The Travails of Making a Minyan in Alaska Part 2: Close Jewish Encounters

The Travails of Making a Minyan  in Alaska Part 2: Close Jewish Encounters


At the end of my last blog post I mused about the challenges of finding a minyan in Alaska and left off with these questions.


In my last post I explored the challenges of making a minyan in Alaska.  In Alaska being Jewish often involves being in places with weak or no Jewish community.  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 when a chance exists to find one?


In this post I wonder if a Jew can really be a  Jew without a sense of communal responsibility?  Many Jewish people up here in the far North can’t even make sense of this question. That is from the perspective of why is being part of a Jewish community even necessary.  In Alaska the divide between “communitarian” Jews and disconnected Jewish individuals is big like the state itself.  I have met plenty of people here who readily identify as Jews, yet they have no association with the Jewish communities or circles in their habitations.  This is becoming the norm in the lower 48, but here it is extreme.


One might think that communitarian Jews would be more common because the harsher weather and isolation makes folks gravitate to being together.  But that is not the case.  What I have observed, at least in Juneau, is that Jews here identify as “not Christian”, especially in relationship to the evangelical Christian communities that are commonplace.  It’s as if there is a Jewish allergy to the confessional faith and missionary activities of these Alaskans.  Jewish Alaskan take pride in their rejection of fundamentalism and their profound discomfort of the Palin style of religiosity that arrogantly derides non-believers and their liberal tendencies.  But the same Palin style of religiosity has a special place for Jews in its worldview.


This week the parent teachers in the Hebrew school and I met a local downtown café  to discuss the upcoming year of studies.  The woman at the next table was clearly enjoying eavesdropping on our discussion. When one of my party left toward the end of the meeting, she leaned over and expressed her surprise that there were Jews in Juneau.  Then she went on about how she loved the Jews, how she loved Israel and followed the teachings of the Old Testament.  She wanted to know about classes and the synagogue and how Jesus lead her to her admiration of the Jewish faith.  It was clear that unless we found a way to escape the café that we would become prisoners of this lady’s theological admiration and need to fit us into her world view.


This is a common type of experience here-a fervent Christian is fascinated in finding a Jew and starts engaging him or her according to an evangelical Christian template on our special role or Israel’s in the  unfolding of the second coming and the end time.  Can you imagine what this feels like to a Jewish person who has come to Alaska to get away from Judaism and still finds herself at the center of someone else’s end of time dreams?   As a rabbi who wears a Kippah (skull cap) I am immediately identifiable as a Jew and get a lot of attention from the fervent followers of Jesus.   Yet  I am always thankful that it is admiration and not contempt or hatred.  These encounters usually lead to some clarification on what a Jew is, such as  Jews read Jewish Bible and not Old Testament, or that Jesus is not the center of our spiritual universe.  These distinctions usually puncture the conversation and we go our separate ways.


My wearing a Kippah makes me not only an attraction for fervent Christians, it also has evoked startling reactions from Jews in Juneau, the ones I call the crypto-Yidden of Juneau.  One such encounter occurred outside Juneau on a trip to Washington State, where we encountered a couple who we recognized from town.  He introduced himself as a member of the tribe (since he recognized my tribal head-gear). Then he whispers in my ear, “That is my shiksa (a Yiddish term for a non-Jew that comes from the Hebrew-a crawling abomination. Most people who use this term don’t know that, but they should.) wife,” pointing to his wife sitting at the restaurant table.  What was I supposed to say, “Hello, are you the shiksa wife? Nice to meet you.”  My wife likes to say that I am a walking magnet  attracting Jewish guilt. I don’t have to say a word, it just comes to me without any effort.


Wearing a Kippah not only identifies me as a Jew, it marks me as a communitarian Jew-a Jew who openly associates with the Jewish people.  No one has to guess about my facial features or my accent, or my gestures to guess that I am a Jew.  Now that doesn’t stop a lot of guessing of what type a Jew I am-usually the assumption being that I am Orthodox because I wear a Kippah.  In any case I am not troubled in revealing my tribal identity and let the chips fall where they may. It certainly makes living her a whole lot more interesting and helps in finding Jews of a communitarian bent-who are not ashamed of being part of a community and exploring what it means to be a Jew in this remarkable place and remarkable time.






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