July 2015: A Rabbinic Revival in Jerusalem

The last time I was in Jerusalem was 2008.  Before then I was in Jerusalem at least every other year.  The place I hang out when I am in Jerusalem is the Shalom Hartman Institute in the neighborhood of Talbiyeh.    What I did for 10 days was study under the rubric of the Hartman’s Rabbinic Torah Study Institute, an annual gathering of over 150 rabbis from all over the world.    Rabbi David Hartman, Alav Hashalom, was the founder of the Institute.     in 1974 while I was on my junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem from UC Berkeley, I took his Jewish Philosophy class.  His passionate and incisive lectures on Jewish thought and philosophy was the most memorable experience of that year.    A Hartman opened up the world of Maimonides to a twenty year old and moved me to choose the rabbinate.   He imparted the vitality of Jewish tradition showing how Maimonides, in particular, was not only relevant to our times, but was required study to understand religion and human thought.    Hartman also had the unique ability to bring the legacy of Jewish thought to bear on the reality of a modern Israel and of Judaism in the post Holocaust world.

I returned to study with Rabbi Hartman as a young rabbi in the mid-80s at his newly established institute on Rachel Imeinu in the German Colony.  I was drawn back to the Institute year after year to study with him and the assemblage of great scholars who gathered around him.   The Institute grew and grew and now inhabits a beautiful and bustling campus in Talbiyeh in Jerusalem.    It was a joy for me to return to the Institute and resume my studies there after all too long an absence.

Rabbi Hartman and the Institute opened to me a way of learning and thinking that has had a decisive impact on my life.  Hartman had the unique ability to convey the debates of past ages and to show how the conversation continues in our own time.    Judah Halevy and Moses Maimonides continued to argue in his classroom and at his institute. Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai brought their ancient disputations in those halls.  These debates also foreshadowed new Mahlokot-debates emerging in  Israeli society and in the Diaspora.  David Hartman engaged in them fearlessly and enabled us to enter them and be transformed.

This summer our topic was Tzedek Umishpat, justice and righteousness.  These are two central ideas in Jewish religion and culture.  But the long history of their presence in Jewish literature requires looking at how these two concepts appear across Jewish thought and history.    Scholars delved into the use of these concepts within the Bible, in the Talmud and Midrash, in the Medieval philosophical and mystical traditions, and through the eyes of modern Israeli poets and writers.  These studies were not limited to the study hall, but were augmented by trips around the country that enabled us to see how social issues were being played out in Israeli society.

One thing is guaranteed at the Hartman Institute.  There is no whitewashing. There is no political correctness. There is disagreement; sometimes it is sharp.  There is no Jewish idea or figure who is left free of scrutiny or critical reflection.  The Institute models Jewish public discourse and overcomes the shouting match that wounds so much of contemporary Jewish communal life in the Diaspora and in Israel.   The Institute’s focus on fostering civil conversation and listening on Israel and other difficult topics was particularly timely in the wake of the emerging controversy over the Comprehensive Agreement with Iran.  All this was in the background while we plunged into the texts.

I will drop a few names of the scholars we studied with in the hope that you will seek out their writings or watch their presentations at the Hartman website.  Ruth Calderon, Melila Hellner, Micah Goodman, Yehuda Kurtzer, Moshe Halbertal, Israel Knoll, Rachel Korazin, and Donniel Hartman gave compelling presentations on the meaning of justice and righteousness in Judaism, often with strikingly critical and counter intuitive insights about how these concepts were understood at different times in our history.

One recurring theme of many of the lectures was the observation about the easy corruptibility of religious institutions and practices.   Worship of God falls into magic.  Ritual meticulousness supersedes ethical awareness.   The term tzedek umishpat, justice and righteousness, is deeply influenced by the prophetic critique of the misuse of Jewish power and religion.  This corruptibility is on vivid display in 1 Samuel, chapters 1-4 which describes the ascent of Samuel the Prophet and the decline of the priestly leadership in Shiloh.   Centuries later Jeremiah the Prophet, will go back to these incidents during the time of Samuel to describe how powerful religious institutions such as the Temple in Jerusalem slide into corruption and endanger the whole community.    One role of the concepts of tzedek umishpat is to help Jewish generations see failures of continuity and the demands of renewal and regeneration of Jewish culture and religion.

One insight I gained was that the role of the Rabbi is not so much to be an advocate for religion, but to carefully observe and point out when beloved religious traditions and practices lose connection to their original foundational meanings.    A rabbi functions as a sentry for his or her generation to preserve the centrality of justice and righteousness at the heart of the Torah.

It is now 40 years since I studied with David Hartman in Jerusalem.  In my adult life I have had the privilege of witnessing the momentous debates about the meaning of the establishment of the 3rd Jewish commonwealth.  Someone this summer made an apt observation about the historical significance of the gathering of rabbis and scholars at the Institute.

After the Second  Temple was destroyed in 70CE Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai gathered the surviving rabbis in the village of Yavneh to grapple with the meaning of Judaism without Jerusalem.   After the Six Day War in 1967 a scholar by the name of Rabbi David Hartman gathered rabbis  to grapple with the meaning of Judaism with Jerusalem.

The excitement and intensity of being at the Hartman Institute is to grasp this historical continuity of three thousand years  and to understand and confront the challenges of our own generation.  It has been a great privilege to participate in this endeavor and be a witness to history.

Who Will be Serene and Who Will be Troubled?

Who Will be Serene and Who Will be Troubled?

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Rosh Hashannah, Or Hatzafon, Fairbanks, Alaska



At the height of the most dramatic and intense prayer of these Days of Awe, Unetaneh Tokef, we chant a litany of fateful dyads-“who shall live and who shall die.” This list of existential junctures is a record of anxieties of our ancestors. It provides us a glimpse into their lives, their yearnings, and their dreads. Three of the dyads out of twelve attract my attention tonight.

Who will be at peace and who will be troubled? מי ינוח ומי ינוע

Who will be serene and who will be disturbed? מי ישקיט ומי יטרף

Who will be tranquil and who will be tormented? ומי ישלו ומי יתיסר

These dyads focus on an ancient fear-the fear of what we call today, mental illness. There was no word for mental illness in antiquity. Like the fear of death, the fear of falling sick to mental anguish and suffering is part of our reality, just as it was for them. While we know much more about mental illness than our ancestors, we have, like them, found no cure.

