Joy Katzen-Guthrie's Heritage Tours
Alaska Jewry: A Historical Overview
HIGHLIGHTS OF A THRIVING JEWISH LIFE ON THE NORTHERN FRONTIER
©2001-2015 by Joy Katzen-Guthrie • All Rights Reserved
Special Thanks to Alaska historian Norman Kagan for his invaluable assistance in confirming details within this article.
Latest update: June 2, 2015
For a recent look at the Jewish communiites of Alaska
I recommend the following current resources:
Alaska Jewish Museum and Cultural Center, Anchorage
Alaska's Jewish Community Predates US Settlement, Yereth RosenThe Christian Science Monitor, February 11, 2012
It's Not New York, It's Not L.A., It's Small Town Jewish USA, by Dara Kahn, Spring 2011
The Frozen Chosen: Alaska Jews Talk About Life on America's Last Frontier, by Molly Arost Staub, Jewish Daily Forward, August 6, 2012
North to Alaska: There's Lots of Warmth in Alaska, by Joannie (Henya) Tansky, chabad.org
Oh, That Wild Life in Alaska! Susan Perloff, Jewish Exponent, April 27, 2011
Solomon Ripinsky, Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center, 2008
Strength in Low Numbers, Alaska Inside Magazine, by Kaylene Johnson, March 2008 (click to download pdf document)
Why Wyatt Earp is Buried in a Jewish Cemetery, Miss Cellania • Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Unlike so many frontier areas - to which Jews typically have not been attracted - Jewish life in America's northernmost frontier of Alaska thrives as it has for more than 140 years. In cities and rural areas, Jews join in Shabbat, holiday, and life-cycle observances, study, sports, events, and religious activities. Eighty-one percent of Alaskan Jews today live in the three largest cities, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. The remaining 19% live in rural small cities (Sitka, Kenai, Homer, Nome, Ketchikan, Kotzubue, Soldotna, Haines, and Bethel) with populations of less than 10,000 and Jewish populations of 1 to 71. In at least 9 Alaskan cities, one or more formal Jewish communal organizations exist, serving a statewide Jewish population of some 3,500-4,000. Brandeis University Professor Bernard Reisman's extensive study in the late 1990's reveals a highly acculturated Alaskan Jewish population, of whom 54% received graduate education beyond an undergraduate degree compared to 8% of all Alaskans and 25% of Jews in the Lower 48, with almost four out of five (78%) working as professionals or managers - more than twice that of the general U.S. white population (31%) and 29% more than Jews of the Lower 48 (49%). A 1995 demographic survey of Alaskan Jews indicates their level of observance of Jewish customs and rituals and their positive feelings about their Jewishness are significantly higher than that of Jews in all other U.S. states. Jews in Alaska also play a prominent role in the state's government and have since its inception. A number of Alaska's political offices, including mayoral, senatorial, gubernatorial, and local offices have been held by Jews.
Jews have been a prominent part of Alaska's history even before its acquisition by the U.S. in 1867. San Francisco Jewish pioneering merchants Louis Sloss and Lewis Gerstle (for whom Northeast Alaska's Gerstle River is named) are credited with opening the Alaska Territory to settlers and commercial enterprises when establishing the Alaska Commercial Company in 1868. Originally a fur-transporting firm, ACC expanded to become a salmon cannery and fishing fleet, operated a chain of trading posts providing general merchandise to natives, trappers, miners, and explorers, and supplied Alaska's first fleet of ships during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1901. The Haines townsite's Mt. Ripinsky honors Jewish pioneer Solomon Ripinsky whose contribution to Alaska's history echos that of many Jewish settlers. Between 1894 and his death in 1927 he served in Sitka, Unalaska, Chilkat, and Haines in various capacities as law clerk, teacher, trading post operator, postmaster, storekeeper, notary, lawyer, elected convention delegate, and U.S. Commissioner. The movement of Jewish European immigrants and Jews from the Western U.S. during Alaska's Gold Rushes from the 1880s on greatly enhanced Alaska's economy with general merchandise stores, law offices, mining operations, pharmacies, jewelry stores, and more.
In the early 1940s, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and members of Congress considered a proposal to make Alaska a settlement for Central European Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazis, both as a development and humanitarian effort. The bill eventually died in subcommittee. Though Ickes fought staunchly for the bill, he felt American Jews had not done enough for it. New York Jew Ernest Gruening (who later became a leader in the drive to gain statehood for Alaska, was appointed first Governor of the Territory of Alaska for 14 years beginning in 1939, then was elected U.S. Senator from Alaska, serving for ten years beginning in 1958, just one year before Alaska became a state) opposed the bill. He considered Jewish refugee resettlement in Alaska improper, as it would differentiate Alaska's immigration laws from those of other U.S. states. The committee's choice to deny entrance to 400 European Jews to Alaska as refugees of the Third Reich led to their deaths in concentration camps. Gruening's stance was ironic in that his own family was of German Jewish heritage. [A more modest proposal to distinguish Alaska as a haven for Jews had been introduced in 1906 by Abe Spring, Russian-born early settler of Fairbanks, to save some of his countrymen from the violence of the pogroms. It too had been rejected by Congress.]
In Alaska's State House of Representatives, the Yamacaucus (Yarmulke Caucus), as they have jokingly referred to themselves, has included Ethan Berkowitz (District 26 Democrat) elected in 1996, who served for ten years in the House and eight years as Minority Leader. State Legislator Jay Ramras (District 10 Republican) was elected to the House in 2004 and re-elected in November 2006. His family has a long history in Fairbanks. Two other Jewish members of the State House include Les Gara (District 23 Democrat), first elected in 2002 and re-elected in November 2006, and Max Gruenberg (District 20 Democrat), who continuously has been elected to the House since 1984 and was re-elected in November 2006.
Dawson City (Yukon/Canada) was site of the the region's first Jewish services in 1898. As many as 200 Jews lived in the Klondike at the height of the gold rush. The small but historically significant Jewish section of Klondike's cemetery, Bet Chaim (established 1902 by the Jewish Society of Dawson) is all that remains of this influential group. The cemetery was restored in 1998 through efforts of Alaska historian Dr. Norman E. Kagan and concerned citizens forming as the Jewish Historical Society of the Yukon. With the discovery of gold on the beaches of Nome, the stampede there began. Yukon hotel clerk Max Hirshberg made a historic 48-day bicycle ride over ice from his home in Dawson to Nome. Most families found comfortable passage from Seattle. The Nome Jewish community had its own torah brought by Sam Bayles and some sixty Jews in 1900 who attended the world's most western and northern Rosh HaShanah services. Nome established the state's first Jewish congregation in 1900 and the Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1901 to assist the less fortunate. The isolated community declined with the consolidation of shipping and supply lines by the Swiss-German Jewish Guggenheim family after WWI and the Bayles Torah was transferred to Beth Shalom Synagogue in Anchorage. Marvin Rich of Houston has informed us of his family's connection to the early Nome Jewish community: the three Krakower brothers, Abraham, Itzhak, and Yakob operated the Cheap John Store in Nome in the early 1900s amid challenges of remaining observant on the frontier. Abraham desired to create an outdoor mikveh despite the frigid below-zero temperatures.
