When Rabbi Mendy and Chaya Greenberg moved into their new home on a quiet dirt road in Wasilla, Alaska, one week before the High Holidays, they received a different kind of welcome.
A crew of local residents—almost all of them not Jewish—descended upon their house to unpack boxes, sweep, clean and arrange furniture. In fact, with just hours left before the onset of Shabbat, they even purchased and set up a brand-new dining-room table around which the couple would celebrate the holy day.
Who is this group of helpful denizens, and why have they raised thousands of dollars and volunteered countless hours for a Jewish group?
The answer lies with Ruthann Crosby-Cleeves, a local chaplain who leads “ChessedAlaska,” an organization dedicated to teaching the Seven Noahide Laws—the universal values of the Torah—to non-Jewish people.
“Over the many years that I have known Rabbi Yosef and Esther Greenberg in Anchorage, I developed a tremendous appreciation for the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] and the sheer kindness that he lived and espoused,” says Crosby-Cleeves, who grew up in the Deep South to a family of mixed Jewish heritage. “After the end of my marriage of 26 years and my surviving a serious medical scare, the rabbi encouraged me to become a chaplain—to teach, guide and comfort others.”
After remarrying and settling in Wasilla, which lies in the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Valley in the southcentral part of the state, Crosby-Cleeves began sharing the Torah values of goodness and kindness she had learned in her time spent with Chabad.
Embracing their position as bnei Noach—non-Jewish admirers of Torah and the Jewish nation—the group grew, as more and more people were attracted by its staunch devotion to learning Torah values, and supporting Israel and the Jewish community in any way they could.
“It happened at one ‘Chessed Alaska’ board meeting that someone said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a rabbi right here in Wasilla whom we’d support in the tradition of Zebulon, who supported his learned brother Issachar?’ ” recalls Crosby-Cleeves.
“The very next morning, Rabbi Greenberg called me up and told me that he was mulling asking his son and daughter-in-law, Rabbi Mendy and Chaya Greenberg, to open a new Chabad center in Wasilla.
“We had our answer.”
‘There’s Been Tremendous Excitement’
The older Rabbi Greenberg says he recognized the need to form a Jewish presence in Wasilla after a group of Jews there weren’t able to attend Chabad’s communal seder this Passover in Anchorage, some 45 miles away. “After that, we began to seriously consider opening a center in Wasilla, which will serve the Jewish people living all over the Mat-Su Valley.”
While the Greenbergs’ primary focus will be within the Jewish community, the rabbi plans to teach Torah values and ethics at Crosby-Cleeves’ center.
“Our people are very motivated, and really want to do everything we can for the rabbi and his family with no thoughts of getting anything in exchanges,” she stresses. “They know they are not Jewish and simply want to do their part to help the Jewish people.”
In addition to giving of their time and expertise, the group has raised significant funds for the founding of the new center—$20,000 from a group of 75 people, remarkable considering that most of them are middle-class professionals or craftsmen.
The money donated by “Chessed Alaska” form a significant chunk of the fledgling Chabad center’s financial support.
While official numbers are hard to come by (there is no pre-existing Jewish infrastructure in the area), anecdotal evidence suggests that there are as many as 1,300 Jews living in the valley, of which between 300 and 500 live in and around Wasilla.
Rabbi Mendy Greenberg says that he and his wife have been delighted by the turnout at services over the High Holidays and Sukkot. “We’ve met quite a few new Jewish families and individuals, a number of whom found out about us after the local paper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, ran a spread on our new Mat-Su Valley Jewish Center,” says the rabbi. “There’s been tremendous excitement made all the more special since this year is a Hakhel year—a time of gathering, Jewish unity and Torah study.”
‘A Need for Something Local’
One person who’s recently walked through the Greenbergs’ door for the first time is Juneau native Andrew Miller.
“I pretty much fit the Alaska stereotype to a T: a young male living with my dog and working in construction,” says Miller, who learned about the new center from his brother; the two work together on a small, heavy-machinery business. “My mom is Jewish and my dad is Catholic; I first got involved in Judaism as a student in San Francisco. When I graduated, I took a fellowship with Hillel at Kent State University in Ohio, getting people involved in Jewish life on campus. Eventually, I followed a job back up here to Alaska. My brother told me that there was a Jewish group opening up in Wasilla. I looked into it and decided to drop in for the High Holidays.
“I had never been to Chabad before and was a bit apprehensive,” confides Miller, who lives in nearby Palmer. “But I stuck it out and had a wonderful long talk with Rabbi Mendy. He has some really good ideas.”
While celebrating Sukkot together, Miller and Greenberg have discussed beginning to study one-on-one. “For a long time, I’ve wanted to learn more about the different parts of Jewish prayer,” relates Miller. “The fact that he is willing to work with me on my level is just fantastic.”
His enthusiasm is mirrored by longtime resident Karen Mahoy, who has been an active participant in Chabad activities in Anchorage, Alaska, since its inception.
“I first met Rabbi Mendy when he was 19 months old,” she says with a laugh. “My kids went Hebrew school with the Greenbergs, and they went to the Chabad day camp together. I’ve watched him grow up.”
“I used to drive down to Anchorage for Sunday school for 10, 15 years, but we could not go for everything all the time,” says Mahoy, who grew up in Pittsburgh, where she first encountered Chabad.
“There is a real need out here for something local just for us. It will grow into something really huge. The turnout has already been exceeding expectations, and they’ve just begun.”