We lost the greatest living comic of our generation a few months ago due to suicide as a result of mental illness. Can you imagine how Robin Williams suffered? We ask ourselves how a person who had fame, fortune, admiration from his peers, a loving family, and access to the best of the best health care could take his own life?   Mental illness remains one of the enduring mysteries of human existence.

Mental Illness is a part of my reality. I lost a brother to suicide. I have a brother who lives with bipolar. I am a parent of a child living with bipolar. Ever since his early adolescence, our son has suffered from serious mental illness. It started to manifest with severe mood swings. It progressed to obsessive thoughts. It worsened with the appearance of severe depression, self-injury, and a full blown eating disorder. By high school he was missing semesters due to hospitalizations and extended time in psych units and a stay at a residential program in Idaho.

Our son is very gifted. Despite these setbacks he completed high school with honors and gained acceptance to a top university. But his illness continued to disrupt his studies with intermittent hospital stays and medical leave. Now at 28 and a graduate student, he continues to improve how he handles his illness. He takes his meds. He has assembled a strong mental health support system. He has a loving wife and a loving family who are his allies. But there is no cure for bipolar illness. It can only be managed with medication and healthy life choices.

Mental Illness is a family condition. Anyone here who has cared for a loved one living with mental illness or lives with a mental illness knows that it completely changes family dynamics. During an episode of serious mental illness a person loses much of her capacity to handle basic daily life skills. Even for a teenager or an older adult, a psychotic episode pushes her back into a dependency on family members. Mental illnesses are chronic illnesses. Listen to a few startling facts about mental illness in America gathered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

  • One in four adults−approximately 61.5million Americans−experiences mental illness in a given year. One in 17−about 13.6 million−lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.
  • Approximately 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year. For ages 8 to 15, the estimate is 13 percent.
  • One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14; three-quarters by age 24. Despite effective treatment, there are long delays−sometimes decades−between the first appearance of symptoms and when people get help.
  • Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. (more common than homicide) and the third leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24 years. More than 90 percent of those who die by suicide had one or more mental disorders.
  • Although military members comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, veterans represent 20 percent of suicides nationally. Each day, about 22 veterans die from suicide.[i]

Two years ago after a 30 year career as a pulpit rabbi, I became the director for the Juneau affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-known as NAMI. NAMI is the largest grassroots organization supporting, educating and advocating on behalf of those living with mental illness and their families. Working for NAMI has opened my eyes about the pervasiveness and devastating impacts of mental illness. Working for NAMI has also helped me become a better rabbi and human being.

When my son started getting ill seventeen years ago I was a congregational rabbi in Seattle serving a congregation of 450 families.   Looking back, I did not know how to face this issue with my congregation. I assume that those who were more involved knew that something was wrong, but we kept mum on how serious it was. My son was afraid of disclosing for fear of stigma and he isolated himself, a tendency common for people living with mental illness. We tried to keep our worry and concern hidden from almost everyone.

So we soldiered on. Years have passed and now I am a professional advocate for those living with mental illness including my son. It took me 17 years to give this sermon.

Our Jewish religious tradition and culture has a complex relationship to mental health. We know about biblical figures who suffered from mental illness such as King Saul or Samson.  In rabbinic Jewish culture the word for someone with a mental disability is Shoteh. Words like Shoteh carry a cluster of meanings. The word Shoteh could describe someone suffering from profound mental illness or a person who is intellectually disabled. Shoteh in rabbinic literature can also mean fool, an idolater, or a child savant with prophetic gifts.

The Shoteh in rabbinic law was legally stigmatized. Shoteh is often listed in rabbinic literature with deaf-mutes and minors. A Shoteh, like these two other statuses, was exempted from the observance of the commandments and of representing the community in any form including serving as a prayer leader.   According to the rabbis these categories of persons lacked the capacity for Da’at-discernment, a complex rabbinic term for the capacity of basic reasoning and decision making. [ii]

But a Shoteh I am talking about, a mentally troubled person, could regain a normative legal status if he recovered his senses. It seems that the ancients also recognized like we do today that mental illness can be episodic.

Rabbinic tradition also has bequeathed to us blessings for saying when we encounter someone with a physical or mental disability.   If you encounter a person who was born with a mental disability such as Down syndrome you would say, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe who creates such varied creatures.” However, when you encounter someone with a late onset disability such as an injury or an illness, you say the same blessing we say upon hearing of a death. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, the True judge.” Judith Abrams, a scholar on the topic of disability in Judaism comments that the choice of two blessings reflect the view that disability is either one of a number of normal conditions which people or born into or if the condition is later onset, it must be a punishment or an act of God. Since mental illness generally becomes apparent in late childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, the dayan emet blessing would be said according to this source. The implication of mental illness as a punitive act of God makes this morally and theologically troubling. [iii]

Furthermore rabbinic law stigmatized suicide which we know today is most often tied to serious mental illness. The victim of suicide was to be buried outside the community cemetery.

Most rabbis in our times recognize suicide as a result of despair and illness and not an intentional act against God.   The practice of burying a suicide outside the Jewish cemetery has been long discontinued in most Jewish communities.

While some of the ancient sources about mental illness and disability are distressing, there is another aspect of our culture and tradition that has courageously faced this issue. It is interesting then that many of the pioneers of understanding mental health and brain science in the past couple of centuries are Jews such as Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, and the Nobel Prize winning brain scientist, Eric Candell. One of the key insights of these scientists and theorists of modernity is that mental illness is a brain disorder, that it is treatable, and that the terrible stigma found across cultures about mental conditions needs to be fought and vanquished.

Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox Judaism have made major reforms in removing stigma about mental illness including ending of the practice of stigmatizing the victim of suicide, mandating the need for treatment, and portraying God as compassionate and seeking the welfare of those who suffer from mental illness. After all, the Torah also commands that we are not to curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. (Leviticus 19) The Rabbis did not interpret this verse narrowly, but extended it beyond “blindness” and “deafness” to any limiting condition that humans suffer from. We are not to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of those living with mental illness. Rather we are required by tradition and contemporary moral awareness to extend compassion, hope, and access to healing and recovery to those who suffer.

