Emily Newman, Intern, Jewish Press
This summer, I was given the opportunity by my aunt to go on the trip of a life time – an Alaskan cruise! We would be docking in several Alaskan ports (and even a Canadian one!), exploring glaciers, and observing the wildlife north of the border. Nothing could have made me more excited!
Not long after I was told I would be taken along on this journey, I was sitting in the office of Annette Van de Kamp-Wright (yes, your Jewish Press Editor extraordinaire!) and I jokingly made the statement – “I doubt there are any Jews in Alaska…!” Then she challenged me… she said: “Most people do not think of Jews in Nebraska either! Do some research!” All it took was a quick Google of Alaskan Jews on my phone for me to be humbled, for according to the Jewish Virtual Library there are an estimated 6,175 Jews in Alaska. The percentage of the Alaskan population that is Jewish is estimated at 0.84%. Both of these numbers exceed the estimations provided for Nebraska, which came in at 6,100 Jews with Jews making up only about 0.33% of the population. You can imagine my shock (and even the slight embarrassment at my assumption!)
Finding this information meant that as soon as I stepped foot on the cruise ship, I began to look for any Jewish connection I could find on my Alaskan trip. I even spent a few hours in the small library on board the ship doing some research… as it turns out, I did not even have to wait until our Holland America ship, the Amsterdam, dropped us off in our first Alaskan port in Juneau to find something! The ship librarian showed me a certificate that was awarded to the ship by the Jewish National Fund stating that “a tree had been planted in the hills of Jerusalem in commemoration of the inaugural call of the M.V Amsterdam, under the representation of A Rosenfeld Shipping Ltd. Port Agents in Israel.” This got me excited – there was the start of the connection I was looking for, the Jewish connection I would be trying to locate in Alaska. Although the ship itself has and will make many more routes throughout the world than merely those throughout Alaska, it was a start!
My next connection would be found just the next day, in our first stop in Juneau. After taking a helicopter ride through the snow-capped mountains to hike on a glacier, we found ourselves with some extra time to walk around the port before we re-boarded the ship. On our walk, I stopped into a jewelry store and immediately, the sales clerk asked where we were from. Taken aback at his abrupt curiosity, I told him we were from Nebraska. Then, yet again you can imagine my shock when he replied: “Wow! There are Jews in Nebraska?” I looked down and realized he was reacting to the Star of David I had forgotten I was wearing.
I could not help but laugh. I, as I can imagine all of Nebraskan Jews, have been on the receiving end of this statement before – but from a Jew in Juneau, Alaska? A place so remote that the only way to get there is to go by plane, helicopter, or boat? He shared in my laughter, for only we could understand the hilarity of the situation.
He told me that there is actually a Jewish presence in Juneau, although somewhat small (serving 35 families), at the Congregation of Sukkat Shalom. All you have to do is look at their webpage to envy the views they must see outside of their synagogue’s windows! And forget destination weddings… they offer destination Bar Mitzvahs!
Yet the most exciting connection I would come across, at least for me, would be in our stop in Sitka, Alaska. As soon as I stepped onto the main street by the harbor, I immediately shrieked to my aunt: “Hold on! I NEED to get a picture of that flag!” For above a large log cabin-style building, placed in the middle of several other flags, waved a proud Israeli flag.
I then went into one of the stores inside the log building. It was an international art gallery that imports art from all over the world, including Israel. The sales associate was able to point out several paintings that were up for purchase from varying Israeli artists (unfortunately, due to the nature of the art business, no photos were allowed…).
All of these experiences showed me that there is definitely a Jewish connection in Alaska, even if I spent a large amount of my trip aboard a cruise ship. These connections might have been only small encounters on a personal level, but they were there – and have been the inspiration for continued research. They provide proof that the Jewish people are diverse, and that there is no single “Jewish Lifestyle.” Although it might not fit the stereotypical model of what a Jewish life looks like, a stereotype I am sad to say that even I, as a Nebraska Jew, could not help but feed into on a certain level. Jews exist in many different cultures, from large cities to small towns, from New York City to Nebraska, and even to Alaska!
Here are some more fun facts about “Jewish Alaska,” according to Gabe Friedman for forward.com:
• Four mountain peaks in Alaska are named after Jews, including Mount Ripinsky for Solomon Ripinsky, a former mayor of Haines, Alaska, and Mount Neuberger for former Oregon Senator Richard Neuberger, who supported Alaskan statehood.
• The largest Jewish congregation in Alaska, Congregation Beth Sholom in Anchorage, calls Alaskan Jews the “frozen chosen.” (Its website is frozenchosen.org.)
• Western lawman Sheriff Wyatt Earp and his Jewish wife Josie ran a saloon in Nome.
• Russian-born Jew, Abe Spring was the first mayor of Fairbanks. In 1906, during a period of Russian pogroms, he proposed housing persecuted Russian Jews in Alaska. The plan was rejected by Congress.