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Alaska: That Great Big Jewish Land

The 49th state was built by Jewish people, Jewish money and Jewish know-how. And although their numbers are small, Jews are still disproportionately prominent in commercial and public life.

In 1938, as the Nazis laid plans to annihilate European Jewry, a few desperate Jews dreamed of escaping to the other side of the world: Alaska. Joachim Hein, from Breslau, Germany, was one of many who wrote to the American Department of Interior for permission to immigrate to the vast northern territory with his wife, Anna, and daughter, Henny. “We shall in no way [be] a burden for the country,” he wrote in a letter now in the National Archives, “because we take our electric machines from here and furnish a manufacture in aprons and linen, like we have had here. But if this business is not agreeable to your Excellency, we are prepared to [do] every work.”

Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and a few others in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration liked the idea of resettling German Jews in Alaska. Despite the isolationist and anti-Jewish sentiments prevalent at the time, they proposed to establish “a haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and other areas in Europe where the Jews are subjected to oppressive restrictions.” According to Ickes’s diaries, President Roosevelt wanted to move 10,000 settlers to Alaska each year for five years, but only 10 percent would be Jewish “to avoid the undoubted criticism” the program would receive if it brought too many Jews into the country. With Ickes’s support, Interior Undersecretary Harold Slattery wrote a formal proposal titled “The Problem of Alaskan Development,” which became known as the Slattery Report. It emphasized economic-development benefits rather than humanitarian relief: The Jewish refugees, Ickes reasoned, would “open up opportunities in the industrial and professional fields now closed to the Jews in Germany.”

The proposal won few fans in the far north. Widow Emma de la Vergne in Fairbanks was one of those who thought it was a good idea. “Let the German-Jews come to Alaska if they want to. Alaska is a big country. Give them a chance,” she said when interviewed by the city’s Daily News-Miner. But most of her fellow Alaskans disagreed. “German Jews Unsuited for Alaska Settlers Is Prevailing View Here,” read the paper’s headline on November 21, 1938. A few days later, an editorial declared: “Alaska wants no misfits and none who are unprepared to make their way without becoming a burden upon the territory.” The mayor of Fairbanks compared the proposal to one that advocated turning Alaska into a penal colony.

The idea went nowhere. But fears that Jews would not be able to make it in Alaska were unfounded. Jews were among the earliest settlers of “the Last Frontier,” and had played a major role in putting it on the American map. “It’s because of the Jewish presence that Alaska was developed when it was,” says Alaska historian Patti Moss, who lives in Juneau, the state capital in southeastern Alaska. “The first banks: Jewish people. Railroads: Jewish financing. The first college: East Coast Jewish money. The entire infrastructure of Alaska was built by Jewish people, Jewish money and Jewish knowledge.”

In 1950, a statehood bill for Alaska passed the House by a 40-vote margin but was stonewalled in Senate committee hearings. Ernest Gruening, Alaska’s longest-serving territorial governor and most influential Jew, along with other Alaskan politicians—including Victor Fischer, one of the authors of Alaska’s constitution—lobbied on, and in April 1958, both houses of Congress finally passed a resolution of statehood for Alaska, which President Eisenhower signed into law in July of 1958. Alaskans elected Gruening, a Democrat, to the U.S. Senate the same year, and Alaska was admitted into the United States on January 3, 1959.

As soon as statehood passed, Ray Kula and his wife Bernice set off from Detroit in an old moving van plastered with signs reading “Alaska or Bust.” The couple was part of a group of Michigan “59ers,” as would-be Alaskan homesteaders drawn by the promise of free land were known. With the Kulas in the lead, the caravan of 17 cars, six house trailers and two cargo vans drove over packed snow and frozen rivers, accompanied by a reporter from The Detroit News. After assorted mishaps, the motley crew, which also included Ronald Jacobowitz, arrived in south central Alaska after a grueling 53 days. They were the first group of homesteaders to reach Alaska after statehood.