A small Jewish community formed in Fairbanks in 1904 just two years after significant gold was found there. Pioneering Jewish merchants organized the Congregation Bikkur Cholim in 1908 with intermittent services at members' homes. Lithuanian Jew Robert Bloom, one of the congregation founders, had arrived in the Klondike in 1898 and served as one of the Yukon's first lay rabbis for nearly half a century. Peddling goods on his back and later from a general store until 1941, he became chairman of Alaska's Jewish Welfare Board, instrumental in the establishment of an Air Force base in Alaska, a founder of the University of Alaska (1918) and a charter member of its Board of Regents. His wife, Jessie Spiro Bloom of Dublin, for whom the Fairbanks Girl Scout Training Center is named, established the Fairbanks kindergarten and the first Alaskan Girl Scout chapter (1925). The Blooms co-founded the Fairbanks Airplane Company, were active in Alaskan conservation efforts and the establishment of wilderness preserves in Alaska, and served as unofficial chaplains for Jewish servicemen stationed in Alaska during WWII. Abe Stein was a prominent merchant in Fairbanks, establishing Abe Stein and Son Traders on the Chena waterfront. (Click to see: Newsboys ca. 1898 • Abe Stein & Son ca. 1919) Stein also served as President of the synagogue. Fairbanks' courthouse is named for Jay A. Rabinowitz, Superior Court Judge in 1960, appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1965, serving for 32 years, four terms as Alaska's Chief Justice. The First Jewish Congregation of Fairbanks was established in 1980 to serve some 300 Jews in the city with worship services and a religious school at the Fort Wainwright Army Post Chapel. Renamed Congregation Or HaTzafon (Light of the North) in 1992, the congregation acquired property for a first synagogue and affiliated with the Reform movement. Student rabbis intern with this congregation, which is raising funds to hire a full-time rabbi. Diverse membership (some 100 members, associates, and supporters) includes Jews of all traditions, Jews by choice, and Jews of mixed marriage.
Today more than half of Alaska's Jews live in Anchorage, where Jew Leopold David was the city's first mayor, serving three terms from 1920 when the city was incorporated. Zachary J. Loussac, a Moscow Jew, served as mayor of the city in 1948 and established a trust fund that enabled building of the city's municipal library, which bears his name today. At Elmendorf Air Force Base outside Anchorage, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jewish chaplains rotated tours of duty from the early 1940s to mid 1980s, providing Shabbat services and serving Jewish residents in Anchorage and other areas. A mikvah for the wife of the chaplain was built on the base in 1974 and demolished in 1999. Reform Congregation Beth Sholom was established by 20 members of the Anchorage community in 1958, with Lester Polonsky serving as the congregation's first rabbi. A first synagogue was erected in 1964; by 1982 with a membership that had quadrupled, a new synagogue on five acres was erected to house worship services, study, education center, camp, religious school, and sports. From 1984 until 2000, Rabbi Harry L. Rosenfeld was Beth Shalom's rabbi. The City of Anchorage proclaimed October 1, 1994 Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld Day as the state legislature honored him for his ten years of service to the Alaskan people. Rabbi Michael Oblath joined Congregation Beth Sholom as spiritual leader in August 2007 and reports an active adult education program and religious school, a lively day school, full Shabbat services (Friday evening and Shabbat morning services plus Torah study) and conversion programs. Beth Sholom's Chevrah Keddisha is also an active part of their ritual component, and the congregation is moving toward the building of a mikvah that will be available to the entire Jewish community for ritual and conversion purposes. Alaska's first Chabad Center and only orthodox congregation, Shomrei Ohr of Anchorage was established in 1991 by Chabad emissaries Rabbi Yossi and Esther Greenberg. Three locations in the city are home to full daily and Shabbat worship services, Hebrew school, adult classes, library, preschool, cemetery, and a recently built mikvah. Chabad also has established a kosher section of a local supermarket, and intends to open a future community center that will additionally contain The Alaska Jewish Historical Museum, a culture and history archive. Original plans for opening the community center and museum by summer 2007 were postponed in March 2007 as a new location and grants for the complex are being sought. While in Anchorage, be sure to visit or stay at Adam Katzenberger's Long House Alaskan Hotel in Anchorage, a 54-room Alaskan family-owned and operated, newly-renovated hotel.
In the Wasilla area, an hour's drive north of Anchorage, Rabbi Abraham Garmaize directed the Mat-Su Jewish Center in Religious Services, Education and Social functions in Mat-Su Valley, according to his biography. He represented Temple Knesset Israel in the community at large, performing duties at various ceremonies in the area, but there is no evidence of an active congregation in Wasilla at this time. Garmaize, originally from Israel, served as Chaplain in the United States Air Force during the Vietnam Era. He has served as a Chaplain for the American Legion as well as American Veterans in the Mat-Su Valley. Additionally, the Anchorage Chabad Center and Congregation Beth Sholom serve Jewish residents of the Mat-Su Valley/Wasilla area.
Today, some 100 are served by the Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Juneau, which has for more than 35 years met at public locations and members' homes. In April 2004, the congregation purchased a former community center in the west of the city to serve as its new home for a future synagogue and Jewish school. Affiliated with the Union of Reform Congregations, JJC serves some 70 affiliated families with Shabbat, festivals, life-cycle events, and religious school. A student rabbi has visited them monthly, along with visits from rabbis from the Anchorage area. Friday night services are held in different members' homes. Jewish families in Juneau have been gathering for Shabbat, festivals, and life-cycle events since the 1960s. The community is young, with young children, and the population highly mobile. Over the past 15 years, there has been a complete turnover among Jewish residents. A rabbi from the lower 48 states joins them for the High Holy Days.
The small Jewish community in Ketchikan meets weekly for Shabbat services and other activities at the home of Steven Dulin, who imports kosher food from Seattle and runs a kosher bed and breakfast. A handful of Jews maintain orthodox homes and spend major holidays at the Chabad houses in Seattle or Anchorage. The group meeting at Dulin's home is usually a minyan, and when tourists are in town during the summer, Shabbat is a larger gathering. Ketchikan's former mayor, Bob Weinstein, is Jewish. When he completed his term as Ketchikan City Mayor in 2009, Weinstein had become the longest-serving mayor in the city's history, with 12 years in office.
The Yukon, Canada city of Whitehorse has a Jewish population of approximately 15-20. The Jewish President of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce is Rick Karp, who can be reached through the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.
It is common to see modern Jews involved in community, political life, philanthropy, and entrepreneurship throughout Alaska. The Gottstein family helped create the largest chain of supermarkets (Carr's), warehousing, freight, and wholesale grocery business in Alaska, Carr-Gottstein, operating 49 stores in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, the Kenai Peninsula and other Alaska communities. Anchorage attorney James B. Gottstein devotes much of his time to pro bono work with the Law Project for Psychiatric Rights and has devoted much time pro bono to mental health consumers in various matters in 25 years of active practice. Robert Gottstein is a member of Alaska's State Board of Education. Anchorage resident Rachel Landau Gottstein, who survived internment at three concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen, speaks on her experiences in the Holocaust. A historical plaque honors Isaac Bayless, a businessman in early Anchorage. The Goldsteins in Juneau and other areas of Alaska had a long tradition as traders and entrepreneurs. The Goldstein Building stands on the corner of Second and Seward as it has for much of the century (though it was rebuilt after a massive fire destroyed it in February 1939). Anchorage furrier David Green and his family are among the best known furriers in Alaska and active with the Chabad congregation. These of course, are just a few examples.
