ALASKA, state of the U.S. located in far northwest North America. Jews first came to Alaska in sizable numbers during the Gold Rush of the late 1890s, when they set up general merchandise stores, law offices and mining operations. After the Gold Rush subsided, some Jews remained in the cities. From the 1940s to the 1970s, most of the Jewish population consisted of military personnel. Due to construction of the Alaskan Pipeline in the mid-1970s and the resultant growth of the oil industry, the population grew. Subsequently, Alaska attracted Jews seeking a quieter lifestyle. From 1970 to 2001, the population increased dramatically, going from 190 to 3,400. Today, over three-quarters of the Jewish population resides in the three largest cities. Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau had populations of 1,600, 500 and 300, respectively, in 1994. Smaller communities exist in Sitka, Homer, Ketchikan, Soldotna, Kenai, Haines and Bethel.
The first Jews came to Alaska with the Russian explorer Vitus Bering. In the period of Russian rule, the Jews of Alaska were trappers and traders. In the 1850s and 1860s, San Francisco Jews developed extensive commercial ties with the Russian-American Company in Alaska, and many Jewish fur traders visited regularly. Shortly after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, Jewish traders, miners, fur dealers, and merchants arrived from San Francisco to probe the new territory.
Lewis Gerstle and Louis Sloss, San Francisco merchants, founded the Alaska Commercial Company in 1868. The company developed steamboat transportation and financed some of Alaska's first mining ventures.
As many as 200 Jews lived in the Klondike at the height of the gold rush. Dawson City, in the Yukon Territory, was site of the region's first Jewish services (1898). The small Jewish section of Klondike's cemetery Bet Chaim was established 1902 and later restored in 1998 through the efforts of the Jewish Historical Society of the Yukon. During the Nome gold boom of 1900, a Jewish congregation was initiated when some sixty Jews attended Rosh Ha-Shanah services. In 1901, the congregation established the state's first Jewish organization, the Hebrew Benevolent Society. The isolated community declined after WWI.
Polish immigrant Solomon Ripinsky arrived in 1884. His various occupations echo those of other Jewish pioneers: law clerk, teacher, trading post operator, postmaster, notary, lawyer, elected convention delegate, and U.S. Commissioner. Mt. Ripinsky in Haines is named for him.
The first Jewish settlers of Juneau were Robert Gottstein and his wife (1885). Their son Jacob came to Anchorage at its founding in 1915. He established a trading and warehouse business, the J.B. Gottstein Company, that later combined with Carr's Grocery to form Carr-Gottstein, Inc., at one time the largest private employer in Alaska.
In 1904, a group of fortune hunters and businessmen in Fairbanks organized a congregation and a year later acquired a cemetery that is still the only Jewish burial ground in Alaska. The congregation became Congregation Bikkur Cholim in 1908, holding services at the home of Lithuanian Jew Robert Bloom, a congregation founder who had arrived in the Klondike in 1898 and served as the Yukon's first lay rabbi for nearly half a century. He was chairman of Alaska's Jewish Welfare Board, instrumental in the establishment of an Air Force base in Alaska, a founder of the University of Alaska (1918) and a
Around Anchorage, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jewish chaplains at Elmendorf Air Force Base rotated tours of duty from the early 1940s to mid 1980s. Reform Congregation Beth Sholom was established in 1958 and its current synagogue built in 1982. From 1984 to 2000, Rabbi Harry L. Rosenfeld was Beth Sholom's rabbi. Alaska's first Chabad Center and only Orthodox congregation, Shomrei Ohr, was established in 1991 by Chabad emissaries Rabbi Yossi and Esty Greenberg.
In Juneau, the Reform Juneau Jewish Community (JJC) operates in public locations and members' homes. In 2004, the congregation purchased a former community center to serve as the home for a future synagogue and Jewish school.
From the time Jews first settled in Alaska, they have been prominent in political life. The first mayor of Anchorage was Leopold David; several years later Zachary Loussac served in the same capacity. In 1958, when Alaska was approved for statehood, Ernest *Gruening, a former territorial governor, was elected as a United States senator. From 1965 to 1997, Jay A. Rabinowitz was a justice on the Alaska Supreme Court, serving four terms as Chief Justice. Avrum M. Gross served as Attorney General from 1974 to 1980. Jews currently make up 5% of the State Legislature and the Anchorage Municipal Assembly.
The television drama "Northern Exposure" (1990–1995) featured a Jewish doctor, Joel Fleischman, among the inhabitants of a fictitious Alaskan town.
J.S. Bloom, "The Jews of Alaska," in: American Jewish Archives, 15:2 (1963), 97–116. R. Glanz, The Jews in American Alaska, 1867–1880 (1953); R. Gruber Inside of Time: My Journey From Alaska to Israel (2002); J. Katzen-Guthrie, "A Thriving Jewish Life on the Northern Frontier" (2004), at: www.joyfulnoise.net/JoyAlaska5.html; T.T. Kizzia, "Sanctuary: Alaska, the Nazis, and the Jews," in: Anchorage Daily News (May 16–19, 1999), at: www.adn.com/adn/sanctuary/stories/; B. Reisman and J.I. Reisman, Life on the Frontier: The Jews of Alaska (1995); S. Steinacher and K.J. Graham, "Jewish History in Nome," in: The Nome Nugget (2000), at: www.yukonalaska.com/Special/baylestorah.htm.
[Joy Katzen-Gutherie and
Joel Reisman (2nd ed.)]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.