Home Culture Travel In Alaska, a Jewish museum survives against the odds

In Alaska, a Jewish museum survives against the odds

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Historic objects from the Alaska Jewish Museum's exhibit on Operation Magic Carpet. (Michael Fraiman photo)

One day last fall, Rabbi Yosef Greenberg sat in the recording studio of a local Anchorage radio station, discussing Chabad’s annual Hanukkah celebration. Chabad was bringing African circus performers to the city’s Egan Center, a 45,000-sq ft venue, and expecting a crowd of more than 1,000.

But Rabbi Greenberg didn’t get to finish his interview. On average, Alaska withstands more than 30 earthquakes every day; most pass without anyone noticing. But on Nov. 30, at 8:29 a.m., everyone in Anchorage noticed. The 7.0-magnitude quake knocked down traffic lights, ruptured pipes and tore up highways across the region.

In the radio station, Rabbi Greenberg’s interviewer yelled at him to dive under the table. The ceiling shook and papers fell off the desk, but the tremor passed after 30 seconds, so they resumed their recording. A few minutes later, when a 5.7-magnitude aftershock cut them off again, the startled radio host cancelled the interview with hasty apologies and sent Rabbi Greenberg home.

He rushed to the Esformes Jewish Campus of Alaska, where his wife was working at their preschool. She was fine. The kids were fine. The building had a few dozen cracks, but no serious damage.

Then he walked over to the Alaska Jewish Museum next door. It didn’t fare nearly as well: whole exhibits fell from the walls, a model airplane smashed on the ground and historic papers flew into heaps on the floor.

“I was very devastated,” Rabbi Greenberg recalled, two months later, over tea. “It was scary to walk in. We were worried things would fall from the ceiling on our heads.”

The museum is Rabbi Greenberg’s 15-year brainchild. The Chabadnik moved to Anchorage in the early 1990s from Seattle (after living in New York, Israel and Moscow), deciding with his wife to start a Chabad movement in an unprecedented place.

Rabbi Yosef Greenberg at his Jewish campus (Michael Fraiman photo)

They began hosting holiday services and a preschool in their basement. After a decade of slow progress, they secured funding from Jewish philanthropists to build the campus, a hefty two-storey structure with tall beams and modest aesthetics, and money from the government for the museum, which looks like a shoebox by comparison.

“Even though it looks small from the outside, it is big on the inside,” Rabbi Greenberg assured me. He and the museum staff decided to close it for several months after the earthquake. It still isn’t open to the public (they’re planning to re-launch before Alaska’s tourist season kicks off in April), but he took me on a tour nonetheless.

Greeting visitors inside is a tiny gift shop – a gift vestibule, really, maybe two metres wide – where they sell T-shirts labelled “Alaska Kosher Salmon Run,” and colourful kippot with wolves, eagles and bears drawn by Jon Van Zyle, the official artist of the famous Iditarod dog sled race, whose wife is Jewish.

Alaskan kippot sporting art by Jon Van Zyle, the official artist of the famous Iditarod dog sled race. (Michael Fraiman photo)

The museum tells three stories. One is of Anchorage’s early influential Jews, such as Leopold David, the first mayor of Anchorage. Another details failed efforts to bring Jewish Holocaust refugees to develop Alaska.

The biggest exhibit, however, is about Operation Magic Carpet. In 1949, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee needed a charter airline to fly nearly 50,000 Yemenite Jews, mostly from the tip of the Arabian peninsula, to the newly formed State of Israel. They decided on Alaska Airlines, whose bush pilots were well suited to flying dangerous missions.

“I had no idea what I was getting into, absolutely none,” one of the three pilots recalled in an article now published on the Alaska Airlines website. “It was pretty much seat-of-the-pants flying in those days. Navigation was by dead reckoning and eyesight. Planes were getting shot at. The airport in Tel Aviv was getting bombed all the time. We had to put extra fuel tanks in the planes so we had the range to avoid landing in Arab territory.”

READ: THE TROUBLED PAST AND BRIGHT FUTURE OF BELGRADE’S JEWS

The Alaska Jewish Museum showcases Yemenite immigration documents and busted-up doors from the original aircraft hanging on the walls of its main room, surrounding a different exhibit – the Holocaust one – which is crammed in between. If Rabbi Greenberg weren’t escorting me, I would have had no clue where to begin; the three exhibits aren’t evenly divided between the three rooms.

He understands the problem. Shortly before the museum launched, he locked himself away for two weeks and thought up 80 possible exhibits. They opened with Operation Magic Carpet in 2011, adding the other two in 2012 and 2017.

That leaves no room for his next planned exhibit. In the mid-1800s, when Russia owned Alaska, Jewish fur traders in San Francisco were the first to hear that the cash-strapped Russian tsar was open to selling the territory. They went to the government with the hot tip, which ultimately resulted in the United States buying Alaska for just over $7 million – neither party realizing it contained bounties of gold, zinc and oil.

It’s a story whose natural home lies in the Alaska Jewish Museum. But where to fit it? There are three options: either remove some exhibits to make room for new ones, add a couple rooms to the existing structure or raise enough money to build a massive new building.

Obviously, Rabbi Greenberg is hoping for the last one. But first he needs donors.

“We need more space,” he said. “We have stories to tell.” After a pause, he gave a gentle shrug. “But right now, we need to rebuild.”