Alaska does not have a formal relationship with the state of Israel, but Israel is Alaska's 44th leading trade partner, importing some $313,000 worth of manufacturing goods from Alaska in 2003, with a total of just over $26 million worth of goods since 1991.Coincidentally -- though not directly connected with Alaska's Jewish history -- Alaska Airlines, the world's largest charter operator, became connected with Israel and the rescue of Yeminite Jews. The airline assisted in Operation Magic Carpet, the airlift of more than 40,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel from 1948-1950 through the efforts of Warren Metzger (Chief pilot and vice-president of Alaska Airlines flight operations) and his wife Marian Metzger, Alaska Airlines flight attendant. An incident on an Alaska Airlines flight of March 14, 2011 is ironic, considering the airline's long association with the Jewish community. An Alaska Airlines flight from Mexico to LA was placed on security alert after three Mexican Orthodox Jews began praying with tefillin, traditional prayer boxes wrapped around the arms and forehead. The flight attendants, unfamiliar with the prayer practice, locked down the cockpit and the men were taken into custody when the flight landed in L.A. AA later apologized for the incident, promising to incorporate awareness training of Orthodox Jewish religious practices and citing its Yeminite Jewish rescues in Operation Magic Carpet and its continuing policy of cultural and religious diversity.
1. Alaska Airlines (1998), Operation Magic Carpet. <http://www.alaskaair.com/www2/company/History/MagicCarpet.asp> (accessed 12/16/2004)
2. Alaska Commercial Company Archival Materials from the California State Historical Society, North Baker Library, San Francisco, Environmental History, Forest History Society and American Society for Environmental History, Duke University E-Archives, Durham, NC, August 2001.
3. Alaska Jewish Historical Museum of Anchorage. (accessed 10/20/2007)
4. Bloom, Jessie S. (1963), The Jews of Alaska (American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, OH, Vol. XV, No. 2, November 1963. pp. 97-116.
5. Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska, Anchorage. <http://www.chabad.org/centers/default.asp?AID=117927> (Accessed 12/26/2007)
6. Congregation Beth Sholom, Anchorage. <http://www.frozenchosen.org/> (Accessed 12/26/2007).
7. Congregation Or HaTzafon, Fairbanks. <http://www.mosquitonet.com/~orhatzafon/> (Accessed 12/10/2004).
8. Congregation Sukkat Shalom, Juneau. <http://www.sukkatshalomalaska.net/> (Accessed 12/26/2007 and 6/14/08)
8. Cooperation between Israel and the State of Alaska, Jewish Virtual Library, 2003. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/states/AK.html>
9. Glanz, Rudolph (1953), The Jews in American Alaska, 1867-1880 (H.H. Glanz, New York).
10. Gruber, Ruth (2002), Inside of Time: My Journey From Alaska to Israel, (Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York).
11. Juneau Jewish Community, Juneau. <formerly http://juneaujewishcommunity.org/> (accessed 12/16/2004 / site no longer active)
12. Kagan, Norman E (1999), Klondike Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project, American Jewish World, April 23, 1999. <http://www.jewish-history.com/WildWest/klondike.html>
13. Kiffer, Dave (2006), Weinstein Longest Serving Ketchikan Mayor, Stories In the News, Ketchikan, AK, November 29, 2006, <http://www.sitnews.us/Kiffer/KetchikanMayors/112906_ketchikan_mayors.html> (accessed 10/20/2007)
14. Kizzia, Tom (1999), Sanctuary: Alaska, the Nazis, and the Jews, Anchorage Daily News, May 16-19, 1999. <http://www.adn.com/adn/sanctuary/stories/T99051691.html> (accessed 12/16/2004)
15. Reisman, Bernard (1999), Alaskan Jews Discover the Last Frontier, Sander L. Gilman & Milton Shain, eds., Jewries at the Frontier, (University of Illinois Press, Urbana & Chicago, 1999).
16. Robert and Jessie Bloom Papers 1897-1980 Manuscript Collection No. 93 Inventory, Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.
17. Sidor, Tara (2004) Cedar Park Building to Become Juneau Jewish Center, Juneau Empire, April 8, 2004.
18. Steinacher, Sue and Graham, KJ (2000) Jewish History in Nome, Sue Steinacher, The Nome Nugget, 2000. <http://www.yukonalaska.com/Special/baylestorah.htm> (accessed 12/16/2004)
19. Ward, Dois (1997), Solomon Ripinsky, Alaska Visitor Information Center. <http://alaska.alaskan.com/docs/ripinsky.html> (accessed 12/16/2004)
Excerpts from additional articles are condensed below.
Jewish Demographics in Alaska
Alaskan Jews trying to connect, says study, by Tamar M. Sternthal, Boston Jewish Advocate
Cooperation Between Israel and the State of Alaska
Jewish identity stronger in Alaska, by Heather Camlot, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 26, 1996
Information ©by the sources above
Professor Bernard Reisman of Brandeis University and a leading expert on Alaskan Jewry, points out that Alaska "is not a Jewish wasteland." Releasing the results of his demographic study of Jews in Alaska in 1995, Reisman said the "key finding" disputes the popular assumption that being in a remote location fosters a disinterest in Judaism. In fact, he points out, being Jewish becomes of great importance. While Reisman's survey indicates a Jewish population of approximately 3,000 in the state, which would be about six-tenths of one percent of the state's population, more recent Chabad statistics indicate a presence of some 6,000 Jews, or approximately 1% of the total state's population -- a state that is one-fifth the size of the entire continental United States. Eighty-one percent of Alaska's Jews live in its three largest cities -- Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, and fully half of Alaska's Jews live in Anchorage.
Fully 42 percent of Alaskan Jews belong to synagogues -- two in Anchorage and one in Fairbanks -- compared with 27 percent in the lower 48, according to the study. Alaskan Jews also display a higher level of religious observance. While 70 percent of Alaskan Jews light Shabbat candles, only 32 percent do in the lower 48 states. And 91 percent in Alaska light Chanukah candles, compared with 63 percent in the lower 48.
The study, Life on the Frontier: The Jews of Alaska, also found that 46% of Alaskan Jews received seven or more years of Jewish education while only 39% in the contiguous states did. Reisman points out that Jewish consciousness might be raised by living in a frontier society. "They lean on the traditions and their fellow Jews," Reisman said. "That becomes their community. They serve for each other as surrogate family."
Reisman found that most Jews in Alaska are between the ages of 25 and 62 (62%), married (73%) and highly educated (54% completed graduate school). Some 53% of Alaskan Jews are women. Alaska's Jews listed employment opportunities, attractive lifestyle or natural environment as the reasons for their move. One problem for Alaska's Jews was the state's location. A majority -- 61% -- said being "too far from family" is a troubling aspect of life there.
"Rather than this move to Alaska being an expression of assimilation," he said, "the first thing that they do is try to connect up with other Jews. In fact, according to his study, the proportion of Alaskan Jews who identify as Jewish and observe Jewish customs is higher than in the Lower 48 states. Reisman said that Alaskan Jews have higher levels of observance than their counterparts across the country.
Only 6% of Alaska's Jewish community was born there. Most relocated from the Northeast, and almost half lived on the West Coast before moving to Alaska, primarily in the 1970s. Thus, Reisman attributes Alaskans' Jewish interest to the nature of a transplant population, vulnerable because of distance from family, harsh conditions and isolation. As a result, in small communities of 30 or so families, "conveners," or community leaders, organize regular get-togethers, especially on Jewish holidays. "What happens is being Jewish becomes more important to them because they are the people who become family."
He cited the case of one convener in Kenai, a small city on the southern point of the state. An intermarried woman educated at the Orthodox Flatbush Yeshiva in Brooklyn, she decided "to go someplace far away" to distance herself from her estranged family. At Passover, the woman "realized that she was feeling quite lonely," and placed an ad in the local newspaper. It read: "I may be the only Jew on the peninsula, but if there are other Jews out there interested in having a Seder, please call me." Seventeen individuals, all of them thinking they were the only Jews there, responded, Reisman recounted. The same phenomenon with different conveners occurred in at least 15 Alaskan towns, said Reisman. In addition to a sense of community, Alaskan Jews seek the "spiritual connection to have these family-like roots and opportunities to participate in religious practice," he noted.
