn new business strategies, and to engage with Judaism through a professional lens.
Baltic Jewish Network creates a wide range of activities on both local and international levels. Local events have ranged from a Hanukkah event that examined the local restaurant business, to a Kosher brunch examining the challenges of running a kosher business outside of Israel.
“We really hope (BJN) contributes to the development of innovative ideas and (becomes an) analytical center of Jewish professionals in three Baltic countries,” Sanja said.
The main event Sanja, Ilja, and their fellow team members organize is Baltic Jewish Network Weekend, which completed its third annual seminar this past April in Jurmala, Latvia.
This Russian and English-speaking seminar brings together young professionals from all three Baltic countries, providing workshops and lectures on a wide range of topics such as digital marketing, etiquette, and change management. BJN also incorporates Jewish topics throughout the weekend, such as business ethics and negotiation from a Jewish perspective.
“(Baltic Jewish Network) provides leadership opportunities to young Jewish adults where they learn how to lead an organization or network and take responsibility over their community,” said Moni Beniosev, the JDC director for the Baltic region.
Sanja and Ilja credit their lifetime of Jewish involvement for the skills needed to plan and execute BJN.
“(BJN) was not the first big event we prepared. We had experience in organizing children’s camps and student seminars,” Ilja said. “But it was harder emotionally, it was our own product, we were more nervous.”
The co-founders are also thankful for the support of their local communities, the JDC, and Junction in building BJN throughout the years.
“We worked closely with many people from the JDC, the Schusterman Foundation, and with our (local) communities,” Sanja said. “Without them it would have been impossible,” Ilja added.
BJN Weekend is now an affiliated Junction program, collaborating on its program and planning process, on recruitment, and on bringing speakers.
Despite the nerves that came with the first BJN Weekend, Sanja and Ilja said they are proud of how far the event has come.
According to Sanja, out of the estimated 1000 to 1200 Jewish professionals in the three Baltic countries, about 250 to 300 different people have participated in BJN programs, or about 25% of their target group. While Baltic communities are relatively small individually, BJN’s international reach encourages these participants to widen their professional and Jewish network.
The two friends aim to continue developing BJN further, both increasing the number of people they reach and including participants from all over Europe.
“We want to build a strong Jewish community for professionals and entrepreneurs without walls. Not concentrated in one permanent place, but rather a community to connect people,” Sanja said. “Where people can make partnerships without professional staff, who can connect on their own, have Jewish holidays together, and do business.”
Read more about Baltic Jewish Network at their website.