Because of the stigma of mental illness, there are many more who suffer than we know about. Within congregations, there are many who suffer silently these potentially devastating illnesses. Someone aptly called mental illness the no casserole illness. When people get cancer or suffer a major injury the congregation mobilizes to bring food to the sick person and his family. But for various reasons those who live with mental illness and their families suffer in isolation, sometimes of their own choosing as was the case with our family or due to stigma about mental illness within a congregation.

I speak about this openly with the hope of reducing stigma and increasing hope for those among us who live with mental illness and those family members and friends present who are helping them.

Here are some things that you can do.

Get involved in your local NAMI to advocate for better mental health services in the Fairbanks area and in the state of Alaska. NAMI Alaska is also is ready to train volunteers who are family members or persons living with a mental illness to become peer teachers for their excellent peer driven courses and support groups. If you are one of these people, volunteer.  It’s a mitzvah.

Take mental health first aid training when it is offered here in Fairbanks to learn more about how to recognize mental illness and suicidal signs and to help a person who is suffering a mental breakdown.

Make sure that your synagogue is not only responsive to those who suffer physical illness, but also responsive to those who are struggling with mental illness and their families who are trying to care for them. Make sure your caring casseroles are available for all.

I remember many years ago when my son was hospitalized in one of the more severe depressive episodes. He was so sick and in such pain, that I hardly recognized him. At the absolutely worst moment, one of the aides saw my distress on my face and took me aside. He told me, “It will not always be like this. He will find a way out of this.” I will always remember those words of hope and encouragement.

That is what we should do, provide hope, support, and encouragement for those we know who face this enormous challenge.   As it says at the end of ‘Unetaneh Tokef’. “Teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedaka maavirin et roa hagezera”. I translate it here to mean, “by turning toward, by advocating, and by generous righteous and caring acts we diminish the severity of the decree.”   We have the power to make a difference and bring hope to those who suffer.




[i] From the NAMI Fact Sheet, “About Mental Illness”

[ii] From Judith Abrams, Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli, Chapter 6.

[iii] Abrams, p. 118-119

In Memory of Sandra Gelber


Joanne, my wife, and I met Sandra Gelber soon after we moved to Juneau. Sandra moved from Sitka to work as a physical therapist at Bartlett Hospital. She came to a service and introduced herself. She signed up for the Hebrew class I offered in the fall of 2011. From there a friendship developed. Sandra already had a strong identity as a Jew from their years in Sitka. In Juneau she hoped to find more connection. She found meaning in the woman’s Rosh Hodesh group. She aspired to have an adult Bat Mitzvah.


Sandra’s first love was the outdoors. In Alaska she found the setting for her tremendous and seemingly endless energy. At the hospital they called her a hummingbird. In her excitement to do things outdoors, she would hover from one activity to the next. She was always ready to move outside during any season. Her feet held the conveyances of her passions, a snowboard, a cross-country sky, a hiking boot, a water sandal, a biking shoe. Joanne would always smile when she saw Sandra’s bike parked in front of the emergency room every day regardless of wind, or snow, or heavy rain with a few sunny days mixed in. There was no impediment to being outdoors. To be indoors was only a temporary holding place, a brief rest before moving to forests, or rivers, or channels, or slopes.


People would always comment about Sandra’s childlike enthusiasm. She had boundless energy. When she drove us to the airport at 5am in the morning we didn’t say a word the whole way as she chattered about the goings on in her life. We loved it. She not only took care of our dog Yoda, during our trips to the lower 48, she took the canine on long runs morning and evening. Yoda got the royal treatment. She did seem exhausted when we got home. It was hard to keep up with Sandra.


Sandra was our Alaskan guide. She took us cross-country skiing at Mendenhall Lake and salmon fishing off of Sitka. We were invited to go kayaking, snowboarding, and hiking at any opportunity. Sandra was to us the embodiment of Alaska.


It was with total shock when we learned of her sudden death on a hike up Salmon Creek behind the hospital on Sunday, May 4th. She was so indefatigable. Her energy made us tired.   How could this happen to her of all people?


Many people have noted that she died doing what she loved. The truth about Sandra was that she did so much in her life that engendered love, as a mother, a friend, a physical therapist, and outdoors woman. She combined a love of the outdoors with a compassion for people. She had a loving heart. She died alone, but her love tethered her to dozens who vividly remember her giving heart.   She left her loving husband, Tim, and her two college age children with a great legacy of love. We grieve her loss. We miss her joyful energy. May her memory be for a blessing.

An Update on Israel and American Jewry on Israel Independence Day 2014

Monday evening begins Israel Independence Day-Yom Haatzmaut- which is preceded by Israel Memorial Day-Yom Hazikaron. What I write below is not a celebratory piece, but an attempt to frame recent events taking place recently regarding Israel and American Jewry’s relationship to it. I regularly read a variety of media outlets that cover Israel and thought it would be good to share some of the links that help shed light on what is going on. Israel as usual is a contentious subject, but the Jewish State is an amazingly engaging subject. These pieces below will inform and energize the reader. Feel welcome to send comments to the blog, but please no flame throwing.


In the recent couple of weeks there has been important news coming out of Israel and the American Jewish community that might be off the radar for many of us in Alaska. It appears that the Kerry driven peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have collapsed. The US is now taking a “pause” to reassess. Last week Kerry gave an off the record talk which created controversy with his use of the word “apartheid” to describe a future scenario in Israel. (Click on the report from the Daily Beast to hear what happened: Link   Kerry got intense push back for his comments and later apologized. However, the A word is everywhere now. I recommend this blog piece by Jeffrey Goldberg with background on the A word in reference to Israel. Link


As Goldberg points out the A word is very sloppily applied by those arguing from differing points of view. However, the word is has been used by some Israeli leaders as a warning and by the respected Israeli writer, Ari Shavit, in his observation about Israel’s future choices in its relationship to the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.