Anchorage boasts a Reform synagogue and a Chabad House, and Fairbanks has a lay-run Reform temple. One emerging issue for Jews, however, is burial. The common solution in most towns, said Reisman, is to fence off a corner in public cemeteries for Jewish burials. While in the past the bodies of most Jewish residents of Alaska have been sent back to their former homes in the Lower 48, today's Jews opt for burial in Alaska, Reisman's questionnaire reveals. He called this trend "a sign of greater stability of community." Current Jewish cemeteries are now established in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
The intermarriage rate in Alaska is 53%, compared to 31% in other states, reported Reisman, noting that more of the gentile mates choose to become Jews than Jewish spouses choose to become gentiles. That choice, said Reisman, entails identification with, rather than conversion to, Judaism. He added that according to the NJPS study, intermarried couples in the Lower 48 swing the other way in terms of their religious identification.
For the religiously observant -- 3 percent of Alaska's Jewish population -- frozen kosher food is available through the Lubavitch congregation in Anchorage, which ships it in from Seattle. In addition, the Anchorage Lubavitch rabbi maintains a mikvah, a ritual bath, often considered to be the most essential religious establishment.
Alaska does not yet have a formal partnership with Israel; nevertheless, in 2000, Alaska exported about $1,067,347 worth of manufacturing goods to Israel. The total since 1991 is nearly $25 million. Israel now ranks as Alaska's 35th leading trade partner.
Jewish Alaskan Beginnings
Alaskan Jews a Rare Breed: Brandeis Professor Charts Jewish in 'Last Frontier,' by Michael Gelbwasser, Jewish Advocate, December 14, 1995
Chihuly: The Jerusalem Wall of Ice, by William Warmus, Artfocus magazine, Winter/Spring 2000
From Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska Surprisingly Jewish, by Lewis E. Lachter, MetroWest Jewish News, August 17, 1995
How Wyatt Earp Got Buried in a Jewish Cemetery, American Jewish Historical Society
It's a Small World: A New Batch of Chanukah Children's Books, by Sandee Brawarsky, Jewish Week, November 24, 1994
Robert and Jessie Bloom Papers 1897-1980 Manuscript Collection No. 93 Inventory, Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.
Information ©by the sources above
On the Bering Sea, Danish explore Vitus Bering in 1728 captained a Russian expedition to Alaska that eventually led to a permanent Russian presence in that corner of North America. The lure was furs, and Jewish fur trappers accompanied Bering and later figured in the Russian-American Company. One company manager (1850-53) was Nikolai Y. Rosenberg. In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to America for $7.2 million, or less than 2 cents per acre. In fact, Seward's very purchase of Alaska was the result of strenuous U.S. lobbying and Czarist negotiations sponsored by the Jewish merchants of San Francisco who had established trading relations with Russian Alaska. It was considered folly to many Americans then ... still unknown to all parties was Alaska's monumental mineral wealth - gold, silver, copper, zinc, coal, and oil.
In 1885, the first permanent Jewish settlers in Juneau were members of the Robert Goldstein family, who established a fur trading post and dealt in sable, beaver, marten, and mink. Dawson City was site of the first Jewish services in the Yukon in 1898, when about 40 people gathered to pray. In 1901, the Jews of Nome formed the first Jewish organization in Alaska, the Nome Hebrew Benevolent Society, the organization's members working primarily in shipping and retailing. Jews have had a presence in Juneau since the late 1800s. They came as peddlers and merchants, traveling far to new and growing communities to seek their fortunes and build a new life for themselves and their families. Juneau's first mayor was Jewish. The Gross Alaska Theater chain was founded by a Jew, and the 1914 Goldstein building on Seward street was built by an early Jewish merchant and used as the state's interim capital.
Jews have figured largely in Alaskan history. In addition to the ones who accompanied Vitus Bering on that first Russian expedition to Alaska, Jews were prominent during the Gold Rush. Stampeders, for example, usually traveled the 3,000-km. Yukon River on steamships operated by Lewis Gerstle's Steamboats. They also bought supplies from J.B. Gottstein's warehouses (Gottstein's remains one of the state's largest companies). The Gerstle River in North East Alaska is named after Lewis Gerstle, the San Francisco merchant who with Lewis Sloss purchased the Russian Trading Company and renamed it the Alaska Commercial Company, becoming a major provider of groceries and general merchandise for trappers, explorers and gold seekers, steamboat transportation, and financing of Alaskan mining ventures. These village stores became the center of community activities, serving as post office, community hall, courtroom, marriage parlor, funeral home, and safe haven for travelers, as well as the bank extending credit to trappers, miners, and fishermen.
Of the 20,000 gold-seekers who came to the Yukon in 1898, nearly 200 Jewish descendants lived in Dawson City. They informally and sporadically sought each other out to celebrate Jewish high holidays. In the fall of 1898, as the Jewish New Year approached, about 36 men met at Charles Rosener's store to celebrate the first evening's Rosh Hashanah services. As the word spread, the congregation was forced to rent the larger Yukon Order of Pioneers hall to accommodate newcomers. It was the first time a Jewish holiday was celebrated in the Yukon and it led to the formation of the Hebrew Congregation of Dawson. The Jewish cemetery was started four years later after the drowning of a young prospector from New York whose boat and cargo capsized in the rapids of the Fortymile River. As he had neither friends nor family in the area, the Jewish community took charge and petitioned Ottawa for a lot on the cemetery ridge, which became Beth Chaim (House of the Living) cemetery.
Around the turn of the century Nome also had a saloon called the Dexter, run by the legendary gunfighter Wyatt Earp. Earp's beloved wife, Josephine Sarah Marcus, was the child of observant immigrant German-Jewish parents from Brooklyn, New York. Moving to San Francisco when she was six years old, Josephine was exposed to the romance of the city's Gold Rush era. In 1879, her heart was won by Wyatt Earp, at that time a deputy U.S. marshal. The two married, their relationship lasting 50 years. Josephine's life is described in Pioneer Jews by Harriet and Fred Rochlin. Following the shoot-out at OK Corral, Josie and Wyatt led a restless life, moving around the West and relocating wherever new gold, silver, or copper mining boomtowns appeared. Thus, they invested in mines and real estate and operated the Dexter Saloon in Nome before relocating to Idaho, then returning to San Francisco, and eventually settling in Southern California. When Wyatt died in 1929 at the age of 81, he was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Colma, California. His wife was buried next to him in 1944.
Nome, of course, was one of the great Gold Rush boom towns. In the early 1900s, prospectors from played-out gold fields in Canada and Alaska streamed into Alaska, hopeful that the sinking of "one more hole" might compensate for years of back-breaking toil, miners so poor they had no provisions or capital with which to fund their mining operations. As quickly as they arrived, many newcomers departed. But wave after wave of new hopefuls streamed into Dawson, Nome, Anchorage, and Fairbanks, including a disproportionate number of Jews, lured by the prospects of business enterprise. These seasoned pioneers had time and experience on their side, and instead of retreating south when the Klondike gold waned, they chose to make permanent homes in the north.
In Dawson, a number of Jews, mostly Eastern European immigrants who were assisted by Pacific Jewish merchants, were among the merchants. Unwilling to relocate, American Jews, who established themselves during the earlier California and British Columbia Gold Rushes, extended credit to their newly arrived brethren who sought a new start.
Fairbanks' Jewish community was founded with the arrival of Lithuanian Jew Robert Bloom in 1904. Bloom ran a general store from 1906 to 1941 and was a leader of the Fairbanks Jewish Community for nearly half a century. In new Alaskan cities such as these, churches and synagogues were established, streets were laid out and named, and the numbers of residents grew. By autumn 1903, Fairbanks was home to 500 cabins housing 1,200 people who on Nov. 10, 1903, voted to incorporate the town. At its December meeting, the newly elected town council passed Ordinance No. 1 which let a contract for the establishment of a telephone system. Robert Bloom became the Yukon's first lay rabbi, having first moved to Dawson in 1897 where he helped establish the synagogue there. After a move to Seattle, he returned to Alaska in 1904, settling in Fairbanks and opening a hardware and general merchandise store. He was a charter member of Igloo No. 4, Pioneers of Alaska, a fraternal organization. He was a member of an advisory group that helped establish an Air Force base in Alaska and was a founder of what was later to become the University of Alaska, serving as member of the Board of Trustees of the U.A.'s forerunner, the Alaska Agriculture College and School of Mines from 1921 to 1925.
Eager to participate in this fresh start were women who also shared visions of a better life. Representing varied backgrounds and experiences, these women who came to Fairbanks first made homes, then many established themselves in income-producing ventures. Quickly their basic needs were met, and they extended their efforts to the community through benevolent service and cultural, social and political activities that influenced the quality of life in this new town. One such individual was Jessie Spiro Bloom, Robert's wife. The two met while he was in Dublin on vacation. Armed with youthful exuberance and anticipation, she left Ireland with her new husband in 1912 to settle in Fairbanks where she planned to establish a home and raise a family based on familiar European Orthodox Jewish traditions. Contentedly, Bloom immersed herself in homemaking, child rearing, youth activities and women's issues. As a former woman's suffrage advocate in London, she was well suited to lead Fairbanks women as they organized to win the vote in 1913. Later, while raising four daughters, she became a kindergarten teacher and established in 1918 the first kindergarten in the city of Fairbanks. Later she founded the first Girl Scout troop in Alaska. Together, the Blooms were co-founders of the Fairbanks Airplane Company and in 1925 Jessie became one of the first women in Alaska ever to ride in an airplane. Robert and Jessie were also very active in conservation efforts in Alaska, supporting efforts to set aside lands for wilderness preserves. The Blooms were very active in establishing and promoting the Jewish community in Alaska. Robert served as chairman of Alaska's Jewish Welfare Board and together, they served as unofficial chaplains for Jewish servicemen stationed in Alaska during World War II.
In response to the Jewish refugee crisis in the 1930s as a result of the Nazi occupation of Germany and Austria, a handful of Washington officials, including Harold Ickes, Minister of the Interior under President Franklin Roosevelt, attempted to find a way around America's strict immigration quotas in order to allow a certain number of refugees to settle in sparsely-populated Alaska, then only a territory. The first such proposal by U.S. Rep. Charles Buckley, D-NY, had come days after news of Kristallnacht stunned the world. Roosevelt quickly turned him down, fearful of the politics of bringing Jewish refugees into Alaska. Ickes, one of Roosevelt's closest advisors, received worldwide publicity when he announced he wanted to do something to help. But his suggestion met strong opposition from both Jews and non-Jews. Americans resented what they saw as competition for jobs from foreigners during the Great Depression. Hatred toward Jews was high and alarms about "international Jewish conspiracies" were heard openly across America from right-wing politicians and radio personalities.
The prevailing view in Alaska was strongly opposed to Jewish immigration for a variety of reasons, most of a provincial nature frightened by the thought of foreigners arriving in large numbers. While America debated the issue, the leader of the Jewish community in the town of Neustadt in central Germany wrote Washington in 1939 to make an urgent application for immigration to Alaska. One day after his letter arrived at the Department of the Interior, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. In March 1940, Roosevelt answered the letter, indicating that permission to immigrate to Alaska was still being considered. While Congress debated the worth of allowing Germans to enter Alaska in May 1940, the German army invaded France. The Alaska bill drew strong opposition from anti-immigration lobbies and Alaska's territorial legislature. The bill died in subcommittee, and the Jews of Neustadt succumbed to the Nazi Final Solution. The letters from Neustadt remain as part of a collection of documents in the National Archives about the Alaska immigration plan, one of the darker moments of Jewish history in America.
Before 1940, Alaska had barely more than 100 Jews. Jewish military chaplains arrived in 1941 and were the first rabbis to officiate in Alaska. The permanent civilian Jewish community grew out of the Fairbanks and Anchorage Armed Services Committee when discharged servicemen, as well as homesteaders and government personnel, began coming in substantial numbers. The first mayor of Anchorage was David Leopold, who was followed in that capacity some years later by another Jew, Zachary Loussac. Former territorial governor Ernest Gruening was elected one of Alaska's two senators when Alaska became a state in 1959. In 1964, Jay A. Rabinowitz was named to the Alaska Supreme Court. Even some Alaskan mountains (Ripinski, Neuberger, and Applebaum) are named after Jewish pioneers.
Until around 1970 this vast state was home to fewer than 200 Jews. Since then, the Jewish population has grown considerably, fed mostly by Jews moving north from California, Oregon, and Washington. A 1995 survey indicates a Jewish population of approximately 3,000 in the state, which would be about six-tenths of one percent of the state's population. More recent Chabad statistics indicate a presence of some 6,000 Jews, or approximately 1% of the total state's population. Eighty-one percent of Alaska's Jews live in its three largest cities -- Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, and fully half of Alaska's Jews live in Anchorage.
More and more younger families and Jewish singles are relocating to Alaska. Many Jews seek adventure after college or graduate school. For most of them, a year or so of living in Alaska becomes a discovery of the state as a place to live, work, and raise a family. The desire to connect to spiritual, ethical, and communal values of Judaism and build a strong Jewish community exists, no matter the size of the congregation or its location. More effort must be expended in these remote areas to provide a Jewish education for children, but a genuine desire for a synagogue and Jewish education allows their communities to grow and flourish.
Bernard Reisman's survey indicates that, in the last 20 years, more Jews have been moving to Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, and other rural areas where one would never expect them to live. Some 50% intermarry and some lose their Jewish identity. But most keep close to Judaism and are enriched by life as Jews amidst a great number of Christians. Alaskan Jews say they do not need to be living around other Jews for physical security and are not as dependent on Jewish neighborhoods for food and synagogues. Perhaps their willingness to settle in such remote areas is one manifestation of their ability to adapt to almost any situation. Alaskan Jews feel comfortable as Jews wherever they settle. They say it is a challenge to raise Jewish children in these isolated areas, but the inconvenience actually brings them closer to their faith.
Half the members of Reform congregation Beth Shalom in Anchorage are intermarried -- a high proportion having not converted. The state's capital of Juneau is home to some 300 Jews; a community leader indicates only a handful of couples in which both partners are Jewish. In smaller towns such as Sitka, Kenai, and Haines, all but one or two couples are intermarried, according to Reisman's demographic study. Conventional wisdom dictates that the state's Jewry will be totally assimilated and disappear in a couple of generations, but Reisman says this is not so. The number of Jews in Alaska is actually growing because in most cases the non-Jewish partner becomes Jewish, whether formally converted or not, and the children are raised as Jews. While in most locations where intermarriage is high the Jewish parent acquiesces to the non-Jewish faith, the opposite is true in Alaska. A larger percentage of non-Jewish spouses prefer to participate in Jewish ritual in Alaska. Whether or not they have formally converted, they identify themselves as Jews and their homes as Jewish.
