And the largest state’s surprising Jewish history

“Emergency Alert!” My phone dinged. “The National Weather Service has issued a TSUNAMI Warning. A series of powerful waves and strong currents may impact coasts near you. You are in danger. Get away from coastal waters. Move to high ground or inland now…”

“Yikes! What should we do?” I asked my husband. It was Wednesday night, July 28, and we were beginning our vacation in Alaska.

We were on the road, as we had just driven our friends, Yaakov and Atara Serle, to the Anchorage Airport. They had spent the previous week in Alaska in order to attend a hachnasas sefer Torah for the sefer Torah that their nephew donated to the Chabad in Anchorage.

“Should we go back and get them? Is there time? Will a tsunami hit here?” I tried to fight the wave of panic that was trying to envelop me.

We traveled to Alaska on Sunday, July 25. The plane glided down to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport through a rose-colored sunset at 30 minutes past midnight. When you stepped into the airport, you saw a large real stuffed moose, a real stuffed full-sized grizzly bear in attack position, a stuffed buffalo, and a simulation of the Northern Lights on the ground floor ceiling. Cases displayed old Native American clothing and implements. It definitely felt different from Kennedy or LaGuardia.

We experienced many surprises and awesome discoveries. I had no idea until we visited the Jewish Museum in Anchorage that so many Jewish individuals helped to shape Alaska. The Jewish Museum is a small building across from the Chabad House, brimming with fascinating information.

Below are some of the facts we learned. According to an article in the Anchorage Daily News (February 2012), a Danish explorer on behalf of Tsar Peter the Great sighted Alaska in 1741. Years later, Russian fur traders came in search of wealth, and it’s believed that Jewish furriers and Jews exiled to Siberia by the tsar came. Patti Moss, an Alaska historian, stated in this article that “It’s because of the Jewish presence that Alaska was developed when it was. First banks, Jewish people, railroads, Jewish financing, the first college: East Coast Jewish money. The entire infrastructure of Alaska was built by Jewish people, Jewish money, and Jewish knowledge.”

The first Jewish family arrived in Alaska in 1848 – to Sitka, Alaska. Alexander Cohen owned three hotels and a brewery, and his daughters were the first postmistresses. Following this, Ashkenazi Jews from Germany arrived and opened various businesses. According to Patti Moss, “Jews transformed Sitka from a tent city into a city.”

Former California Senator Cornelius Cole recalled that the original most active mover of the plan to buy Alaska after the Civil War was a Jewish trader, Louis Goldstone. The Gold Rush brought even more Jews to Alaska. America officially purchased Alaska in 1867 and it became the last frontier. The United States Army built roads and a telegraph system.

When the United States took sovereignty of Alaska in 1867, this drew many newcomers to Alaska. Many Jewish shops sprung up and a small Jewish community thrived. One traveler, Emil Teichmann, describes how Sitka’s Jewish men prayed together in a warehouse on Friday night. “I had never heard a sound there in the evenings, but on that night my curiosity was aroused by the murmur of several voices in the adjoining room,” he writes in his published diary, A Journey to Alaska in the Year 1868. “Looking through a crevice, I saw quite an assembly of some 20 men, all of the Jewish persuasion, who were holding their Sabbath services and reading their prayers under the leadership of the oldest man present. It was a memorable thing to see this religious gathering in so strange a setting, and it said a great deal for the persistence with which the Jews everywhere, even in the most remote countries, practice their emotional exercises.”

There are biographies displayed on the walls of the Jewish museum about some prominent Jewish Alaskan pioneers. For example, Zachary Loussac, the son of a Moscow rabbi, opened the first pharmacy in Alaska in 1916. He was voted Alaska’s Outstanding Citizen in 1946 and he was mayor of Anchorage from 1948 to 1951. He established the city’s public library system.

