Letter from Anchorage: Northern Stars of David
Jews have ventured north to Alaska’s largest city, choosing to stay for very different reasons.
Snow-capped mountains so rugged they seem to bear the mark of Creation, spouting volcanoes, massive glaciers and evergreen forests—these marvels of nature surround Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city and home to the state’s largest Jewish congregation. Last September, the 200 families of Beth Sholom—who call themselves “the Frozen Chosen”—celebrated their 50th anniversary as a congregation. At the same time, Alaska was preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary as a state, and Governor Sarah Palin was in the running to become the country’s first woman vice president.
It was a time filled with anticipation: Alaskans looking forward to the prosperity that will come with the building of a planned natural-gas pipeline, and synagogue leaders looking forward to a growth in both membership and finances.
“Alaska has had peaks and valleys, and we’re headed for a peak,” said Robin Dern, Beth Sholom’s longtime executive director. “Jewish professionals come when it peaks.”
Today, Alaska has between 3,000 and 6,000 Jews, about half of whom live in Anchorage. (The lower figure reflects a 1995 study; the higher one is the estimate of the local Chabad rabbi, Yosef Greenberg.)
The Reform Beth Sholom (907-338-1836; www.frozenchosen.org), six miles from the city’s downtown, is about to renovate and enlarge its premises so it can increase the number of classrooms and accommodate the hundreds of worshipers who attend High Holiday services.
Although there are growing congregations in other cities and towns, including Fairbanks, Juneau and Kenai, in some ways, Dern said, Beth Sholom serves the entire state; until 1991, it had the only resident rabbi in Alaska.
Since 1991, however, Alaska has had two resident rabbis, both in Anchorage. Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Michael Oblath, 60, a seasoned congregational rabbi and a scholar versed in seven ancient languages, is the cheechako (Chinook jargon for newcomer), having taken up this post in 2007. By contrast, Moscow-born Greenberg, 43, is an old-timer; he has been in Anchorage since 1991. And he, too, sees himself as serving the entire state, especially in the periods when Beth Sholom was between rabbis. The two spiritual leaders have very different takes on their adoptive home.
Oblath was attracted to Alaska for both personal and professional reasons. The beauty of the state and the opportunity for outdoor sports were a draw, he said. A professional boon was the opportunity to pursue his academic studies, research and writing through access to Anchorage’s two universities (he writes and lectures often on biblical history, geography and literature). But most important was the congregational aspect. “From the moment of our first interview…,” he said, “I have found the congregation to be one of integrity, with caring concern for all aspects of life.”
Unlike Oblath, Greenberg would never have dreamed of coming to Alaska if not for the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Religious observance as elementary as keeping the Sabbath is a weekly challenge, especially in summer, when the sun does not set until nearly midnight. Kosher food has to be flown in, and until the congregation built its own mikve, the rabbi’s wife, Esty, had to fly to Seattle every month to use a ritual bath.
“I chose Alaska because I felt that the only way for me to give back to the Rebbe what I got from him was to do something unusual,” said Greenberg, who wrote a book about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s first year as the head of Chabad.
On a Saturday morning, one can find 30 to 40 worshipers at Chabad’s Congregation Shomrei Ohr (907-279-1200; www.chabad.org), which is also expanding. It is planning to move from its midtown location in Greenberg’s home to a nearby $5-million campus that will include a synagogue, community center, religious school and museum; a new mikve is already part of this complex.
Like most Alaskans, nearly all the Jews in Anchorage hail from the Lower 48. A diverse group, they are bound together as a community not only by dreams of adventure and freedom but also by the vastness of the state and their distance from family and old friends. As Gary Zipkin, 59, of Beth Sholom put it, “We’re like on an island or on the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.”
Distance from the Lower 48 also means that religious lines are not as clearly drawn as they might be elsewhere. This is, after all, Alaska, where sheer size (more than twice that of Texas), 100,000 glaciers, innumerable lakes and whales, bears, moose, sea otters, bald eagles and puffins shred any prior assumptions, even about its Jews.
Eclectic is much too mild a word to describe members of Beth Sholom. “People of all streams come here,” Dern said.
Take, for example, Chaim Cohen, the tall, burly man wearing a neon-orange safety vest and a cap with a construction company logo who walked into Beth Sholom one day last July and asked to buy a tzedaka box. Cohen, 40, who claims to be the only Jewish pile driver in Alaska, had just bought a house near the synagogue and needed the box so his children could keep the congregation’s tradition of weekly donations at home.
Cohen had come to Alaska from Los Angeles the year before in search of a job. An Orthodox Jew, he refuses to work on the Sabbath, but his unusual background more than makes up for what employers might have considered a limitation: He had lived in Israel and had served in the Israel Defense Forces for nine years, running fuel and supplies throughout South Lebanon. In Alaska, “the guys running the companies are ex-military,” Cohen said. “Because of my military background, the union snatched me up immediately.”