While extremely individualistic, Alaskan Jews are interested in developing Jewish organizations.Bernard Reisman helped establish an advisory committee of leaders of Alaskan Jewish communities in 1993. An Anchorage resident was then developing the Alaskan Jewish Co-ordinating Council with the hope of bringing Jews the resources and materials they need for their communities and observances. The need to care for themselves is proving necessary, as the Council of Jewish Federations has indicated it cannot assist the Alaska community, as their needs are so great within the lower 48 states. A high mobility rate has threatened the Alaskan Jewish population growth. According to Reisman's survey, 74% of the approximately 3,000 Alaskan Jews in 1995 said they planned to leave the state within five years to relocate to warmer climates in the West. Thus, developing durable Jewish institutions in Alaska has been difficult.
Artists, writers, young Jewish professionals of all backgrounds living in Alaska and expressing Jewish experience with Alaskan culture. A recently-published Chanukah picture book called Northern Lights by Diana Cohen Conway describes a young Jewish girl's celebration of Chanukah in a Yupik Eskimo village in northern Alaska. Sara accompanies her father, a traveling doctor, on his rounds when a storm prevents them from returning home in time for the first night of Chanukah. While her father visits the clinic in the remote village, Sara waits with the pilot's Eskimo family, telling them the story of Chanukah. The elderly grandmother makes an improvised menorah from an old stone lamp that used to burn seal oil. The impromptu holiday celebration is backlit by the colorful skies of Quiryak, the Northern Lights.
Flutist/Vocalist/Composer Markus Bishko and his Alaskan Klezmer Band, who live in Wasilla on the outskirts of Anchorage, have performed Jewish traditional music in Alaska for about ten years and have released an album of klezmer music.
One encounters a number of Jews while driving and hiking through the state, many of them seeking areas that are not confining. They are tour guides, park rangers, hikers, and students. Some maintain orthodox lifestyles while in the bush, storing cans of food and leading a self-directed program of studies.
Chihuly: The Jerusalem Wall of Us
Information condensed from
Information ©2000 William Warmus, from ArtFocus Magazine, Winter/Spring 2000 issue
Dale Patrick Chihuly, the controversial glass, neon, and ice artist, brought ice from Alaska to Jerusalem in October 1999, linking the Jewish homeland with the last of the great American frontiers, and linking the Jews of Israel with those of Alaska.
Chihuly's Ice project, the Chihuly Jerusalem Wall of Ice, was inspired by a visit to Alaska several years before, when Chihuly delivered a lecture in which he displayed slides of a 1971 ice project. A member of the audience told Chihuly about an Alaskan source for incredibly pure and clear ice called Arctic Diamond that is used for ice sculptures. When Chihuly conceived the design for the ice wall in Jerusalem, which grew out of his desire to produce an artwork that might symbolize the thawing of tensions in the region, he immediately decided that the ice for the wall had to come from the source in Alaska. So the ice, quarried from its pond during the previous Alaskan winter, was shipped by rail and by barge to Tacoma, Washington, then again by rail across the American continent, where it was loaded aboard a ship bound for southern Italy, and transferred to a boat headed for Haifa, loaded onto trucks and finally craned into place outside the old city wall near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem.
Chihuly transformed the wall into an instantly venerable ruin. It had a commanding presence during the three days it took to melt, visible far across the city, and brightly lit throughout the night by a changing spectrum of colored spots. At first, people didn't know what it was, but soon large crowds gathered, and the wall acquired a cult status. Some took pieces of ice home to pray over for rain. Children collected and arranged ice shards on cardboard box tops and carried them up through the nearby Jaffa gate into the old city, displaying them like relics. By the second day, as the sun rose higher, the blocks began to fall, tier by tier with a musical tinkling sound as they fractured into thousands of shining fragments while viewers stood mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the Alaskan ice.
Modern Synagogues and Jewish Communities of Alaska
The Big Chill: Their Numbers are Low and Intermarriage is High, But Alaskan Jews are Retaining Their Heritage," by Tom Tugend, Baltimore Jewish Times, December 9, 1994
For Alaska Kids, Big Day on the Bimah Occurs in Summer, by Pearl Salkin, Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, June 15, 2001
Mikvah-Less in Alaska, by Harriet Gold Cabelly
Moose in the Mikvah is No Sweat for Alaskan Jews, by Sue Fishkoff, Jerusalem Post, June 8, 2001
Nome celebrates 100 years of Jewish history! By Sue Steinacher and KJ Graham
Information ©by the sources above
In 1974, Rabbi Israel Haber, a young Orthodox rabbi from New York City, was appointed the military chaplain at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage. He and his wife soon discovered that no mikvah existed anywhere nearby. The military graciously permitted construction on the base of a modest mikvah, consisting of a single unheated room. It was the first mikvah constructed on any U. S. military installation in the world, and was intended to serve both military and civilian Jewish people in the region.
Until June 2000, it did just that, and was used as well by observant Jewish tourists. That month, though, a decision was made by the Air Force to renovate the building housing the mikvah. Attempts to save the structure failed and the building, mikvah and all, was demolished. In order to use the mikvah monthly as prescribed by Jewish religious law, local mikvah-observant Jewish women had to undertake a nearly four-hour flight to Seattle, at a cost of over $500 a trip.
Rabbi Yosef Greenberg of the Chabad-Lubavitch Congregation Shomrei Ohr (Guardian of Light) of Anchorage, advocated tirelessly for a new mikvah. Land recently purchased by the local community was set aside for one, plans drawn up for its erection. The new mikvah will measure a mere 570 square feet, yet, due to the extremely high costs of construction in Alaska, the exorbitant expense of shipping materials, and the unusually short local building season, the costs of erecting and supplying utilities for the proposed structure will amount to approximately $300,000 according to the architect and engineers. Appeals were made to raise the funds to build the mikvah and a wonderful response has been received from Jews visiting Alaska and from Jews of the lower 48 states. Funds were raised and the mikveh was completed in 2003.
Since arriving in Anchorage in 1991, Chabad-Lubavitch's shluchim have generated a pre-school program, a Hebrew school, day camps and a shul. Special holiday awareness programs bring the Jewish community together around Jewish celebrations and traditions. Chabad Rabbi Yossi Greenberg and his wife Esty arrived in Anchorage in 1991 as newlyweds. Sent from Brooklyn as Chabad emissaries, they created Alaska's first Chabad Center. The Greenbergs offered Shabbat services in their basement for the congregation, the pre-existing observant minyan. Hebrew classes for children came next, along with adult classes in Judaism, a preschool, and holiday celebrations, including public parties for Chanukah and Purim that drew hundreds of participants and much local press.
Those who attend services at the Chabad are a diverse group, many unaffiliated, most non-Orthodox. Levels of observance are varied, but many Jews desire to connect with the Jewish community and find the Chabad congregation warm and welcoming. All Jews may attend Chabad services, the Passover seder, adult education classes, and preschool. Rabbi Greenberg maintains Orthodox ritual, allowing participation at the bimah only to halachic Jews and performing bar/bat mitzvah or wedding ceremonies for halachic Jews.
Rabbi Greenberg travels by car, plane, and puddle-jumper across the state in outreach to some 1,500 to 2,000 Jews living outside Anchorage, sometimes in remote outposts. The Greenbergs are now involved in a large building campaign, with the hope of completing within five years a $1.6 million synagogue, school, Jewish center, and kosher restaurant to serve visitors.