Another prominent Jewish pioneer in Alaska was Mr. Jacob Gottstein. He opened a small grocery business in a tent that grew into the J.B. Gottstein Company. This company later merged with Carr’s Grocery to form Carr-Gottstein, Inc., at one time the largest private employer in Alaska. Gottstein’s wife, Anna Jacobs, was a teacher who later helped found Alaska’s first Parent Teacher Association. We noticed Carr Grocery stores in many locations in the cities we visited, so they are still a lucrative business.

Still another Jewish pioneer in Alaska came in 1922. David Green, a master furrier, followed his dream of moving to Alaska as he was inspired by the novel The Call of the Wild by Jack London. At the same time, he opened a fur store in Seattle so his children could attend a Jewish school. He opened a second store in Ketchikan in the late 1940s and in Juneau. He was always on the road, but he was happy that his children could have a Jewish life. In the late 1930s, residents of the Aleutian Chain noticed Japanese spies scouting and mapping their islands and they alerted the US Army. Then, the US military posted observers on the islands. Mr. Green worked 18-to-20-hour shifts creating full-length warm camouflage muskrat liners and parkas for these US Army observers. David Green was awarded posthumously the highest civilian military medal possible for service above and beyond.

As Anchorage grew as a city, Mr. Green established his fur company’s headquarters in Anchorage. He was known as the largest buyer of furs in Alaska. He was a close advisor to Governor George William Egan, and he hosted many distinguished visitors including Golda Meir. He was elected to the City Council in 1963. He was on the City Council during the famous March 27, 1964, Earthquake and during the years of rebuilding.

Today, David Green’s grandsons, David and his wife Shani, run David Green Furs.

We visited the fur store and met some of David Green’s family, including Debbie Grashin, his granddaughter. David’s Furs is a beautiful store filled with lush stylish fur coats of all styles and types of furs as well as other fur products like fur mittens and fur balls on key chains, etc.

Debbie Grashin and her husband David founded the Orthodox congregation Shomrei Ohr. Rabbi Yosef Y. Greenberg, founder and spiritual leader of Chabad Lubavitch Alaska Jewish Campus and Alaska Jewish Museum, shared the inspiring story behind how the shul was founded.

There was a young Jewish chaplain in the US Air Force, Rabbi Yisroel Haber, whose assignment in the early 1970s was Alaska. He and his young wife had hoped for a closer-to-home assignment, but the choice was Alaska or Bangkok. Rabbi Haber explained to the US Air Force that he needed a mikvah built there and the Air Force agreed to build it. On their way to Alaska, the Habers stopped at the Chabad House in St. Paul, Minnesota, to get kosher provisions. They spoke with the program directors, and Rabbi Gershon Gossbaum offered to help with overseeing the building of the mikvah in Alaska. The first six months in Alaska, Miriam Haber rode in a military plane to Seattle to use the mikvah until the Alaska mikvah was completed. The Pentagon flew Rabbi Grossbaum to Anchorage in the winter of 1974 to inspect the construction site. He stayed for over a month to personally supervise the project. When the pool was ready, the mikvah was filled with melted snow. When it was done, the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent Rabbi Haber a letter commending him on this project and urging him to inspire people to do this mitzvah in Alaska now that it was available. The story of that mikvah and the complete letter from the Rebbe is in the book, Total Immersion.

We had the privilege to hear part two of this story. Rabbi Yisroel Haber, the aforementioned chaplain, eventually made aliyah. In 1980, he planned a short trip to the United States, including a visit with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe told him that he needed to go back to Alaska as he had unfinished business there.

Rabbi Haber said, “But I only have a short time.”

The Rebbe responded, “You don’t know what you can accomplish even in one hour.”

Community members heard he was visiting, and they came to see the chaplain. There were two men working on the Alaskan pipeline at that time and they needed a minyan to say Kaddish. They came to Rabbi Haber and asked him to make one. Rabbi Haber contacted the Green family, as they had a large family; but there was a problem, since Rabbi Haber’s plane was leaving and they needed him in order to complete the minyan. Mr. Perry Green, son of David Green, called the airlines and asked them to hold the flight for an hour, which the airlines did. And sure enough, they were able to make a minyan, and that was the beginning of the Orthodox shul in Alaska.

