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(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a US state whose entire population is roughly equal to Tel Aviv's and whose capital cannot be reached by road, the small Jewish community has strengthened its roots with the planned construction of the Alaska Jewish Historical Museum.
"For the 16 years I've lived here, I was constantly invited to speak at schools, universities, everywhere," said Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, Anchorage's Chabad rabbi, who came up with the idea for the museum.
"Some years I was the only rabbi in Alaska, and even now there are only two rabbis in the whole state. So I represented Israel and all Jews" for Alaskans. "Then, after years of speaking, I came to the realization that the only way to make a difference and build a bridge with the non-Jewish community is to find a positive way to educate Alaska's kids" about the Jewish community and its contribution to Alaska.
Greenberg's Chabad synagogue is one of only three in the state. The other two are Reform congregations in Anchorage and Juneau.
Alaska's tiny Jewish community - estimates run from 3,000 to 5,000, with most living in Anchorage, the state's largest city - boasts that its contribution to the local community is historically out of proportion to its size. Residents cite examples such as Jay Rabinowitz, the beloved, influential late chief justice of Alaska's Supreme Court, and Leopold David, the first mayor of Anchorage.
Russian Jewish fur traders were some of the earliest Westerners in the area, and Jewish traders in San Francisco are said to have been the first to come up with the idea of purchasing Alaska from Russia in the mid-19th century.
The museum's exhibits will include one about Alaska Airlines's participation in bringing some 40,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel after the declaration of the state in 1948. "Alaska Airline pilots were bush pilots from the war," the Russian-born Israel-raised Greenberg said. "They were tough, flew in the worst conditions and worst places. So they could fly even under the danger of being shot at. They were looking for charters, for business, and one flight turned into many flights to bring all those people to Israel."
Greenberg hopes school districts will bring their kids to the museum, expected to open in the fall of 2009. The museum is part of a two-building campus that will also house Anchorage's Lubavitch Center, with a pre-school, Hebrew school and synagogue on the grounds.
Bringing Alaskans closer to Jews and Israel, Greenberg said, was no less important than in any other part of America: "In Alaska, we have the same two senators, and they're just as important as New York's two senators. They're good to Israel, but they get calls [from residents] asking, 'Why, what is the relationship between Alaska and Israel?
"When an Alaskan child will walk into a museum and see a replica of a plane that brought Yemenite Jews to Israel, and see a picture of the pilot, and an explanation why he did it, you'll immediately connect to the Alaskan child. Also, two million tourists come to Alaska each year."
"This will be a great kiddush hashem [sanctification of God's name] in Alaska and will affect the Jewish people," Greenberg said, and it will also affect the standing of the local community. "It's so hard to be the one Jewish kid in a whole school. If the public is exposed to Jewish culture, it will be much easier to say that a [school sports meet] on Yom Kippur should be changed."
The museum will cost an estimated $5 million. The state of Alaska gave $850,000 after the local community, through fund-raising and auctions, raised some $750,000. Chicago philanthropist Rabbi Morris Esformes pledged half the final amount.
Support from the wider community has also been forthcoming. At the mid-May reception announcing the establishment of the museum, the former and current mayors of Anchorage and the speaker of Alaska's state assembly were all present.