Synagogue in jeans Thats the Alaska way

Here in the Bay Area, it’s getting lighter. It’s no longer pitch-black outside when I drive home from the BART station. My dark winter mood is lifting, and I’m beginning to sense the possibility of spring.

That wasn’t the case for me on this day four years ago, as I awoke before dawn and trudged to my 10 a.m. investigative reporting class in near darkness. I could see the sun rising through the blinds as the class wore on, and when it was over I would hurry out of Bunnell Hall at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to catch a weak ray of sunshine before it set again in a few hours.

A month earlier I had packed whatever I could fit into two duffel bags and hopped a plane to Seattle, then to Anchorage, and into the heart of the Alaskan interior. Clutching my luggage in the airport, I searched the crowd until I spotted a smiling, friendly face.

It was Nina, a member of Fairbanks’ only synagogue, Or HaTzafon. She had come to pick me up.

I wasn’t a relative, or even a friend of a relative, or a friend of a friend. I was just some random girl who had called her a week earlier, told her I was coming to school in her city and asked how to get to the synagogue. Now she was taking care of me — just like a Jewish mother.

Nina took me out to dinner; she took me to buy pillows and towels. She explained why it felt like needles were pricking the inside of my nose when I breathed in the frigid air.

Although Alaska has a few synagogues, and maybe Jews aren’t such a novelty in the more cosmopolitan southern cities such as Anchorage and Juneau, saying you’re Jewish in Fairbanks almost always elicits an “Oh, I knew someone Jewish once.”

But being Jewish in Alaska wasn’t so difficult. Being a vegetarian, I didn’t need kosher meat (which was a good thing, because there wasn’t any). After requests from Or HaTzafon members, one local market added a small Manischewitz section, which came in handy during Passover — 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, I had Tam Tams.

To my surprise, I got more flack for being a big-city girl than for being Jewish. People were amazingly accommodating, such as the devout Catholic mother of my roommate, Rachael. I went on a day trip with Rachael’s family toward the end of Passover, and when the tailgate was opened and sandwiches distributed, her mother handed me deviled eggs and veggies.

“Rachael said there were some things you’re not eating this week … ” she said with concern in her voice.

“This is perfect,” I told her. I was touched that she would care, even if she had no idea what was going on.

Then there were the people at Or HaTzafon. For a little while, I was like a child to them. Synagogue members volunteered to pick me up for services. They invited me to Shabbat dinner and a seder. We talked youth groups and Purim carnivals.

You never would have guessed that we were at the northernmost synagogue in the world, and one of the most remote.

There are about 500 Jews in Fairbanks, and for the most part they are alone in a vast, frozen wilderness. They’re different from the East Coast Jews I grew up with — they wear jeans and flannel to services, build their own houses and send their kids to Hebrew school when it’s 30 degrees below zero.

But in an unfamiliar land, they were all familiar faces to me. For four months, they were the people who made me feel like I belonged in this strange country of kuspuks and Carhartts.

Back in my journalism class, the instructor was talking about an upcoming field trip. We’d be visiting sites important to the murder case we were investigating: where the victim was stabbed, where the killers had been hanging out and where they were convicted of murder and sentenced to hard time.

That last place was Fairbanks Superior Court, the seat of justice for the second-largest city in Alaska. It’s better known by its official name: the Rabinowitz Courthouse.

Rachel Freedenberg lives in Burlingame and is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected].