The 17th Jew of Whitehorse


The 17th Jew of Whitehorse

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Alaska Shabbat House Blog

Last year I got a call from a young man who lived in Whitehorse in the Yukon. Ben was a Jew from Australia had moved to Whitehorse to serve as a teacher.  He had come to Juneau for a visit in January with his father who was visiting from Sidney.  They called me searching for a Tu Bishvat celebration.

Juneau in his mind had a vibrant Jewish life compared to Whitehorse in the Yukon.  I was tempted to tell him that Juneau was the Jerusalem of the Inside Passage, like the mythical Cicely, Alaska in the TV Comedy, Northern Exposure, was the Riviera of the great North. But the analogy was not so farfetched if you were a Jew living in the Yukon.

Ben anticipated finding a congregational gathering for Tu Bishvat to share with fellow Jews.  There is a synagogue in Juneau with around 45 households (with an estimated 400 or more people of Jewish origin living in the Juneau area) and this year  there was a Tu Bishvat Seder that we set up as part of a Hebrew class. The two wandering Australian Jews happily joined us to celebrate.  We got to talking. I asked Ben how many Jews could be found in Whitehorse.  Then he told me a story about his arrival in the Yukon. Apparently one of the Jewish elders of Yukon found out that he was Jewish and came to his home.  The man welcomed the Australian young man to the Jewish community.  As the two talked, Ben asked the man how many Jews lived in Whitehorse.   The man then held out his hand to Ben offering him congratulations.  “You are the 17th Jew of Whitehorse.  Mazal Tov.”

So Whitehorse has potential for a minyan!

So   does Juneau.  I say potential because   in actuality it is very challenging to organize a minyan of Jews  in Alaska.     I recall a famous episode of Northern Exposure  Kaddish for Uncle Manny in which the Jewish character, Dr. Joel Fleischman‘s    Uncle Manny dies, and the people of Cicely join forces to locate ten   other Jews (a minyan) so he can say kaddish in his memory.  They find the Jews who they pay to come   from all over Alaska to travel to Cicely (It used to be the case the people   were actually paid to say Kaddish for those who could not or did not have the   time, a sort of Jewish form of the abuse of Indulgences in the late Medieval Church). In the end Joel does   not connect to these Jews who he does not know or feel comfortable with.   He elects to say Kaddish among his   non-Jewish townspeople who he feels care about him and his loss.

One   thing this comedic portrayal of Alaska and of Jewish practice reveals is the   difficulty of organizing and forming Jewish community in the far North.  Jews do not come to Alaska to find their   Judaism.  This is truly the Sof Ma’arav-the ends   of the West described by Judah Halevy (12th   Century Spain) and his yearnings to return to the land of Israel.  Anyone who lives here with a strong Jewish   identity (as in my case) does pine for Israel or at least a large, diverse   Jewish community despite the luring attractions that brought us here.

Jews   are a small people who struggle to flourish in small communities.   Jews since the rise of diaspora, Jews   have  gravitated in larger numbers to   urban settings (See an excellent analysis of this trend in The   Chosen Few by Botticini and Ekstein) where the critical mass of numbers   allows for the establishment of many complementary institutions and   organizations.  There is the saying   after all that for every two Jews there are three Jewish organizations.  Large Jewish communities produce a myriad   of Jewish communal structures including synagogues that is even mind   boggling.

However,   this is not the case in smaller places which struggle even to establish a   minyan or a synagogue.     Much Jewish   humor, especially in such writers as Shalom Aleichem and I. L. Peretz center on   the contortions of Jewish life in small towns like Yehupetz or   Kasrilevke.  These writers poke fun at   the provincialism of the rabbi or Jewish authorities, or of the eccentric   piety of pious fools (think of Chelm stories), or of the foolish harebrained   schemes of the townspeople.

This   humor, while cherished and extremely funny, does not fit the small town scene   of Alaska. I have found that the Jews here are for the most part highly   educated, highly assimilated, heavily intermarried, and ambivalent about   Jewish identity, religious practice, and Jewish communal organizations.  The small town Jews of Eastern Europe are   depicted as devoted Jews, struggling against hostile neighbors and the   degradations of poverty and lack of opportunity.   The small town Jews of Alaska live in a   prosperous state which is permeated with libertarian individualism and a   prideful independence from the conventions of the lower 48.

So   organizing a minyan is especially challenging here because its importance is   lost on most Jews who live here. Jews in Alaska have lost the Jewish tribal   language of minyan, of obligation to join the community, of the need to   associate with other Jews to form community.    I discovered in Juneau that there is a   local practice of allowing persons attending a service to say the Mourners’   Kaddish even if there is no minyan.  A   congregant  explained to me while I was   leading a service that since it is so difficult to get a quorum of 10 adult   Jews to attend a service, the congregation allows Kaddish to be said without   it.   This presented a real difficulty   for  my personal practice and my   understanding of the rabbinic tradition which is quite strict in requiring a   minyan for  the public recitation of   the Kaddish and other prayers.

What   should Jews do who live without a minyan?    Is it possible to instill a sense of communal responsibility that   inspires a Jew to make himself or herself available to make a minyan?  Is it possible to reintroduce the language   and behaviors of communal solidarity in a place which so values   individualism?  Or are there other   approaches one should take in attempting to organize and foster Jewish   community in this beautiful but remote place.

Please   send me your thoughts and reactions. I will continue to expand on these   questions in the coming weeks.

Rabbi   Dov Gartenberg


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