Other Jewish families also heeded the call of the new state, and throughout the next several decades the Jewish population grew, especially with the construction of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline in 1974, says Rabbi Joseph Greenberg of the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska, who is also the president of the Alaska Jewish Historical Museum and Cultural Center.

The most comprehensive demographic picture of Alaska’s Jews came in 1995, when Brandeis University Professor Bernard Reisman—a specialist in far-flung Jewish communities—published a study called “Life on the Frontier: The Jews of Alaska.” Reisman had expected to find the state’s Jews to be predominantly male, less educated, more blue-collar, more politically conservative and more alienated from Judaism than their counterparts nationally, a pattern in other small-population western states such as Idaho and Wyoming.

He found the opposite. Alaskan Jews, according to his findings, were much more educated than their Lower 48 counterparts. Fifty-four percent had at least some graduate school, compared to 25 percent of Lower 48 Jews and nine percent of the U.S. population as a whole. “Clearly, the Jews who have chosen to come to Alaska represent an unusually highly educated segment of American Jews,” he said in his study.

Although Alaska’s 6,000 Jews account for less than one percent of its population of over 700,000, they figure prominently in business and public life. Dominant professions, Reisman found, are education, law and journalism. At the time he did his study, he noted that a fifth of Alaska’s judges were Jewish—including state Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz. A few years ago, six of the 60 Alaska state legislators were Jewish, leading the House Democratic leader at the time, Ethan Berkowitz, to dub the group the “Yarmul-caucus.” Their native colleagues sometimes rib Jewish lawmakers for being members of another Alaska tribe. “My native friends always remind me that it was ‘EskiMoses’ who led the frozen chosen,” Berkowitz has joked.

Although a 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life ranked Alaskans among the least likely to identify with a religion, Reisman found that Alaska’s Jews identified powerfully with their religion. Alaskans’ high rate of intermarriage did not seem to dilute Jewish identity, as children of mixed marriages tended to be raised as Jews.

Alaska’s Jews are proud of their Jewish life. The major urban areas, where most Jews live, have their own synagogues. Anchorage, the metropolis with about 40 percent of the state’s residents, has two—the reform Congregation Beth Sholom, the state’s largest synagogue and home to Nome’s historic Bayles Torah, and the Orthodox Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska led by Rabbi Greenberg. Fairbanks’ Reform Congregation Or HaTzafon [Light of the North] is touted as the world’s farthest-north synagogue, located just 125 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

In more isolated Alaskan communities, Jews rely on rabbinical students or visiting rabbis, some of them military chaplains. And as fans of the 1990s television show Northern Exposure may remember, Dr. Joel Fleischman—who moved from New York to the small fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, in order to fulfill the terms of his student loan—was plagued by his inability to put together a minyan. How do real life Jews in small towns secure a minyan? It can be difficult, says Naomi King of Fairbanks’ Congregation Or HaTzafon, especially in the dead of winter when there are no tourists around. “We just ignore some of the rules,” she says. “We have to.”

Indeed, practicing Judaism in a northern latitude—be it in city or wilderness—poses a plethora of halachic problems. For example, when should Jews light Shabbat candles in the season of the midnight sun, or the “noon moon,” as the dark winter is dubbed? “It’s kind of like saying ‘how do you go to sleep when it’s light outside?’” says David Guttenberg, a Jewish state legislator from Fairbanks. “You just close your eyes and do it.”

Passover arrives around the spring equinox, a time when the sun lingers late in the western Alaska sky. The community seders held by the Lubavitch Jewish Center start at 8 p.m., says Rabbi Greenberg. But only after everyone has eaten and the sun starts slipping below the horizon, around 10 p.m., do celebrants break out the matzoh and crack open the Haggadah.

And how do Jews construct a proper sukkah, with an open ceiling to view the night sky, in a fall season susceptible to early snowfall? While some Alaskan stalwarts brave the cold, Anchorage’s Congregation Beth Sholom erects its sukkah indoors. The Lubavatich Jewish Center builds its outside, but seals it up tight and equips it with electricity and space heaters.

Les Gara, 48, came to Alaska in 1988 after graduating from Harvard Law School to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Rabinowitz. “I like to joke that I’m the Iraqi-Jew-who-lives-in-Alaska for the record book,” says Gara, who went on to become an assistant attorney general working on the state’s Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation, an attorney in private practice and an Anchorage business owner.

Today, the avid outdoorsman is a Democratic member of the Alaska State Legislature. Having grown up in foster care in New York City after his Iraqi-Jewish immigrant father was murdered in a robbery, he is a champion of Alaskan foster care children. In particular, he has sponsored legislation and organized programs to help young adults who age out of the system.

Alaska started out as a Democratic state, but for the last 30 years has been staunchly Republican. Nevertheless, most of the Jews who have gone into politics in Alaska are Democrats like Gara. Being Jewish, however, is a non-issue in a state so culturally diverse, he says. But another Jewish politician, Ethan Berkowitz, who served 10 years in the state House, was targeted by attacks that smacked of bigotry, according to a 2008 profile in The Forward. When he sought the Democratic nomination for governor, he was portrayed as a rich, effete Jew on a number of fake websites set up in his name.

The smear campaign didn’t stop Berkowitz from winning the nomination, although he lost the election. And he has not avoided mentioning his Judaism and its values in subsequent campaigns. “The heritage is important in terms of the quest for social justice and equal opportunity for all,” he said. “You watch in this country how native people have been oppressed and discriminated against. That’s a story that resonates with me.” But like Gara, Berkowitz dismisses suggestions that anti-Semitism plays a significant role in Alaskan politics. “I suspect that the people who don’t like me because I’m Jewish don’t like me more because I’m a Democrat.”

Republican Jay Ramras, a Fairbanks restaurant owner, agrees that “being Jewish isn’t a negative” in Alaska politics, but adds that “being a Christian is a positive in Republican primaries.” Ramras, who is known as “Jaybird” because of his chicken wing business, lost his 2010 bid to become the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

When he served in the state legislature, Ramras clashed with Governor Sarah Palin over oil policy. Among the revelations in Palin’s gubernatorial records, released in June through Alaska’s state open-records law, was that she had denigrated him in emails, referring to him once as “Jaybird-Nose.” Palin’s remarks, he says, show a “meanness and a vindictiveness” that reminds him of the seventh grade. But he is irked more by the large Star of David she sometimes wears around her neck. “That’s just one of her many peculiarities,” he says. “Do you know anyone else who does that?”

The 1939 plan to make Alaska a haven for Jews fleeing the Holocaust died a quiet death, but in 2007, writer Michael Chabon re-envisioned history in his novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which imagines what Alaska would be like had the plan had passed. “I wondered what the world would be like if most of its Jews lived in a place where people just sort of forgot about them and left them alone,” Chabon has said.

Sitka, in the Alaska Chabon dreams up, has “swollen to two million.” It is an Orthodox Jewish paradise, with a sea of black felt hats and headscarves filling an avenue on a Friday afternoon, while “boys careen down the sidewalks on in-line roller skates in a slipstream of scarves and sidelocks.” The economy is booming.

But even in Chabon’s alternate reality, brushed onto the broad canvas of the great northern land, there’s a catch. History plays out differently in yet another way: Despite the lobbying of Jews in the Lower 48, the U.S. Congress refuses to grant the territory statehood. “NO JEWLASKA, LAWMAKERS PROMISE,” ran the headline in Sitka’s Daily Times, in Chabon’s book.

2 Comments

  • 2. Unfortunate, but true. wrote:

    “I wondered what the world would be like if most of its Jews lived in a place where people just sort of forgot about them and left them alone,” Chabon has said.

    Sitka, in the Alaska Chabon dreams up, has “swollen to two million.” It is an Orthodox Jewish paradise, with a sea of black felt hats and headscarves filling an avenue on a Friday afternoon.”

    If ONLY. What you’d really get is Beit Shemesh.

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