“Will the Jewish state dismantle the Jewish settlements or will the Jewish settlements dismantle the Jewish state? There are only 4 paths (for Israel) from this junction: Israel as a criminal state that carries out ethnic cleansing in the occupied territories. Israel as an apartheid state; Israel as a binational state; or Israel as a Jewish democratic state retreating with much anguish to a border dividing the land.” Ari Shavit’s The Promised Land


The fury over Kerry’s remarks preceded a decision in the American Jewish community that may be portentous. The

Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations rejected the application of J Street to join this important Jewish organizational umbrella group. J Street is a new Jewish lobby in Washington DC that calls itself “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.” It offers itself as an alternative to the very well established Israel lobby, AIPAC.   To get background and to appreciate the importance of this controversy, check out these links:


Here is some good reporting on what happened at the meeting where J-Street’s application was rejected. Link


Here was the resulting outcry from the liberal Jewish organizations and liberal religious movements:

Link 1-A good piece that describes the possible fall out of the decision.

Link 2-from the Conservative Movement Rabbinic Leaders with an interesting piece on how hard it is now for Rabbis to talk about Israel to their congregations.

Link 3-a very interesting piece in the New Republic on the diverging paths of Israel and American Jewry



In this last piece listed, I quote from the author. He speaks about Israel’s rightward shift which is in contrast to American Jewry’s leftward shift and the consequences of this lack of symmetry.


“And an American Jewish community that will support Israel even if it chooses to lose its democratic character rather than its Jewish character will ultimately lose the next generations of American Jews, who will simply turn away in disgust from a state that represents a Judaism that cannot be squared with the rest of their identity.”


I already see the trend the author predicts. It will only intensify if current trends continue.


My position is to support a two state solution, but I remain sober about reaching that goal given the very difficult history of this idea since the beginning of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. Jeffrey Goldberg has a very helpful piece on the tragic history of the idea which is required reading for those who want to appreciate why this conflict is so difficult to resolve: Link


The J Street Controversy is another indication of the polarization within the Jewish community on Israel that reflects the general trend toward polarization in American political dialogue. I conclude with an alternative approach that might be attractive for those who have a wide view of the conflict. Read Ari Shavit’s piece that appeared in the New Republic this week. Link   This is not going to make you jump up and down, but it has a lot of wisdom on what is possible.


May these points of view give you a deeper understanding of what is unfolding or at least give you an appreciation of the difficult decisions ahead for those involved in Israeli and Jewish public affairs. Happy Israel Independence Day and may we remember all those who have given their lives to preserve and protect the Jewish State.

A Couple of Great Reads for Israel Independence Day 2014

Israel Independence Day-Yom Haatzma’ut- falls on Monday evening, May 5, 2014. Israel celebrates its 66th birthday. As is customary, Israel observes on the day prior to Independence day, Yom Hazikaron, The Memorial Day for those who have fallen defending the State of Israel.


Admittedly this Independence day is tinged with anxiety as the Kerry peace initiative appears to have collapsed and the prospects for a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict appear as far off as ever. I would like to share with you a recent article by the Israeli writer, Ari Shavit, about a different approach to peace in the region to spark your reflection and discussion. The link is here: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117503/new-plan-middle-east-peace.


Shavit’s approach acknowledges the difficulties for reaching a peace agreement, spelling out the obstacles both on the Palestinian and Israeli side. It is a peace plan that preserves the idea of two states and recognizes the need of Israel to curb the settlement enterprise. It also takes into account the Palestinian paralysis on issues like the right of return. Shavit is a credible source since he has been a critic of both the right and the left of several decades. He has a strong ear for the Israel center and sympathy for Palestinian suffering.


I would also recommend strongly Shavit’s excellent new book: My Promised Land. This is the best book I have read in many years about Israel. It is balanced, exploring the dilemmas that face Israel in both its past and present. It also portrays Israel and its relations to the Palestinians in a truthful manner. It is clear of the whitewash that characterizes earlier literature about Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians, especially in his treatment of the fate of the Arabs of Lod during the 1948 War of Independence.


Let me know your thoughts about the article on my facebook page (Dov Gartenberg). If people are interested in a discussion write to me at alaskashabbathouse@outlook.com.


Dov Gartenberg


More Reflections on the Pew Study on Jewish Americans: On Denominational Switching

13-10-30 On Denominational Switching


One of the most interesting findings in the recently released Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project Portrait of Jewish Americans is about the state of Jewish denominations.  Below is a summary of the basic finding:


“The survey also shows that Reform Judaism continues to be the largest Jewish denominational movement in the United States. One-third (35%) of all U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, while 18% identify with Conservative Judaism, 10% with Orthodox Judaism and 6% with a variety of smaller groups, such as the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements. About three-in-ten American Jews (including 19% of Jews by religion and two-thirds of Jews of no religion) say they do not identify with any particular Jewish denomination.”


These percentages show a continued decline in the Conservative movement while both Reform and Orthodox have been steady.  Thirty percent of the respondents classified themselves as of no denomination which I believe is the category that has increased most dramatically.  In other words, organized denominational Judaism in not growing.  To add to this picture there was an even more dramatic finding in the population study of the report. 


“Where have the Jews by religion gone? Some have converted to other faiths, but many have become Jews of no religion – people who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” but who were raised Jewish or had a Jewish parent and who still consider themselves Jewish aside from religion. A Pew Research reanalysis of the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey suggests that at that time, 93% of Jews in that study were Jews by religion and 7% were Jews of no religion (after some adjustments to make the NJPS and Pew Research categories as similar as possible). In the new Pew Research survey, 78% of Jews are Jews by religion, and fully 22% are Jews of no religion (including 6% who are atheist, 4% who are agnostic and 12% whose religion is “nothing in particular”).”


Add to the findings about the decline of denominations and the growth of Jews of no religion another striking data point: denominational switching.  The retention rates of Jewish denominations are strikingly low. It used to be thought, especially to those of us engaged in Jewish outreach in both the Conservative and Orthodox movements, that after the 4th generation in America you would see a move back to incorporating traditional practice in some form. However, the study shows that the predominant trend is assimilation away from tradition and from affiliation with organized Judaism across the spectrum.  I have provided a link to the interactive report on denominational switching from the Pew study which I believe you will find as fascinating as I did. 

Link to Denominational Switching Interactive.  


