In 1939, Harold Ickes, President Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, proposed that four Alaskan locales play refuge to thousands of Europe’s fleeing Jews. Ickes’s idea -— which would become the premise for Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” — was later bucked by Roosevelt and by several prominent American Jewish organizations.
But over the years, Jews still made their way to the largest state in the union, forming a loose-knit community that today numbers at around 6,000 and call themselves the “frozen chosen.”
Many are ex-urbanites who enjoy the adventure to be found in the 49th state, and some even say that being in Alaska has heightened their attachment to their Jewish roots.
Anchorage is the seat of Alaska’s Jewish community, with 2,000 Jews, one mikveh, and two synagogues: Reform Congregation Beth Sholom and Shomrei Ohr, a Chabad Lubavitch congregation. Under the direction of Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, 47, Chabad has quickly grown in Anchorage. It has just built a new $5 million community center and has plans to open up a museum that will tell the story of Alaska’s Jewish ties.
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Greenberg, who was born in Russia and lived in Israel before moving to the United States, said that when he was choosing a place to move to work 20 years ago as a rabbi, he sought out a more challenging landscape. This, he said, was more in line with the vision of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of rebuilding a Jewish infrastructure for all Jews around the world, following the Holocaust.
“I was looking for a place where there was nothing, where I truly had to build everything from scratch,” Greenberg said. While there was already a reform synagogue, he said, there was nothing for Jews seeking to learn more about traditional Jewish observance.
“When I came to Anchorage, the rebbe said, ‘You should warm up Alaska,’” Greenberg said. “I blame global warming for that,” he added with a chuckle.
Greenberg said life in Anchorage has gone smoothly over the decades, and he has felt at home in the city. He is currently preparing for his daughter’s wedding, which will be the first Hasidic wedding in Anchorage. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan are on the guest list.
But living an observant life there is not without its challenges. Because of the long days in the summer and long nights in the winter, fasts and Sabbaths can either end in the middle of the day or at night, depending on the season. Eighteen-hour days can often lead to the Sabbath beginning and ending in the middle of the night. Greenberg said that while the congregants sometimes save the Havdalah service for Sunday morning, they often find themselves staying up until late hours during the summer, as their guests enjoy seeing the midnight sun.
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Even though they get a few more hours to prepare for the Sabbath on Friday evenings than those in the lower hemisphere, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are in better shape once the Sabbath begins.
“We still find ourselves rushing last minute before Shabbat… It is a universal Jewish problem,” Greenberg said.