Jews in Alaska
Alaska is our largest state. The United States occupies 3,537,000 square miles. Alaska is nearly one fifth of that area. It has 656,425 square miles. Those who think of Texas as big should consider that Texas has only 267,000 sq. miles and New York is 27th in size with only 54,000 square miles.
Because Alaska is 5,000 miles northwest of here and viewed as remote, many New York Jews are surprised that Alaska has any Jewish communities. The common prejudice is that Jews who moved to Alaska don’t want to be Jewish and seek to escape all Jewish contacts. The truth is otherwise.
The Jewish communities in Alaska are located in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Estimates place the Jewish community at 6,000 for the whole state. Of these, 42% belong to the three synagogues, two in Anchorage and one in Fairbanks. Only 27% of American Jews belong to synagogues. In all of America, only 32% of Jews light Shabbat candles. In Alaska, 70% of Jews do that. Ninety one percent of Alaskan Jews observe Chanuka. Only 63% of American Jews observe that festival.
Only 6% of Alaskan Jews were born there. The others are mainly from the northeast, of whom almost half lived on the west coast for some time before moving to Alaska. Because so few Jews have any family in Alaska, small groups of Jews in at least 15 towns convene for Jewish holy days, particularly Passover, and have Seder together.
Anchorage, with a population of about 260,000 people, has two synagogues and about 5,000 Jews. Six hundred Jews live in Fairbanks and three hundred live in Juneau. There is Temple Beth Shalom which is reformed, and Chabad Congregation Shomrei Ohr. Beth Shalom seats 400 worshippers. For sixteen years, from 1984 until 2000, Rabbi Harry L. Rosenfeld, now senior rabbi at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, was the rabbi at Beth Shalom in Anchorage. We visited Anchorage twice and had the good fortune of meeting Rabbi Rosenfeld there. Rabbi Rosenfeld had a distinguished career in Alaska. Listed in Who’s Who in American Religion, the City of Anchorage proclaimed October 1, 1994 Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld Day. That year the State Legislature passed a resolution honoring the rabbi for his ten years of service to the people of Alaska. Rabbi Frederick Wenger came from Salt Lake City Utah to act as interim Rabbi for three years and became an intricate part of the Congregation Beth Sholom family. In September of 2007 Congregation Beth Sholom hired Rabbi Michael Oblath as their new full time Rabbi. He has inspired and taught the CBS membership with enthusiasm since his arrival.
The first Jews came to Alaska in 1898 when some San Francisco fur traders settled in Dawson City. The Jewish steamboat operator Lewis Gerstle provided transportation to the Yukon river during the Gold Rush. The Gerstle River is named for him. In 1901 the Jews of Nome formed the Nome Hebrew Benevolent Society and in 1904 the Lithuanian immigrant Robert Bloom founded the Jewish community of Fairbanks. He ran a general store in Fairbanks until 1941. In 1920, the Jew David Leopold was elected mayor of Anchorage and Zachary Lusac became the second Jewish mayor.
The first governor and first senator of Alaska was Ernest Gruening. Gruening was a New York politician who had graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1907. He also had an M.D. from Harvard, which he earned in 1912. He practiced neither of these professions but became a journalist with the Boston American and other Boston newspapers. From 1920-1923 he was editor of The Nation and then became editor of The New York Post from1923-1933.
A veteran of the First World War, he entered politics and was appointed by Franklin Roosevelt as Director of the Division of Territories and Islands. Later he served as administrator of a Puerto Rican enterprise and became member of the Alaska International Highway Commission from 1938-1942. He had been appointed governor of the Territory of Alaska in 1939 and stayed in that position for 14 years. On three occasions Gruening was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. In 1958, he was elected to the United States Senate, although Alaska did not become a State until 1959. He remained a Senator for ten years. His legacy may be seen in a museum in Juneau. He was not re-nominated in 1968 and died in 1974.
*This article was written by Dr. Gerhard Falk and edited with current information by Michael Kaplan