Services start at 7:30 p.m. I usually don’t open the door until 7:15 p.m. Until that time on Friday the synagogue is still my home, and I am showering, getting ready and mentally preparing for leading services.
At 7 p.m. I get a knock on the door. Alaskan Jews are not prompt, so I know this is atypical. Luckily, this week I am ready early. I open the door, expecting that the congregant preparing the oneg will be on the other side. Instead, I see three Israeli men staring back at me. Two shorter and one taller, they form a triangle, ready to come inside.
Living in Alaska, one may not expect to encounter many Israelis passing through. But Alaska is known as the last place in the United States in which it is truly safe to hitchhike. Israelis seeking a post-army adventure travel all over the world. Often, they go to India or South America. Not infrequently they choose Alaska.
Here for my second summer, I am already accustomed to encountering young Israelis on journeys of self-discovery. Alaska’s expansive wilderness is an attraction to Israelis who live in a compact and small country. There is room here for solitude.
Congregation Or HaTzafon is the only synagogue in Fairbanks, and the northernmost in the Western Hemisphere. For Israelis, the experience of this Alaskan Reform synagogue must be like climbing a mountain and taking in unseen sights. Yet the draw is not its unfamiliarity but that it is recognizable, despite its novelty. (Many of the Israeli visitors hear about our synagogue at Pita Place, a local Israeli-owned establishment that, in my opinion, serves some of America’s best falafel.)
When the three Israeli men come inside, I show them into the sanctuary as I continue making last-minute preparations. Finally, I can chat with them briefly and hear about their trek through Denali National Park and their plans to go farther north.
Unfailingly Israelis are surprised by me, a woman, as the acting rabbi of the synagogue. Perhaps my youth and my being single are additional curiosities to them. They find the service unusual, with its mix of English and Hebrew, pauses for explanations, and the announcement of page numbers. Given the oddity of the experience for the Israelis, this time, as always, I ask, “It may be strange, but is it Jewish?” They invariably answer, “Absolutely.”
After making my rounds during oneg, I phone the handful of other Israelis in town. Enthusiastically, I inform them, “There are three Israelis here!” They come right over, exchange war stories and stay for coffee. We sit in the kitchen chatting. Finally, we call it a night and walk outside. Two of the visiting Israelis will drive back to their campsite. The third will walk back, sustaining his understanding of observing the Sabbath. This one asks if he can take my picture as I stand next to my car. I have already changed from my dress and kippah into jeans and a T-shirt. He snaps away.
I see the three Israelis one more time the next evening so they can purchase “Frozen Chosen” T-shirts. And then they are off on their next adventure.
When we receive Israeli visitors to our modest little synagogue, I’m pleased to give them a taste — often their first — of liberal Judaism. I feel like I’m an ambassador for a type of Judaism that they do not know. The fact that they have such an appetite for a warm and welcoming Jewish experience leads me to believe that many Israelis would embrace liberal Judaism if only they had more opportunities back home, where Orthodoxy remains dominant under law. And I’m always struck by the irony that they had to travel all the way to Alaska to broaden their Jewish horizons.
Elyssa Joy Auster serves as acting rabbi of Congregation Or HaTzafon in Fairbanks, Alaska. She is currently working toward her rabbinic ordination at Hebrew College in Massachusetts.