When Rabbi Haber returned to New York on his way back to Israel, he glimpsed the Rebbe heading to Minchah. The Rebbe nodded at him knowingly. That hour the plane was held up, Rabbi Haber realized, was the hour the Rebbe was talking about when he said, “You don’t know how much you can accomplish even in one hour!”

The museum exhibited information and oral histories about the 1964 earthquake in Alaska, which was the most powerful earthquake ever in North America (9.2 magnitude). I asked Debbie Grashin to tell me what it was like as a small child during the 1964 earthquake. She shared that her older sister was in kindergarten then, and her mother had left her then-six-week-old brother at home with a babysitter. Her mother returned to the house after the earthquake as fast as she could and found the baby wasn’t there. She was frantic. Eventually, she found out that the babysitter had run home to her own house with the baby. Also, her grandmother’s Pesach dishes were completely ruined. There was so much damage to buildings and houses. Tragically, 119 people lost their lives. Debbie said that her family hopped on the next plane to Seattle. Her parents didn’t want to stay there with small children, as following the initial earthquake, there was no power in Anchorage and there were major after-shocks.

Post-quake tsunamis severely affected Whittier, Seward, Kodiak, and other Alaskan communities. Most death and damage were due to the tsunamis.

Back to July 28, 2021: “Is a tsunami coming?” I felt my neck muscles tighten. Tsunamis were deadly. Look what happened after the 1964 earthquake.

“I think everything is okay,” my husband said. “People are still driving on the road and no one seems to be evacuating.”

“But the emergency alert? Are we very near the ocean here?”

We wanted to experience the natural wonders that Hashem created in Alaska, so we took a full-day kayak trip in Whittier. To travel to Whittier, you have to drive through a narrow one-way tunnel called the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel which is the longest highway tunnel in North America (2.5 miles), and the first designed for -40° Fahrenheit temperatures and 150-mph winds. Cars are allowed through at scheduled times to facilitate one-way traffic.

It’s quite an adventure just traveling through this narrow tunnel. You feel like you’re in a cave and it’s a good idea to be sure you’re not claustrophobic before entering. I don’t like caves or narrow spaces, and I held my breath until we reached the literal “light at the end of the tunnel.”

It often rains and is usually cloudy on Blackstone Bay. The water is quite cold as it is surrounded by glaciers and small icebergs that look like ice sculptures floating on the surface. Blackstone Bay is located in Prince William Sound. The guide told us that the glacier and bay are named after Charles Blackstone. Blackstone and a group of 250 men left Seattle by steamship in 1896 in search of gold. It took them much of the summer to reach their Alaska destination and prospecting season was over. Their supplies and funds ran out, so they became discouraged and decided to head back to Seattle. In March 1897, they planned to walk from Sunrise over Portage Pass to Passage Canal on Prince William Sound. It was a well-marked trail by prospectors. Suddenly, they were hit by a severe winter storm in the mountain pass and probably missed a critical turn. Blackstone wrote about the ordeal in a journal. Tragically, the whole group froze to death.

We paddled towards huge glaciers that looked like a giant frozen cloud. The Blackstone Glacier is eight miles long and the white color is tinged with aqua. It appears like a living being when it emits a rumble and then thunder crackles in the air. This is followed by a chunk of ice breaking free. The ice chunk appears suspended in mid-air and seems to move in slow motion until it plummets into the bay. Occasionally, we glimpsed a salmon leaping into the air and then plunging back into the icy water. Gliding down the calm cold water on a kayak past glaciers and icebergs was magical.

Another day, we headed to Crow’s Nest trail to hike. At the trailhead, a sign read “Aggressive Brown Bear Sighted on July 22.

“Uh, maybe we should find a different trail?” I suggested after reading the sign twice.

“It’ll be fine,” my husband said.