Bob Loeffler, 53, a consultant in land-use planning and natural resources, was in the synagogue the day Cohen came in, having arrived by bicycle from his home eight miles away. Loeffler grew up in California and came to Alaska as a college graduate looking for adventure, especially outdoor sports. Thirty years later, his enthusiasm has not waned.
“I had an extended childhood [while] my friends were all to the grindstone,” he said. “I worked hard, but I had rafting, mountain biking and kayaking right up until my wife and I had our first child when I was 40. I also realized we are a state with huge issues. I got involved in the issues right out of school.” In his job with the Department of Natural Resources, which manages Alaska’s 100-million acres of state land, he created the first land-use plan for Prince William Sound, home to spectacular glaciers and a stunning array of wildlife.
Zipkin and his wife, Barbara, knew nothing of Alaska before arriving from San Francisco in 1974. “We were as ignorant as a penguin in Antarctica,” he said. Fresh out of law school and frustrated by the dearth of jobs in his hometown, Zipkin accepted an offer from an Anchorage law firm, thinking he would try Alaska for a year. Today, he is a senior partner at the same firm.
Among the things that kept him in Anchorage were the close friendships he made through Beth Sholom. “We are so distant and in some ways still so isolated and forgotten that living here binds us,” said Zipkin, who has twice served as congregation president. Friends became as close as immediate family, he added.
The Lubavitch Jewish Center—which houses Shomrei Ohr and its educational facilities, a Chabad House and Judaica shop—also offers a sense of family to an eclectic group; some 40 of whom dine with the rabbi and his family on Friday nights. One regular is Jerry Green, 74, son of legendary Anchorage furrier David Green. Jerry Green and his brother, Perry, are among the few Jews in the community who grew up in Alaska. Together they run the family business; their factory and fur shops line 4th Avenue downtown and attract both tourists and locals. One shop is managed by Jerry’s daughter, Sara, who also markets gifts, specialty food and family games. A fourth generation of Greens is already growing up in the city.
But Jerry Green never wanted to be a furrier, and in 1965 he left. “I wanted to get away from my father,” he said candidly. Green wanted to become a doctor, but did not have the grades. He returned and channeled his passion for learning into collecting books, which line the walls of his study at the factory, and into his devotion to Greenberg; Green is a major donor to the new Shomrei Ohr facilities.
Among Greenberg’s other devotees are Moscow native Lisa Kreinima, 78, and her husband, Yakov, 79, who were regulars at Shomrei Ohr for as long as they lived nearby. The couple, both doctors, first visited Anchorage in 1991 on the invitation of Yakov’s sister, who had settled there.
“I fell in love with it,” Lisa Kreinima said. “The fresh air, the birds just waking up, the lack of crowding; Moscow was so crowded.” In 1994, when their son found a job in Anchorage, they joined him there. Kreinima’s childhood home had a strong Jewish identity—the family celebrated all the holidays. Yakov, however, had experienced Judaism primarily through his exposure to anti-Semitism. But in Anchorage, he joined the minyan at Shomrei Ohr and his wife basked in the kindness of the Greenbergs. When Lisa was sick, they came to visit, and now that the Kreinimas live in a retirement home far from the synagogue, the Greenbergs still invite them for every occasion, she said.
And then there are the middle-aged Israelis, Sima and Avi Avraham, who came to Anchorage from Haifa in 1992 and worked for the Greens (Sima as a nanny and Avi as a cleaner in the factory) until two years ago. Now they are the owners of the Falafel King (907-258-4328), their fast-food place at 9th and Gambell Streets, which has a large American flag outside and a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe inside. While stuffing a pita with all-kosher falafel and condiments, they speak glowingly of the Greenbergs.
Both Beth Sholom and Shomrei Ohr have religious schools and summer programs. Their preschools are open to all, making them attractive to the many intermarried families in Anchorage. After preschool, Shomrei Ohr provides religious education only to children who are halakhically Jewish.
Alaska’s wildlife and sports opportunities have touched both congregations. The sign on the Lubavitch center is in the shape of a salmon. Beth Sholom’s members have gone biking, camping, hiking, fishing and cross-country skiing together. They have an annual “Shabbaton on the Slopes,” a retreat at the Alyeska ski resort just outside Anchorage. Tashlikh service is held on a bridge over Campbell Creek, despite the cold and snow, and lakes and ponds have served as a mikve.
