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.

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 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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