The Frozen Chosen

Alaska Jews Talk About Life on America's Last Frontier

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By Molly Arost Staub

Published August 06, 2012, issue of August 10, 2012.
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Lisa Busch is the executive director of Alaska’s Sitka Sound Science Center and an anchor of Sitka’s minuscule Jewish community, which numbers between 25 and 30 people. Still, Busch and other Jews in Sitka celebrate the Sabbath every Friday. They have had a Tot Shabbat group, make their own challah and gefilte fish on Passover, and occasionally listen to klezmer music by a local band, Almost Kosher.

Busch first came to Sitka in 1988 to work as a science journalist at the local public radio station KCAW. “I had always wanted to come to Alaska ever since I was a little girl,” said Busch, who grew up in Wilton, Conn. Although she says that Jews in Sitka “are like Jews everywhere” — active in business, concerned about education — there are clearly some differences: “As a Jew on the frontier, you’re probably going to be doing things that maybe typical Jews in New York aren’t going to be doing, like chopping your own firewood, hauling your own water and living without electricity. I did all those things.”

Busch’s husband, Davey Lubin, is also Jewish. He started out as a commercial fisherman and now runs a wildlife tour business based in Sitka. Their two daughters, ages 15 and 12, have attended Jewish summer camp in California and have seen a lot of Broadway shows with their grandmother, but they also have had a resolutely Alaskan childhood. “My oldest daughter had a bat mitzvah a couple of years ago,” Busch said, “and was given a one-of-a-kind bat mitzvah gift — a commercial fishing deckhand license — and I thought to myself ‘Not too many girls from Scarsdale get one of those.’” Busch’s daughter learned her Hebrew via Skype. A rabbi who is a family friend flew in to officiate, and locally-smoked salmon was part of the celebration.

Two years ago, Busch took over at the Science Center, a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization that has a hatchery, an aquarium, and a host of research and education programs. There she manages a staff of 10 (17 in the summer).

“There’s a lot of elbow room for one person to do something here. You can really make a difference, especially in small-town Alaska,” Busch said. “In a way, I think it’s ripe for Jews because it’s the land of opportunity. It’s definitely not for everyone.”–Ross Perlin

Ross Perlin was the Forverts’s China correspondent. His most recent book is “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy” (Verso, 2011).


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