Here are the retention rates of the major Jewish movements:

Reform: 55%

Conservative: 36%

Orthodox: 48%


Another striking statistic is the rate of Jews who were reared in a particular movement or orientation who now describe themselves as non-Jewish.  Six percent of those raised with Orthodox backgrounds describe themselves as non-Jewish.  The rate goes up to 10% and 11% among Conservative and Reform Jews.  Among Jews who describe themselves as having no denomination, a whopping 25% now describe themselves as non-Jewish. That rate goes up to 33% among Jews who describe themselves as Jews of no religion. 


This to me is the most worrisome part of the report, because it points to a Jewish community that is sharply diminishing by loss of connection despite the various efforts over the last 10-15 years for denominational reform and innovation.  Jonathan Sarna, the great scholar of American Jewry, called these findings the Great Jewish Religious Recession.


These and other findings in the Pew report have led to  soul searching among people involved in the organized Jewish community across the country.  The findings have major implications for organized Jewish communities such as synagogues or Jewish organizations as they continue to try to retain loyalty of affiliated Jews and engage disconnected Jews living in our community.


In Alaska, these trends are magnified due to the weakness of the organized Jewish community and high rate of disaffiliation and indifference to Jewish life among many with Jewish ancestry.    


Are there specific approaches in Alaska that work to engage Jews with Judaism?   Is there a dimension of Jewish experience that is meaningful and attractive in our context?  How do we strengthen those already engaged with Jewish life? 


It used to be said that the goal of Jewish adulthood was to have Jewish grandchildren.  For a lot of Jews the aspiration to transmit Judaism to the following generations is increasing difficult or increasingly irrelevant.  To those of us who still aspire to this goal, the road is clearly steeper.  But the journey is still worthy.  Future generations of Jews depend on us who continue value our generational responsibility. 


Other links to the Pew Study


A Video Presentation


Overview of the Study

The Great Jewish Religious Recession?: The Meaning of the Latest Major Study of American Jewry

The Great Jewish Religious Recession?

The Meaning of the Latest Major Study of American Jewry

Yesterday, I was in a medical office talking to a staff member about a medical matter.  I happened to mention that I had  just read a New York Times about a gene study that pointed to European women are at the root of the Jewish Ashkenazi family tree.  I was making a joke that with the staff member that I found out today that my origins were more complicated than originally thought.  The young woman asked me about my origins and I responded by saying that I was an Ashkenazi Jew.   She then told me that she was of Jewish descent, that her father was Jewish, but that she had not been raised Jewish.   She was pleasantly surprised to hear next that I was a Rabbi.  I gave her my card and told her that she was welcome to contact me if she was interested in Jewish activities or study.


I have these encounters in Juneau all the time with people who are not at all connected with the organized Jewish community in Juneau, but who have a Jewish background of some sort.   The prominence of such people in the American population was one of the findings of a major study of American Jews published last week by the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project.  Here is the link to the Pew Research web page which has both an overview and sections of the report.  Link


The Pew study is a landmark study and will be the subject of focus of the American Jewish community for years to come.   Here are a few passages of some of the major findings.  I have added my own brief comments below the selections from the Pew study overview that I have quoted.  I will expand on these in future blogs. The quotes from the text are in bold with my comments in italic.

… the survey also suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion…..The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%. Meanwhile, the number of Americans with direct Jewish ancestry or upbringing who consider themselves Jewish, yet describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion, appears to be rising and is now about 0.5% of the U.S. adult population.

Here in Juneau I would say guess that “Jews with no religion” would be an overwhelming majority of the Jewish population.  


This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).

My guess is that Jewish affiliation Juneau reflects the very low rates of religious affiliation in general in our area.  I would now estimate the affiliation rate for the Jewish community to be below 15% of those who have some form of Jewish identity or background in our community. 

Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this: 62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.

Compared with Jews by religion, however, Jews of no religion (also commonly called secular or cultural Jews) are not only less religious but also much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish. More than 90% of Jews by religion who are currently raising minor children in their home say they are raising those children Jewish or partially Jewish. In stark contrast, the survey finds that two-thirds of Jews of no religion say they are not raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish – either by religion or aside from religion.

The sharp declines in association with community disconnection and abandonment of Jewish child rearing is a devastating finding.  Jonathan Sarna, the eminent historian of American Jewry, in a phone session with Conservative Rabbis across the country identified this finding and others as indicative of what he called “the great religious recession” that is occurring in the US.  The Jewish community experienced a religious revival in the 70s and 80s with the Havurah movement which continued in different forms through 2000. However, the last decade has seen a clear down cycle which indicates the Jewish religious revival is over. 


The survey also shows that Reform Judaism continues to be the largest Jewish denominational movement in the United States. One-third (35%) of all U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, while 18% identify with Conservative Judaism, 10% with Orthodox Judaism and 6% with a variety of smaller groups, such as the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements. About three-in-ten American Jews (including 19% of Jews by religion and two-thirds of Jews of no religion) say they do not identify with any particular Jewish denomination.


The near 30% of Jews who do not identify with a denomination indicates the tremendous fluidity of the Judaism in America.  This seems to suggest that those groups that do effective outreach such as Chabad have a lot to gain since the pool of Jews who don’t connect to Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox is very large. 

Within all three denominational movements, most of the switching is in the direction of less-traditional Judaism. The survey finds that approximately one-quarter of people who were raised Orthodox have since become Conservative or Reform Jews, while 30% of those raised Conservative have become Reform Jews, and 28% of those raised Reform have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely. Much less switching is reported in the opposite direction. For example, just 7% of Jews raised in the Reform movement have become Conservative or Orthodox, and just 4% of those raised in Conservative Judaism have become Orthodox.

I have heard from my Reform rabbi friends that the denominational switching from  Reform to Jews with no religion was a devastating finding for them. The Conservative movement has faced sharp denominational decline for some time. 


A key aim of the Pew Research Center survey is to explore Jewish identity: What does being Jewish mean in America today? Large majorities of U.S. Jews say that remembering the Holocaust (73%) and leading an ethical life (69%) are essential to their sense of Jewishness. More than half (56%) say that working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them. And about four-in-ten say that caring about Israel (43%) and having a good sense of humor (42%) are essential to their Jewish identity.