Reform Congregation Beth Sholom was established in 1958, with its new home, a sanctuary seating 400, dedicated in 1988. Its liturgy is aimed toward individuals from diverse Jewish backgrounds and actually leans toward more traditional ritual observance than found in most Reform synagogues. For most of its life, Beth Sholom was the only congregation in town and served both observant and non-observant Jews. A typical Friday evening includes an eclectic group of some 50 to 75 worshipers. These may include young back-packing Israelis, stateside Jewish tourists, and non-Jewish visitors. Beth Sholom has a membership of some 200 households, or 600 individuals. Beth Sholom runs a Sunday school for about 100 youngsters and a daytime pre-school and kindergarten with 30 children. The congregation is upscale with an estimated 60% involved in the legal profession, mainly as attorneys and judges. Potential immigrants from the lower 48 states are warned not to resettle without an assured job and some financial resources. Rents are high and the congregation is not yet set up to assist newcomers. Beth Sholom has occasional joint programs with the Lubavitch Congregation Shomrei Ohr.
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld arrived in Anchorage in 1984 after serving in Memphis, Tennessee. In addition to his work at Beth Sholom, he traveled through Alaska, working with congregations in Fairbanks, Juneau, and Kenai, and individual Jews in Bush Alaska. He also served as an adjunct professor of Alaska Pacific University and guest columnist for the Anchorage Daily News. Rabbi Rosenfeld was extremely active in the Alaska Human Services Community and numerous taskforces, forums, community boards, and organizations in Anchorage. In 1994, he was honored by the Alaska State Legislature for his community work against racism. Recently, Rabbi Rosenfeld left Congregation Beth Sholom to serve at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York.
Anchorage is also home to a Hadassah chapter, Anti-Defamation League chapter, and active outreach program to Jewish communities in Siberia. In 1994, Rabbi Rosenfeld and his congregation organized an Anne Frank exhibit at the Anchorage Museum of History that ran for a month and attracted more than 20,000 visitors.
Reform Congregation Or HaTzafon (Light of the North) of Fairbanks, the state's second largest city, serves a community of some 750 Jews and seeks a full-time rabbi. This most northernmost congregation in the United States is assisted by student rabbis each year. Margot Crowson served as student rabbi and spiritual leader of the congregation in 2000-2001.
During the year prior to bar or bat mitzvah, students are expected to attend all Shabbat services (unless there was a blizzard), lead a Shabbat service and Torah service, teach the congregation through a speech, sermon, midrash, or other acceptable format during the Torah service, as well as to compile a notebook full of answers to questions about Torah, holidays, prayer, life cycle events, and Jewish history. Typical bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah weekends here are comparable to those of communities throughout America. The celebrant leads the congregation in prayer, reads from Torah and Haftorah and delivers a commentary. Friday nights are followed by Oneg Shabbat; Shabbat mornings are followed by food and fun later, such as picnics, parties, receptions, and other celebrations.
Challah is often home-baked, although it can be purchased at a local, Jewish-owned bagel bakery. Havdalah services are more challenging, since the sun doesn't set until about 1 a.m. in the summer. Dawn is just an hour or so after sundown in July. On the opposite side of the calendar, a Fairbanks Shabbat in midwinter can begin at 2 p.m., but since the city is south of the Arctic Circle, it doesn't endure months of total darkness. The sun rises again the next day around 11 a.m. and Shabbat ends around 3 p.m.
Photo ©Congregation Or HaTzafon
Celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Nome Jewish Community
The third week of July 2000 brought the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the formation of the Nome Hebrew Congregation as well as a most special visitor. The Bayles Torah from Beth Shalom Synagogue in Anchorage, traveled to Nome to preside over a gathering of Jewish and friends of Alaskan Jewry on the shores of Nome. The Bayles Torah originally came to Nome with Sam Bayles. It was given to him by his father, Rabbi Afroim Hessel Bayles from Lithuania. Historian Dr. Norman Kagan of Minnesota was instrumental in making the celebration of the centennial anniversary of the most westerly and northern Jewish community ever.
Traditionally, a Torah is walked from one home to the next ... but the Bayles Torah came to Nome on Alaska Airlines. It had its own seat between Michael Silverbook and Jim Friedman who did the escort. As they disembarked the plane with Silverbook cradling the scroll, Dr. Kagan walked up to join them and the three men together spoke the Shema. The Torah was driven to town by limousine as Jim Freidman blew the Shofar when the Torah was lifted into the limo. The next day the Bayles Torah was walked from town to the shelter at the East Beach. There, more than a dozen locals and a few tourists joined the visiting Jews and heard the call of the shofar and the Shema. Mayor Leo Rasmussen expressed his appreciation to the organizers of the historic event. Dr. Kagan spoke of the experiences Jews from Eastern Europe and others had as they joined in the rush for gold. He also brought a mezuzah to present to the City. The mezuzah given to Nome was multi-colored and sent from Beth Hatefutsoth, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Israel. The claf inside was a gift of woman named Tamara who lives in the Ukraine, who has a great interest in learning what became of her great grand uncles who left for Nome at the turn of the century. It seems likely that the men were Boris and Samuel Magids who trapped and traded in the area from 1900 to 1940. In their honor and for any distant relatives she may have in Alaska, Tamara sent the claf. The sounds of the ocean, breezy air, and mining activities blended with the prayers that afternoon, just as when Sam Bayles stepped ashore at Nome in June of 1900 with the Torah in his arms. The dispersion of Jews from Russia had come full circle.
Congregation Sukkat Shalom (Reform), The Juneau Jewish Community (http://www.sukkatshalomalaska.net/) is Southeast Alaska's only synagogue. Over the years, the congregation has met and worshipped in residences, churches, community centers, schools, restaurants and private businesses, moving books and religious items from spot to spot to spot until 2004, when the community purchased new property and re-organized as Congregation Sukkat Shalom. From Juneau's earliest days, there has been a Jewish presence in the city, and many of the synagogue's members have roots in Juneau that extend back decades to a century. Recent arrivals make up a part of the community as well. Some 100 Jews live in Juneau. Services are led by lay members who have the hope of bringing a rabbi and meeting the needs of a larger Jewish community in the future. One of their goals was met in April 2004, when the congregation purchased a former community center in the west side of the city and renovated it as their new synagogue and school complex. Affiliated with the Union of Reform Congregations, CSS serves some 75 affiliated families with Shabbat, festivals, life-cycle events, and religious school. Student rabbis, visiting rabbis, and Anchorage-area rabbis have visited them to assist with their services, and a rabbi from the lower 48 states joins them for the High Holy Days. Services were held in different members' homes for Shabbat, holidays, and life-cycle events since the 1960s. The young community includes families with young children, and the population highly mobile. Over the past 20 years, there has been a complete turnover among Jewish residents. Communal observances have been added over the years as the congregation became more cohesive, with a Passover Seder, Chanukkah and Purim festivals, and Holocaust Memorial Day observances. A summer camp for kids is a recent addition. Juneau's resident Jews have limited contact with national Jewish organizations. The nearest Israeli consulate is in San Francisco. The nearest active Hadassah chapter is in Anchorage, 569 miles away. Juneau is surrounded by glaciers and can only be reached by plane or ship. In recent years, the Juneau community adopted a Russian-Jewish family and carried out a benefit for the family and for Operation Exodus, the United Jewish Appeal campaign to bring Russian immigrants to Israel.
Ketchikan: The small Jewish community of Ketchikan meets weekly for Shabbat services and other activities at the home of Steven Dulin, formerly from Israel, who imports kosher food from Seattle and runs a kosher bed and breakfast. A handful of Jews maintain orthodox homes and spend major holidays at the Chabad houses in Seattle or Anchorage. The group meeting at Dulin's home is usually a minyan, and when tourists are in town during the summer, Shabbat is a larger gathering. In the town with its many shops, the Frank Meisler Gallery at 619 Mission Street sells Jewish-themed sculpture, jewelry, and religious articles created by Meisler. Ketchikan's mayor, Bob Weinstein, is Jewish.
Whitehorse (Yukon/Canada) is a small city of 22,000 to 23,000, of whom some 15 to 20 are Jewish.
