Moose in the mikvah is no sweat for Alaskan Jews

ANCHORAGE — It's cold, 23 to 28 degrees below zero on some days, with snow on the ground from October through May and only a few hours of sunlight at peak season. In summer, the days are so long that Shabbat doesn't end until Sunday morning. And it's far, far away, a three-hour flight to Vancouver, the nearest major city.

Living here is tough on anyone, but for observant Jews, the problems are even greater.

Alaska has less than 4,000 Jews, out of a population of just under a million. There's no Orthodox community. No mohel. No Jewish community center.

The hardest thing, says 31-year-old Esty Greenberg, is flying four hours to Seattle every month for the mikvah, or ritual bath. Esty is a rebbetzin, the wife of Alaska's only working rabbi.

There used to be a mikvah at the Elmendorf Air Force Base, just outside Anchorage, built in 1974 for the wife of a Jewish military chaplain. The Air Force demolished it in June 1999, with apologies, to expand its better-used chapel.

Esty and her husband Yossi, 35, arrived in Anchorage in 1991 as newlyweds, sent from Brooklyn by the Lubavitcher rebbe, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to set up Alaska's first Chabad Center. They're part of Chabad's international network of shluchim, or emissaries.

Alaska isn't as culturally foreign as, say, Katmandu, but it's still considered a Chabad "outpost." That's what it felt like at first to Detroit-born Esty and to Yossi, who grew up in Israel. Anchorage has one Reform congregation, Beth Sholom, which had a rabbi and a membership of 170 families when the Greenbergs arrived. It was the only other functioning synagogue when a small lay-led traditional congregation asked Chabad headquarters to send them a permanent rabbi and rebbetzin.

"No one else would go," Yossi says. "We came up here for a week, went hiking with the community and fell in love with the place."

The Greenbergs offered Shabbat services in their basement for Congregation Shomrei Ohr ("Guardians of the Light"), the pre-existing observant minyan. Hebrew classes for children came next, along with adult classes in Judaism, a preschool, and holiday celebrations, including public, blow-out parties for Chanukah and Purim that draw hundreds of participants and routinely make the front pages of the local newspaper.

The Greenbergs are incredibly busy. Their phone starts ringing at 7 a.m. and doesn't stop until midnight.

There are always pots of food moving from the stove to the refrigerator to the large dining room table, where someone is always sitting, ready to eat. By 7:15 a.m., Esty is dressed and out the door, running to the preschool she directs. She also leads the afternoon Talmud Torah and Sunday Hebrew school classes, still held in the family basement.

Yossi is also up early, but he spends much of the day on the phone and running to meetings, handling the administrative and fund-raising side of the operation. The Greenbergs' annual budget is about $150,000: The bulk comes from tuition for the preschool and summer camps, but other Chabad services, from weddings to Torah classes, are free.

That's often why people show up, especially the unaffiliated Jews who are Chabad's main targets. One evening, 10 men and women gather for the rabbi's weekly Torah class. This is not an Orthodox crowd, although some have moved toward greater observance.

Most are like Karen Greenberg (no relation to the rabbi), a 40-something medical-equipment saleswoman from New Jersey who moved to Anchorage in 1998.

She's wearing jeans, she dates and she drives to Yossi's services on Shabbat. She's also one of his major donors.

Though not particularly observant, Karen wanted to connect with the Jewish community here. So she picked up a phone book and called the two congregations listed. Yossi "called back himself and invited me to dinner," she says. "It was an easy choice."

Only 6 percent of Alaskan Jews are born in the state. The intermarriage rate is high, up to 90 percent in the rural areas. Fairbanks, a major city, is home to less than 600 Jews.

All Jews are welcome at Yossi's services, to his Passover table, in his adult education classes and in Esty's preschool. He will teach anyone who wants to learn, about Judaism and about Chassidic philosophy. He draws the line at ritual participation, which means only halachic Jews may go up to the bimah, and he'll only perform a bar or bat mitzvah or wedding for halachic Jews.

That's straight Orthodoxy, he explains, nothing to do with Chabad.

Anyway, since the Reform rabbi left for Buffalo, N.Y., a year ago, Yossi has been the only active rabbi in the state, which has 1,500 to 2,000 Jews living outside Anchorage, sometimes in remote outposts.

On any given day, Yossi may hop on a plane or jump in the car to head for "the bush." He flies to the Kenai Peninsula, 30 minutes southwest of Anchorage by puddle-jumper, to prepare a boy for his bar mitzvah. He drives an hour north to Wasila, a woodsy area in the Mat-Su Valley, to nail a mezuzah on the doorpost of a family home. While there, he shows the 15-year-old son how to put on tefillin. Never miss an opportunity!

The father isn't Jewish, but the mother wants her three children to have a Jewish education. She's been bringing them regularly to Chabad, sometimes sleeping over in Anchorage so the children can be on time for Sunday school or holiday celebrations.

"We have two choices," says Yossi. "We could ignore them, because the father is not Jewish. And then three souls are lost forever to Judaism. The other choice is to embrace them, because they are Jewish kids and their father is a wonderful human being. That way, we end up with three committed Jews."

The Greenbergs' approach is so successful that they're now engaged in a building campaign. They've bought an acre of land downtown, for $150,000. In five years, Yossi predicts, a $1.6 million synagogue, school and Jewish center will stand on the property. But their first priority is building a mikvah, which will cost about $250,000.

The seed money was planted almost two years ago, in the form of a check for $60,000 from philanthropist George Rohr, a major supporter of Chabad operations around the world. Then a visitor from New York heard Yossi talk about the need for a mikvah and invited the rabbi to speak to his home congregation. That netted another $25,000 for what is now called the "Emergency Mikvah Campaign."

Until the mikvah is completed, flying to Seattle beats the alternative. Last summer, Esty went to a nearby lake with a recent convert who wanted to perform her ritual immersion closer to home.

They went to the mikvah after nightfall, and night comes late in the summer. It was 11:30 p.m., the sun was just setting and the women began to disrobe.

Just as the other woman was about to plunge, naked, into the freezing-cold water, two baby moose leaped in before her. Their mother stood guard nearby as the animals frolicked. Esty and her somewhat shaken companion waited until the moose had cleared out, and then completed their ritual. It was their last midnight visit to the lake.

Still, says Esty, "This is nothing compared to what the shluchim in Russia go through. We have it easy."

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].