But observing religious law is not as central to most American Jews. Just 19% of the Jewish adults surveyed say observing Jewish law (halakha) is essential to what being Jewish means to them. And in a separate but related question, most Jews say a person can be Jewish even if that person works on the Sabbath or does not believe in God. Believing in Jesus, however, is enough to place one beyond the pale: 60% of U.S. Jews say a person cannot be Jewish if he or she believes Jesus was the messiah.

Judaism used to have a “common language” of practice which united Jews around the world.  This “common language” is now replaced by a variety of personal Jewish identities that do not value common practice or organizational association as a critical factor in personal Jewish identity. While pride in Jewish heritage is quite widespread, institutional association among Jews is declining with all sorts of challenges to the financial viability of synagogues and other types of Jewish organizations. 

What do you think of these findings? What are the implications? 

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg



When Does Shabbat Begin in Alaska?

When Does Shabbat Start in Alaska?

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Rosh Hashannah 5774

5774 Fairbanks, Alaska


On Kabbalat Shabbat and on Shabbat day we sing a popular melody to these words from the Torah, “The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath and observe the Sabbath throughout all generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever….” Exodus 31:16-17


Ahad Haam, the great early Zionist thinker with this passage in mind, observed that “more than the Jews kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat kept the Jews”.   Shabbat is the glue that led Jews to create holy congregations, to establish our communal institutions, and to educate our children.  No matter how we do the Sabbath, minimally or maximally, it is the cultural and religious marker of a Jew.


AJ Heschel identified the centrality of the Sabbath as tied to the unique Jewish emphasis and practice of ‘sanctifying time’.  Despite the contemporary expression, ‘Jewish standard time’ a tendency among Jews to arrive late to everything, it would be more accurate to say that traditional Jewish life carries within it an almost obsessive concern and awareness of time.


In our family home in Seattle, we had a magnet calendar on the wall with the Sabbath candle lighting times for every Friday evening of the year.  We were also very aware of when Sabbath ended so we could resume certain activities we avoided during the Sabbath day.  Our favorite Sabbath hymn opens with the words, “The sun from above the treetops has faded, let us go out to greet the Sabbath queen.”   (from Shabbat HaMalkah by Chaim Nahman Bialik)


When we moved to Alaska two years ago we found that looking for the sun over the treetops for a sign of the onset of Shabbat had its unique challenges.  Not only was the sun an abstract concept in the Alaskan Panhandle, but I could not find anywhere in town a magnet with Friday evening candle lighting times.  We could not fall back on previous routines to mark the Sabbath in Alaska.


The first question Jewish visitors to Juneau would ask me was, “When does Shabbat start in Alaska?”  To avoid an answer, I told them to ask the Jews in Fairbanks.   But as luck would have it, here I am in Fairbanks for the High Holidays.


As our planning group prepared for the High Holidays this year, a related question on timing emerged. When do we end the fast on Yom Kippur since nightfall comes very late on September 14th?   Given the practical problem before us I felt compelled finally to study the question with an eye to both the issues of Jewish law, but also the deeper understanding of what Shabbat stands for in Judaism.


I discovered through my rabbinic research that the timing of Sabbath and festivals in the Polar regions has been a subject of a halachic-Jewish legal-dispute for nearly three centuries. The subject has been expanded to address the question of how to observe the Sabbath and festivals in space.   (I am indebted to Rabbi David Golinkin of Jerusalem who wrote a short essay on the subject in 2003 in memory of the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died tragically in the Columbia disaster.   Insight Israel   p. 104)


A certain number of older rabbinic opinions on how to observe Shabbat in Polar regions reveal a view that the ability to sanctify the Sabbath is so compromised in this region, that a Jew should either avoid moving here or give up keeping the Shabbat while living here.  A more recent opinion dealing with the question of a Jew trying to observe Shabbat while orbiting the earth suggests that he should pray three daily services during every ninety minute orbit, and observe Shabbat every nine hours for ninety minutes.”


I imagine someone reading this opinion invented the now common Jewish joke, “The first frum Jewish astronaut returns to earth utterly exhausted. He is asked: “What happened?” He replied, “shahrit, minchah, maariv, shahrit, minchah, maariv!”


These outlier opinions view Shabbat in a very narrow way, divorcing its observance from its underlying principles.  But the majority of rabbinic discussion centers on the question of how to preserve sacred time without creating hardship for a person trying to keep the Sabbath and the festivals.


The question then is, How do we practice the Sabbath and festivals where the sun does not rise or set for months on end and is characterized for much of the year by very short days and very long days?


There are four groupings of opinions on this question starting from the 18th century.


  1. The first school relies on a Talmudic passage about an      observant Jew lost in the desert who loses track of time and no longer      knows which day Shabbat will occur.       These authorities teach that the lost Jew counts six days of 24      hours and the 7th day is Shabbat.


  1. The second view suggests that once in a Polar zone, you      observe Shabbat according to your point of origin outside the Polar zone.


  1. A third group argues that you should observe the Sabbath      according to Jewish communities with the same longitude that are further      south or further north depending on which Polar zone you find yourself      in.


  1. A fourth opinion offered by a Reform scholar of Jewish law      argues that you observe Sabbath and festivals according to the closest      large Jewish community as in the case of Jewish soldiers stationed in      Alaska during WW II who were instructed by a rabbinic chaplain to follow      the candle lighting times of Portland, Oregon.


Each opinion recognizes that a Jew marking Shabbat in or near a Polar region need not follow the sunset-nightfall timing of his locale.  Each view, however has its flaws.   The first view predates a hyperlinked world of communications in which we are never out of touch with timekeeping.  While the second view might work for an individual traveler in a Polar region, what about an entire community whose individuals come from many places?   The third view doesn’t work for Fairbanks because there is only ocean from the Gulf of Alaska to Antarctica.   The fourth view seems to be a workable adjustment, but I can’t figure out why the rabbinic chaplain in WW II era Alaska chose the Ducks over the Huskies.


Despite their flaws each of these opinions reveals a truth about Shabbat in particular.  Preserving Shabbat does not require us to follow sunset and nightfall, but rather a 24 hour period set apart from the other six days.