Klondike Jewish cemetery to be restored, by Peter Caulfield, Canadian Jewish News, June 26, 1998
Klondike Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project, American Jewish World, April 23, 1998
Long neglected cemetery revived, by Brigitte D. Parker, Yukon News, March 6, 1998
information ©1998 by sources above
On a ridge overlooking Dawson City lie the well-kept burial lots of the Catholics, Anglicans, Freemasons and the Yukon Order of Pioneers. Yet, unnoticed and hidden from view by overgrowth were the neglected and forgotten tombs of at least five Jewish pioneers. In the center of the wooded lot lay the broken overturned gateway, a rotting white-picket fence and the burial mounds of Jewish Beth Chaim (House of the Living) Cemetery. Established in 1902 by the Jewish Society of Dawson for the burial of Isaac Simons, a young prospector from New York who had drowned, the site had eight graves, but only one stone marker remained legible, the one for Samuel Packer, a Dawson merchant who died in 1918.
During his visit to Dawson City in 1995, Norman E. Kagan of St. Paul, Minnesota, came across the cemetery and thought it should be cleaned and restored. He has since been researching the identities of the dead and recruiting volunteers to restore the cemetery to its original condition. Locally, the project sparked great interest and led to the founding of the Jewish Historical Society of the Yukon, dedicated to researching and documenting the role of Jewish people during the Klondike Gold Rush. "It is a way for the community to gather closer together," explains Rick Karp, society member and owner of McDonald's. "Here is this cemetery lying there dormant and I feel personally that we have neglected our responsibilities. It is time already." Society president and co-founder Howard Kushner said that at the turn of the last century, Dawson City had 40,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in North America west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco. (The population of Dawson City today is just 1,500.)
The project got its official start in the American Jewish World newspaper, on October 24, 1997, when Dr. Norman E. Kagan began to publicize the need. A group of Whitehorse, Yukon, Jewish citizens heard that call, incorporated themselves as the "Jewish Historical Society of Yukon" in February, and successfully petitioned the government for oversight of the untitled cemetery land. With the financial support of the Canadian Jewish Congress, they hired local contractors to build picket fencing and a metal gateway and had it installed with the help of non-Jewish volunteers in Dawson. The Cemetery is being maintained by Dawson City resident Roger Mendelsohn, summer residents Ed and Star Jones, and other volunteers.
Of the 20,000 gold-seekers who came to the Yukon in 1898, nearly 200 Jewish descendants lived in Dawson City. They informally and sporadically sought each other out to celebrate Jewish high holidays. In the fall of 1898, as the Jewish New Year approached, about 36 men met at Charles Rosener's store to celebrate the first evening's Rosh Hashanah services.
As the word spread, the congregation was forced to rent the larger Yukon Order of Pioneers hall to accommodate newcomers. It was the first time a Jewish holiday was celebrated in the Yukon and it led to the formation of the Hebrew Congregation of Dawson. The Jewish cemetery was started four years later after the drowning of a young prospector from New York whose boat and cargo capsized in the rapids of the Fortymile River. As he had neither friends nor family in the area, the Jewish community took charge and petitioned Ottawa for a lot on the cemetery ridge.
The federal government answered 10 years later.
However, the Jewish community did not wait for an answer and buried Isaac Simons a month after his death in 1902. The ceremony was officiated by Robert Bloom, one of the Yukon's first lay rabbis. Another internment may have occurred following a fire which destroyed the Donovan Hotel in 1904. The ashes, bones and remains were found in the rented room of Harry Kaplan of San Francisco. It is believed that he may have been buried in the cemetery.
The lone gravestone in the cemetery belongs to Solomon (Samuel) Packer who died in 1918 at the age of 57. Born near Odessa, Russia, Packer emigrated in the late 1880s and was a respected Dawson merchant for 20 years. He apparently died of a stroke while bringing in wood for his office stove. On hearing of his father's death, Myer Packer who was living in Duluth, Minnesota, traveled to Dawson to manage his father's estate and have a proper gravestone placed at the tomb site. His dad, Solomon (born Aaron Yehudah ben Pekker in 1861 near Odessa in the Ukraine), had been the last remaining Jewish merchant from the old Klondike days. Myer had not seen his father in some time. In 1902, when the Yukon Jewish population was at its height, Myer and his older sister, Anne, had attended a year of grade school there, but returned to Minnesota afterwards to live with the family of their deceased mother, Elka Oreckovsky Packer. Anne died in her prime at 16 due to an illness, and now Sol had passed on due to a stroke or heart attack after the exertion of carrying in firewood. Sol was planning to leave the Yukon for retirement in Minnesota.
After six weeks in Dawson, Myer had completed all the necessary arrangements. Sol's home and business had been closed, and his body was buried in "Beth Chaim," the Jewish cemetery overlooking the town. His business partner, Harry Pinkiert of San Francisco, would return to Dawson one last time in the summer with a stone marker for his friend, and the Jewish presence in that far northwestern Canadian town would be forgotten. A YOOP symbol is visible on the marker, recognizing Packer's membership. "It is still there and quite recognizable," says Kagan. And what has become of the dutiful son? Myer Packer became a clerk in Duluth and stayed there with his wife Luella until 1930. Afterwards, no one knows. Some say he went to Alaska, or Seattle, or San Francisco.
A fourth death and burial was reported in the Dawson Daily News. Jacob Rosenfeldt, a clothier in Granville died in 1931. Some eight Jewish merchants are thought to be buried in Beth Chaim, but only five mounts exist side by side, and only the one in the middle is marked, the usual wooden markers placed on the others having rotted away.
As the gold rush moved west into Alaska, however, the Jewish community went with it and the cemetery, which had become known as "Jew Hill," was quickly forgotten, eventually falling into an advanced state of disrepair. From a nearby road, the cemetery appeared to be a small, unkempt wooded area. Lying adjacent to Beth Chaim Cemetery were the well-kept Roman Catholic, Anglican and Masons' graveyards. The Canadian Jewish Congress contributed $40,000 to finance the restoration and rededication ceremonies.
Plans called for clearing the overgrowth in the cemetery; repairing the original picket fence; making a path from the road to the cemetery site; researching the people who are buried in the cemetery and erecting proper markers over each grave; and, finally, rededicating the cemetery. Summer 1998 marked the 100th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush, and Dawson City commemorated its founding with numerous centennial events, of which the rededication was one. A cleanup was held between June 20 to July 4, 1998, and "Beth Chaim" was rededicated on August 22, 1998. Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray, who is Jewish, was the keynote speaker and guests from Vancouver to Toronto joined locals to commemorate the Yukon-led cleanup of this old, nearly forgotten testament to the wandering Jews of a century ago.
The society also hopes to find out what happened to the Jews who aren't buried in the Dawson City cemetery, who moved on as the gold rush wound down." The society already knows, for example, that Louis Brier moved to Vancouver and left a legacy which became the foundation of the Louis Brier Home for the Aged and Extended Care Hospital," Kushner said.
An archaeologist in Winnipeg with the Park Service did the early inventory of the Dawson City Cemetery. The cemetery is in sections based on religion. The cemetery itself, is located on the Dome, a hill just on the outskirts of the village and is never really closed. A new archway and picket fence was erected with the names of the interred individuals inscribed on two archway pillars. In addition, the center of the lot was cleared. Four aspen posts remain in the corner of the lot. This was to recreate a chupa, says Kagan.
"A chupa is a structure with four posts holding a wooden platform. It is used when a couple gets married and represented the coming together of people under one roof," explained Kagan, a historian from Minnesota. "In the cemetery, the roof will be the sky."