As a Jewish Democrat, Ethan Berkowitz would seem the least likely candidate Alaskans would send to Congress. There are fewer than 3,500 Jews in the state today, and Republicans have a huge electoral advantage in registration and political power.
“Alaska is the end of the Diaspora,” said David Gottstein, Alaska chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Yet in a year in which candidates are trying to claim the mantle of “change” before a dissatisfied electorate, Berkowitz’s timing and message couldn’t be better. “My native friends always remind me it was ‘EskiMoses’ who led the frozen chosen,” quipped Berkowitz on a 30-degree day in Anchorage, referencing a nickname that the state’s Jews often use for themselves.
Polls show Berkowitz, a former state legislator, is leading 17-term Republican incumbent Rep. Don Young, who has been engulfed by ethics questions over whether he earmarked federal money to projects that benefited campaign contributors. The state’s oil-for-gifts scandal involving the oil industry and several top Alaskan leaders, including U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who is on trial in Washingotn, also has benefited Berkowitz.
Young, whose closest race in the last six years was a 17-point blowout, has become one of national Democrats’ top targets this election cycle. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is advertising in Alaska for the first time that anybody can recall. And Berkowitz has gone head-to-head raising money with Young, the powerful former House appropriations chairman who has steered millions of federal dollars to home state projects.
Despite their small numbers, Jews were often central players in Alaskan history before the territory became a state in 1959. Jewish fur merchants were influential in opening up commerce and helped persuade the American government to purchase the 586,000-square-mile area from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867. Jews were also involved in founding major institutions, such as the University of Alaska, according to the Alaska Jewish Historical Museum.
Although it’s been a while since a Jewish Alaskan has held a statewide position, several Jews have occupied significant public offices. Among them were Leopold David, Anchorage’s first mayor; Jay Rabonovitz, a former chief justice of the Alaskan State Supreme Court; and Ernest Gruening, a New York Jew who was appointed the first governor of Alaska when it was a territory and later was elected as one of the newly admitted state’s first two senators.
Like many Alaskans, Berkowitz came from somewhere else. “My story is not that different from a lot of people up here,” he told the Forward in a phone interview. “This is the way I think America should be. If you work hard, you can achieve whatever you want to achieve.”
The Harvard University graduate who earned a master’s degree at Cambridge University and a law degree from the University of California’s Hastings College of Law, first arrived in Alaska to clerk for a judge in 1990. He now has several businesses, including a renewable energy start-up.
He served 10 years in the state legislature, including eight as state House minority leader, where he proposed some of the earliest measures to invest in renewable and alternative energy. When first elected, he was the lone Jewish legislator. Later, when Jewish membership peaked at around six members, they formed what they jokingly referred to as the “yamulcaucus.” But besides joking about their common heritage, the Jewish lawmakers never found enough reason to meet formally.
Berkowitz is not affiliated with any of the state’s handful of synagogues and doesn’t consider himself very religious. Yet he’s close with Rabbi Yossi Greenberg of the Lubavitch Jewish Center in Anchorage and has clearly been influenced by Jewish traditions: he had a bar mitzvah, was married under a chuppah , and held a brit milah for his son, Noah. (He also has a daughter named Hannah.) “By heritage, it’s very much who I am,” he said.
He met his wife, Mara Kimmel, who is Jewish, in Alaska. “Everybody was always trying to set me up,” he said, noting that he and his wife actually met on their own.
“The heritage is important in terms of the quest for social justice and equal opportunity for all,” Berkowitz said. “You watch in this country how native people have been oppressed and discriminated against. That’s a story that resonates with me.”
If Berkowitz is elected, Greenberg predicts, “he would be a star, like Sarah Palin is a star, he will be a star in Congress.”
The comparison to Palin, who has enjoyed good relations with the state’s Jewish community, including Berkowitz, is perhaps ironic. If the ethics cloud over Young, Stevens and the state’s political establishment created the opportunity for Berkowitz to be competitive in the election, it was Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s selection of Palin that may threaten Berkowitz’s chances the most. She has helped fire up a Republican base demoralized by the scandals and a large Election Day turnout is expected to benefit Young.
Berkowitz and other Democrats insist the state is becoming “purple,” but statistics show that the 75,000 registered Democrats remain a minority among the 490,000 registered voters. There are more than 125,000 registered Republicans, and many of the remaining voters lean Republican.
Berkowitz’s faith has not been an issue in a campaign dominated by ethics, energy, health care, crime and Young’s demeanor, but some attacks have been interpreted as thinly veiled bigotry — including allegations that he was a rich Jew from California.
Berkowitz says his religion may be an issue for some voters, but he’s got bigger problems. “I suspect that the people who don’t like me because I’m Jewish don’t like me more because I’m a Democrat,” he said.