Consider this fact.  The continuous seven-day cycle invented by the Jews runs throughout history; it gives no weight whatsoever to the moon and its phases.  The Jews disassociated the week from a natural cycle such as the waxing and waning of the moon. This disassociation is an essential element of the idea of a supernatural deity not personified by any particular natural force.  God is understood by the Jewish Bible to be the master of nature, but untouched by it in any way.  (based on The Seven Day Cycle, Zerubavel,  p.. 11)


The Jewish concept of God is not only separated from nature, but the Sabbath as a day of rest from work is and remains unique.  Kenneth Seeskin, a contemporary philosopher writes that,


“Shabbat is a unique day set aside to honor a unique God. In biblical times it was a revolutionary idea. No pagan culture had such a day, and some looked upon the idea of mandated rest with contempt. Shabbat is …the best way we have to preserve the monotheistic character of our religion, for unlike pagan rituals in Shabbat there is nothing secret, no element of magic or superstition, and nothing the gives one person an advantage over another.”  (No Other Gods by Kenneth Seeskin, p. 84-85)


The timing of Shabbat is adjustable in extreme regions and in space, but the idea of Shabbat in Judaism is timeless and not geographically limited.  The answer to the halachic question of when to observe Shabbat in Alaska is to recognize a polar Jewish community’s valid responsibility to set a Shabbat time framework that enables Jews to keep it and prevent it from becoming an undue hardship.


Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian of the 20th century, recognized more than anyone the uniqueness of the Jewish Sabbath.


“While the Jewish festivals celebrate events that happened in time, the date of the month assigned for each festival in the calendar is determined by the life in nature. …… In contrast, the Sabbath is entirely independent of the month and unrelated to the moon. Its date is not determined by any event in nature, such as the new moon, but by the act of creation. Thus the essence of the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space.”


Heschel in a marvelous passage captures an essential aspect of Judaism.


“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn.” (The Sabbath, Heschel)

Kenneth  Seeskin building on Heschel, highlights the timeless themes that we devote ourselves to Shabbat practice.

“The themes on which Shabbat is based-creation and freedom-are universal in scope and have nothing to do with race, gender, age, social class, or any of the other categories that separate people. According to the Torah, even God rested. That does not mean that God became fatigued after six days of work, but rather that rest is a sign of freedom. As Maimonides pointed out, to work from free choice means to have the privilege of refraining from working.” (Seeskin p. 85)

We Alaskans live in one of the most marvelous and beautiful places in the world, yet our task as Alaskan Jews is to marvel at it while not forgetting our task to sanctify time, to reject the tyranny of ceaseless work and slavery, and to celebrate freedom as a necessary human condition.  Our task, as it is for Jews wherever we roam on this earth and beyond, is to keep, preserve, and share the Sabbath and what it stands for.

As a result of my research, I agreed with setting the time of the end of Yom Kippur which is called the Sabbath of Sabbaths twenty four hours after we begin it in Fairbanks. When we blos the final Shofar blast the sun will still be out. We won’t find 3 stars in the sky to indicate Havdallah.  But this is how we preserve and enable Shabbat and festival practice in Fairbanks.

The next person who asks you, “When do you begin Shabbat in Alaska” consider answering her in this way.

“Sometimes we celebrate our Sabbaths in days entirely of darkness and sometimes we mark them in days entirely of light, but whether it is light or dark, whether it is Fairbanks of Juneau, Anchorage or Homer, we sanctify it with joy and rest, with freedom and fellowship, with song and hospitality, like Jews all around the world.   What are you doing this coming Shabbat?  We have a place at our Friday Shabbas table. Come and join us.”

When Does Shabbat Begin in Alaska: A Guide to Perplexed Alaskans Part 1

When Does Shabbat Begin in Alaska:  A Guide to Perplexed Alaskans   Part 1

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg


When we moved to Alaska two years ago we found that the first question Jewish visitors would ask me when they found out I was a Rabbi was, “When does Shabbat start in Alaska?”  To avoid an answer, I told them that I lived in Juneau and that they should ask the Jews in Barrow.  But that is a copout since even in the Southeastern panhandle we are part of Alaska.  While we do not have endless days of sunlight or darkness as locales farther north, our sunrises and sunsets can be very early and very late.


I discovered through my rabbinic research that the timing of Sabbath and festivals in the Polar Regions has been a subject of a halachic-Jewish legal-dispute for nearly three centuries. The subject has expanded to address the question of how to observe the Sabbath and festivals in space.   I am indebted to Rabbi David Golinkin of Jerusalem who wrote on the subject in 2003 in memory of the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died tragically in the Columbia disaster.   (Golinkin Insight Israel   p. 104)


Some rabbis when asked how to observe Shabbat in Polar Regions betrayed a certain closed-mindedness toward the ‘Frozen Chosen’.   In June 1886 Judah Bamberger asked his father, the distinguished Rabbi Simhah Halevi Bamberger of Aschaffenburg, Bavaria how he should observe Shabbat in Norway.  Rabbi Bamberger told his soon, “You should not live there since it raises doubts about prayer, Shabbat, and festival observances.”


Another rabbinic opinion in 1934 suggests that a Jew can live in the North Pole, but “You are not required to observe Shabbat in such places because the Torah ties Shabbat to ‘days’ as in Exodus 34:21: ‘Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor’. Days have hours, and since there are no such ‘days’ there, there is no Shabbat.”


Or consider this rabbinic opinion about the obligations of an observant Jewish astronaut orbiting the earth. “A Jewish astronaut should count each orbit as a day. Therefore, he should pray three daily services during every ninety minute orbit, and observe Shabbat every nine hours for ninety minutes. But festivals should be observed following the calendar of the earth since Jewish holidays follow the moon and moon days are the same in space.”


These rabbinic opinions are underwhelming. They deter Jewish children from wanting to be astronauts and imagine that Jews in Alaska will move to Palm Springs or cancel High Holidays and Sabbath services entirely (although I know some would do just that).  These rabbinic responses reveal the severe myopia of some interpreters of Jewish tradition and their failure to adapt our tradition to changing realities.  These are good examples of the dead tradition of the living as opposed to a more enlightened view of Judaism as the living tradition of the dead.


One way to dismiss these unhelpful opinions is to resort to humor.


The first frum Jewish astronaut returns to earth utterly exhausted. He is asked: “What happened?” He replied, “”shahrit, minchah, maariv, shahrit, minchah, maariv!


