Alaskan Jews trying to connect, says study

WALTHAM, Mass. (JTA) — Contrary to popular opinion in the "Lower 48" states, Alaska "is not a Jewish wasteland," according to Professor Bernard Reisman of Brandeis University.

Releasing the results of his demographic study of Jews in Alaska, Reisman said the "key finding" undermines the popular assumption "that people who move to Alaska or similar [far-flung] locations," have little or no interest in Judaism.

Being Jewish becomes important, he said.

Reisman, who teaches Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis, has traveled to Alaska three times since he began studying the Jewish community there in 1994. He interviewed the 3,060 Jews whom he believes live in Alaska, a state one-fifth the size of the continental United States. Eighty-one percent of Alaska's Jews, he said, live in the three largest cities — Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.

"Rather than this move to Alaska being an expression of assimilation," he said, "the first thing that they do is try to connect up with other Jews.

"The proportion of [Alaskan Jews] who identify as Jewish and observe Jewish customs is higher than in the Lower 48," he continued.

Referring to his survey, which was largely a duplicate of the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990, Reisman said that in "all [areas] but one, Alaskan Jews have higher levels of observance" than their counterparts across the country. (The exception is the number of Jewish families that have a Christmas tree.)

Because only 15 percent of Alaska's Jewish community was born there, Reisman attributes Alaskans' Jewish interest to the nature of a transplant population, vulnerable because of distance from family, harsh conditions and isolation.

As a result, in small communities of 30 or so families, "conveners," or community leaders, organize regular get-togethers, especially on Jewish holidays, said Reisman. These gatherings become particularly essential because many non-Jews in Alaska form their social circles around their church, said Reisman, founding director of the Hornstein program in Jewish communal service at Brandeis.

"What happens is being Jewish becomes more important to them because they are the people who become family."

He cited the case of one convener in Kenai, a small city on the southern point of the state. An intermarried woman educated at the Orthodox Flatbush Yeshiva in Brooklyn, she decided "to go someplace far away" to distance herself from her estranged family.

At Passover, the woman "realized that she was feeling quite lonely," and placed an ad in the local newspaper. It read: "I may be the only Jew on the peninsula, but if there are other Jews out there interested in having a seder, please call me." Seventeen individuals, all of them thinking they were the only Jews there, responded, Reisman recounted.

"The same phenomenon with different conveners occurred in at least 15 Alaskan towns," said Reisman, who tried to establish a Jewish community council in Anchorage.

In addition to a sense of community, Alaskan Jews seek the "spiritual connection to have these family-like roots and opportunities to participate in religious practice," he noted.

Jews in Anchorage and Fairbanks have an easier time in that department, Reisman added. Anchorage boasts a Reform synagogue and a Chabad House, and Fairbanks has a lay-run Reform temple.

One emerging issue for Jews, however, is burial. The common solution in most towns, said Reisman, is to fence off a corner in public cemeteries for Jewish burials. While in the past the bodies of most Jewish residents of Alaska have been sent back to their former homes in the Lower 48, today's Jews opt for burial in Alaska, Reisman's questionnaire reveals. He called this trend "a sign of greater stability of community."

The intermarriage rate in Alaska is 53 percent, reported Reisman, noting that "more of the gentile mates choose to become Jews than Jewish [spouses] choose to become gentiles." That choice, said Reisman, entails identification with rather than conversion to Judaism. He added that according to the NJPS study, intermarried couples in the Lower 48 swing the other way in terms of their religious identification.

For the religiously observant — only 3 percent of Alaska's Jewish population — frozen kosher food is available through the Chabad rabbi, who ships it in from Seattle, said Reisman, director of the Fisher-Bernstein Institute for Leadership in Jewish Philanthropy.

In addition, the Anchorage Lubavitch rabbi maintains a mikvah, a ritual bath, often considered to be the most essential religious establishment.