We made a lot of noise to ward off any bears. Park rangers strongly recommend that you carry bear spray. You just pray you won’t need to actually use it on a charging bear. I thought of that stuffed charging grizzly in the airport and suggested again a little more firmly that maybe we should find a different trail without such a scary warning. The only problem was that all of the trails had bear warnings at the trailhead.

We hiked up the steep incline and over rocky terrain, breathing fresh pine-scented air and viewing majestic burbling waterfalls. A pure white mountain goat ambled down the slope, nibbling at the lush grasses. At the end of the trail, we reached Crystal Lake with its aqua-tinted glacial water. It was July and it was freezing cold, and thank G-d we didn’t encounter any bears!

We also traveled to the Denali National Park and Preserve, which is the largest state park in North America. It boasts six million acres of wilderness and has a subarctic desert climate. There is only one road, which is 90 miles long, and it takes about 13 hours to travel in and out of the park. At the visitor’s center, we toured the dog kennels where rangers train Alaskan huskies for pulling dog sleds. Each year, rangers adopt or breed one litter of dogs to assist their patrols. In the winter, the only mode of transportation in the park is dog sleds. The road closes from September through May. Denali is the only national park that uses dog sleds.

We took a bus tour, which drove through the park for most of the day. Everything is pristine and totally untouched. The rangers work hard to protect this beautiful ecosystem.

Mr. Charles Sheldon came to the area, which is now Denali National Park, in 1906 to study Dall sheep, which inhabit rugged alpine areas. Mr. Sheldon was fascinated by this rare species, which is one of the few populations in North America that is not hunted yet shares its habitat with large predators like grizzly bears. Mr. Sheldon persuaded Congress to create the Denali National Park and wildlife preserve to facilitate the study of Dall sheep and other species. He fell in love with the park and stayed in it a whole year. During the year that he stayed in the park, he stayed outside all day.

In Denali Park there is the breathtaking view of Mount McKinley, now named Mount Denali, which is the highest mountain in North America. It is totally snow-covered and towers over the other magnificent surrounding peaks. It rises to an elevation of 20,310 feet. It is so high, it creates its own weather and it is usually cloudy and overcast, which makes it difficult to see it. Charles Sheldon joined an expedition with Harry Karsten, who later became the superintendent of the park. Their climb was the first successful expedition to the top of Mount McKinley.

Today, there are 96 wolves in the park in 16 wolf packs, 200 caribou, 200 sheep, and 300 grizzly bears. The long, cold, dark winters have kept the numbers low. I was happy to sight grizzly bears from the safety of the tour bus. A few caribou came close to the bus, and one ran onto the road in front of us. We even sighted a moose from far away.

Later, we enjoyed an extremely long Shabbos, as we couldn’t light candles for early Shabbos until at least nine p.m. The sun didn’t set until nearly eleven p.m. To make Havdalah at the proper time, you had to stay up until 12:30 a.m. Imagine being in shul for Minchah on Shabbos and the rabbi announces that Shabbos ends at 12:30. If you are not a night person (I’m not), then you make Havdalah in the morning! However, I couldn’t include the blessing for wine and for spices in the morning Havdalah.

So, what happened on July 28, after the emergency tsunami alerts? That day, an earthquake of 8.2 magnitude struck 50 miles south of Alaska Peninsula at 10:15 p.m. The earthquake originated at a depth of 20 miles. It was the largest earthquake in the US in 50 years, and it triggered tsunami warnings from Sawalaga Pass in the Aleutian Islands to Prince William Sound. There was no report of injuries or major damage, and tsunami alerts were canceled.

How true the teaching that Hashem is protecting us all the time from dangers we don’t even know exist. Baruch Hashem, this earthquake was out at sea and caused no harm.

It’s truly an experience to visit this northernmost state, which is one-third the size of the entire continental United States and where you can view the Northern Lights, six million acres of untamed nature, glaciers, snow-capped mountains, the highest peak in North America, a variety of wildlife, and more. It is spellbinding to view Hashem’s magnificent creations. “Blessed are you, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, who makes the work of Creation!”