Instead we should seek rabbinic teachers who embody the living tradition of the dead, those who embrace common sense and a sensitivity to changing circumstances when addressing problems in Jewish law and life experience.  The Torah is called Torat Hayim-a living Torah because we trust that it is profoundly applicable in all ages on giving us guidance on how to live meaningful Jewish lives.


Jewish law and lore deal with the issue of how to observe the Sabbath and festivals where the sun does not rise or set for months on end and is characterized for much of the year by very short days and very long days.  By extension the discussions apply to Jewish communities in far north or far south regions when the Sabbath and some festivals begin and end extremely early or late causing hardship for those attempting to keep them.


There are four groupings of opinions starting from the 18th century.


The first school relies on a Talmudic passage about an observant Jew lost in the desert who loses track of time and no longer knows which day Shabbat will occur.  They teach that the lost Jew counts six days of 24 hours and the 7th day is Shabbat.


The second view suggest that once in a polar zone, you rely on the time of your point of origin, you observe Shabbat according to your point of origin. This follows the principle of following the customs of the local place where you reside-suggesting that in the polar regions you observe the Shabbat according the last place you lived where there was a minyan-or viable Jewish community.


A third group argues that you should observe the Sabbath according to places with the same longitude.


A fourth opinion rendered by a Reform scholar of Jewish law argues that you observe Sabbath and festivals according to the closest Jewish community as in the case of Jewish soldiers stationed in Alaska during WW II who were instructed by a rabbinic chaplains to follow the candle lighting times of Portland, Oregon.


Which one of these views do you think is most sensible?  What do they assume about the Sabbath itself and its purpose?

Mt Zion in Juneau, Alaska

The Inside Passage is dotted with peaks and islands that are named by Western explorers or pioneers.  Jonathan Raban in his book, Passage to Juneau,  retraces George Vancouver’s voyage up through Puget Sound and the Inside Passage with details on the origins of the names the English explorer designated for his discoveries up the coast.  Many of the names he selected honored his bosses at the Admiralty in London or his shipmates on the voyage. In Juneau many of landmarks are named after gold prospectors such as Mt. Roberts, the location of the well-known tram.  According to the USGS, this peak was called Mt. Gold by the white miners who came in the 1880s, but by 1883 became known as Mt. Roberts after Henry Roberts who had mining claims along Roberts Gulch below the peak.  My efforts to find the original Tlingit name of the mountain have not yet born fruit.


But yesterday, I renamed the mountain.


Living in the area around Juneau, Alaska, we are frequent hosts to visitors who come all over the world to see the scenic beauty of Southeast Alaska.  Yesterday, we were honored to host Noam Zion (pronounced Tzeeyon) and his family who were visiting from Israel.  Noam is a renowned Judaic scholar and educator associated with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  I have known Noam since the 80s during my frequent summer visits to Jerusalem to study at the institute with Noam, Rabbi David Hartman, and many other outstanding scholars and teachers.


Noam is the author of many books that have had a direct impact on American Jewish culture. His most well-known book is A Different Night Passover Haggadah, which I consider to be one of the most important Haggadot to a be published in a generation.  Consistent with his other works, Noam, presents to us a model of being Jewish that is highly participatory, informed, respectful of the multiple sources of tradition, yet integrated with modern understandings of what it means to be a Jew today. Noam’s books are like Noam the  person, brimming with Jewish and worldly knowledge, engaging stories, witty and insightful observations, and an acute awareness of the cultural and historical moment we live in.   I have used Noam’s books at our Shabbat and Festival table now for two decades. They comprise a central part of my rabbinic teaching.  So you can imagine we were very excited about his visit with his family to Juneau.


Like other Israelis we have hosted, the Zions were quite taken by the mountains, glaciers, and waterways of the Inside Passage which they had toured for two weeks. The terrain and climate here are so vastly different than Israel.  The vastness of the place is also a wonder for our friends from Israel who live in a geographically small  country that is bordered by other countries that are either hostile or sunken in chaos.   The Zions are from Jerusalem which is one of the world’s great cities with its own distinct features.  Jerusalem also has “mountains”; the Mt of Olives, Mt. Moriah, Mt. Scopus, and Mt. Zion (in Hebrew, Har Tzeeyon).  Jerusalem’s mountains are no match for Alaskan mountains in height, but they are intersections in a long historical drama between religions and civilizations in Western history (See the excellent book, Jerusalem: The Biography (Vintage) Simon Sebag Montefiore. )


Which leads me to my Juneau vignette about the Zion family’s visit to Juneau, Alaska. For part of the their day visit I had to leave Noam and his son, Yedidya, for some work obligations.  They needed to take a taxi from the DIPAC salmon hatchery in order to reach a trailhead that I recommended for a hike on what was a beautiful sunny day.  I told them to tell their taxi driver to go to the Perseverance trail head on Star Hill.  The Perseverance trail is one of Juneau’s most beloved hikes, winding its way through along Gold Creek, the old mine works of the Perseverance Mine and through a lush valley between Mt. Juneau and Mt. Roberts and the peaks behind them.   While there is some elevation gain, the trail is fairly level.


When the taxi driver let the Zions off at the trail head, he questioned their plan to go on the Perseverance Trail.  He told them that the Mt. Roberts trail was much easier. Not knowing Juneau, the two followed his advice and  trekked up the 1760 foot climb to the tram on Mt. Roberts.  They realized midway that this was no easy hike, but continued since it did not make much sense to head down.


It remains a mystery to us why the taxi driver recommended the Mt Roberts Trail over the Perseverance Trail as the easier hike. But in honor of their effort and in honor of the Noam’s great contribution to Jewish life and learning, I have renamed Mt. Roberts as Mt. Zion.  While there is no legal basis to this renaming and it is not binding in anyway on my fellow Juneau residents, I feel that I am following in the footsteps of the chutzpadik explorers who felt they could name peaks after stodgy British admirals while ignoring the names of the ancient residents of the land.  In any case, the newly minted Mt. Zion will serve as a reminder of the original one in Jerusalem and a personal dedication for a great teacher and a great mentsch.


August 14, 2013

8 Elul, 5773

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