The Jewish community is small enough that the Jews all know each other, no matter which congregation they belong to, and there has been some outreach between the two groups. Greenberg, for example, invited Oblath to a bar mitzva at Shomrei Ohr. Beth Sholom honored Jerry and Perry Green for their service to the city. Zipkin said he is sometimes called on to complete the minyan at Shomrei Ohr. And, he added, “Everybody who has ever met [the Greenbergs] likes them.”
Though formally cordial, Greenberg and Oblath diverge on important issues, as do Chabad and Reform rabbis elsewhere. For example, the Lubavitch support for Israel is unconditional, whereas Beth Sholom has criticized Israel’s policies.
Also, the two groups appear to be competing for the role of representative of the city’s Jewish community to the non-Jews. Shomrei Ohr holds a lavish Hanukka celebration each year, inviting non-Jewish dignitaries, including state and city officials. Beth Sholom honors an Alaskan citizen each year for integrity, honesty and dedication to public service; in 2009, it honored K.C. Kaltenborn, M.D., and Cathie Schumacher, M.D., for bringing medical care to Anchorage’s neediest residents. And what might have brought both congregations together—a planned Jewish museum expected to open in fall 2010—so far has remained a Lubavitch project.
The Alaska Jewish Historical Museum and Cultural Center (https://alaskajewishmuseum.org) will be part of a two-building campus that will also house the Lubavitch Jewish Center, schools and the Shomrei Ohr synagogue; it will cover various aspects of the relations between Alaska and its Jews, many of them poorly known. Patricia Wolf, former director of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, is the museum’s consultant, and its board of directors includes Jews throughout Alaska.
The museum will have three sections. The first will portray the contribution to Alaska by Jews, including the proponents of the idea of buying the territory from the Russians, the first mayors of Anchorage and of Fairbanks, the most important businesspeople and philanthropists in Anchorage in the 1920s, writers on Alaska—even dog mushers.
The second section will cover Alaska’s contribution to the Jewish people, particularly the role of Alaska Airlines in helping to airlift some 45,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel in 1949 and 1950 as part of Operation Magic Carpet. As Greenberg tells it, “It took 300 flights. They were shot on, they were bombed, they couldn’t stop in any Arab country.… And they kept doing it. The pilots were saying if [the airlines won’t] do it, we will do it ourselves.”
The museum’s third section will be devoted to Alaska’s connection to the Holocaust, in particular the unsuccessful 1940 King-Havenner Bill, congressional legislation that would have opened the territory to immigrants, including Jews who were trying to escape the Nazis. This historic event, said Greenberg, underlies the premise of Michael Chabon’s novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (HarperCollins): What if Europe’s Jews did escape to Alaska and Israel was never founded?
According to Greenberg, the museum will further the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s goal of building “a living relation with the non-Jewish world, to give them a spiritual meaning to their lives.”
But members of the Reform congregation view with apprehension the involvement of the state through an $800,000 grant. “I’d rather government kept out of religious matters,” Zipkin said. And Oblath said he was not involved because the museum is a project of the Chabad community. “I have, of course, offered to their leadership to take an active role when…they are ready to…engage the Reform community.”
Meanwhile, Anchorage’s Jews can find an important point of agreement: Alaska has been good for the Jews. Or, as Loeffler put it, it has been “great for work, great for pay, great for adventure.” H
The Jewish Presence
Jews have been in Alaska at least since 1867, when they were active in the fur trade. Jewish merchants in San Francisco who imported furs from Alaska influenced the United States’ purchase of the territory that year. More Jews came later in the century with waves of prospectors responding to the lure of gold, and especially during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. In 1908, Congregation Bikkur Cholim was formed in Fairbanks.
But the Jews and their congregations tended to come and go. The town of Anchorage started out in 1915 as the site of the headquarters of the Alaska Railroad. Leopold David, a Jew, was its first elected mayor when it was incorporated in 1920. It grew to notable size only in the 1940s as a result of massive military development. After an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale devastated Anchorage in 1964, the city was rebuilt and expanded and now has more than 280,000 residents (as compared with only about 670,000 in the entire state.)
For many years, Alaska had no rabbi at all. Anchorage’s Jews depended on the chaplains at Elmendorf Air Force Base for all religious services. There was, however, an Orthodox minyan, centered around the Green family.
In 1922, fired up by reading Jack London and adventure stories in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where he grew up, David Green came to Alaska. Eventually, he built an empire of furs but remained an observant Jew. His sons, Jerry and Perry, continued both the business and the minyan.
Non-Orthodox Jews also got together, and on September 5, 1958, 20 men and women met to welcome the Sabbath and to organize a synagogue, Beth Sholom, which they chose to align with the Reform movement. One of the congregation’s three Torahs is a treasure from Alaska’s gold rush, brought from Lithuania to Nome in 1900. —E.H.