Congregation Or HaTzafon: A Profile

Beginnings

Jews have played a prominent part in the history of Alaska since its purchase in 1867. Early Jewish fur merchants in San Francisco played a major role in getting the US to make the purchase and in running the Alaska Commercial Company that took over for the Russian American Company.

Fairbanks began in 1902. By 1904, a Jewish community formed with the arrival of Robert Bloom, a Lithuanian Jew, who came from Ireland via the Klondike in 1898. Bloom ran a general store from 1906 to 1941 and was a mainstay and leader of the Fairbanks Jewish Community for nearly half a century.

During the initial rush, 1904-1910, there were enough Fairbanks Jews to hold regular services on High Holy Days if not a minyon for Sabbath. The community had a Torah and formally organized as Congregation Bikkur Cholim in 1908. The Clay Street cemetery in downtown Fairbanks had a Jewish section where Jewish headstones can still be seen today.

Between 1910 and World War II, few Jews remained; most were transient with the exception of the Bloom family. Bob Bloom brought his bride, Jessie, back from Ireland in 1912. Both of these remarkable people lived into their 90s and made a major contribution to the developing town of Fairbanks as well as to its Jewish community.

Bloom was one of the founders of the University of Alaska and a charter member of its Board of Regents. In later years he grew experimental strains of wheat. In 1925, Jessie founded the first Alaskan Girl Scout chapter and was active in many social and political causes. She left voluminous correspondence, reminiscences, and records which make a rich contribution to Fairbanks Jewish history and Alaskan history. The Robert and Jessie Bloom Collection is housed in the University of Alaska Rasmuson Library Archives and the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio. Their daughter, Meta Buttnick, lives in Seattle and maintains an interest in the affairs of the Fairbanks Jewish community.

The World War II military draft and installations in the Fairbanks area began a new period in local history with the arrival of hundreds of Jewish GIs. The Bloom home remained a center for Jewish activities. It was a special treat for Jewish soldiers to have Seder at the Bloom's.

With the military presence, a Jewish chaplaincy was established for the Alaska command and a Jewish chaplain was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage from the early 1940s until the early 1980s. The chaplains' tours of duty lasted two years, rotating between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Most visited Fairbanks several times a year, providing leadership and encouragement to the local civilian community as well as to the military personnel stationed at the army and air force bases. Seymour Gitin, chaplain during the early 1960s, inspired the community to organize a Jewish Sunday school which has now been operating steadily for over 30 years and has schooled well over 135 Fairbanks Jewish children.

In 1960, Jews in the military still outnumbered civilian Jews but with the suspension of the draft in the early 1970s, the military numbers dwindled. At the same time, the Jewish community began to change as a civilian and more permanent population grew. Then closure of the Alaskan chaplaincy left Fairbanks more on its own than ever. This was a blessing in disguise because it stimulated Fairbanks to rely on its own resources which were growing slowly but surely.

The Jewish Congregation of Fairbanks

A new Fairbanks Jewish community and board of directors were formally organized when the Jewish Congregation of Fairbanks was incorporated in 1980. Of about 300 Jews in the Fairbanks area, a third identified with and participated in Jewish life in one way or another. A religious school was organized. Regular High Holy Day and Festival services were held each year. Friday night Shabbat services were held once monthly until 1985 when they became weekly. Special events such as a B'nai Mitzvahs or Brit Milah were celebrated as occasions arose.

New Beginnings

Jewish life in Fairbanks entered a new era in 1988, when the Jewish Congregation of Fairbanks established a formal dues and membership structure. Annual dues were set at $50 and a member base began to be built.

During the same time period, some members of the community recognized that, despite its small size and limited resources, the Jewish community could someday own its own building, from which to conduct worship services and teach its children. A building fund was begun.

In 1989, the community started its summer rabbinic intern program. They hired Matthew Eisenberg, then a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, as its first intern. From the summer intern program grew Camp Kitov, a one-week Jewish day camp for children. Matt Eisenberg served as summer resident rabbi for two years, building a bond with the Fairbanks Jewish community that remains strong to this day. Although Rabbi Eisenberg now serves a congregation in Cleveland, Ohio, he, his wife, Pat and their two children, return to Fairbanks each summer to visit and renew old acquaintances.

In 1991, with the sponsorship of Rabbi Eisenberg, JCF received its own Torah scroll, a gift from Congregation B'nai Abraham in Portsmouth, Ohio. There had not been a full-size authentic Kosher Torah in the community since the Bloom family had departed Fairbanks two decades earlier. Our Sanctuary's Ark was hand-crafted by Vernon H. Kennedy, a founding member, to house the new Torah.

The summer rabbinic intern program remains strong. It is entering its twenty-fourth season. Our summer interns have been Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIC) students and University of Judaism students. Four of these, Matthew Eisenberg, Andrew Paley, Joshua Zweiback, and Margot Crowson returned to serve the community for second terms.

Fairbanks' First Synagogue

For years, the Jewish Congregation of Fairbanks held its Sunday religious school classes for children in a borrowed classroom at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The worship services were conducted at the Fort Wainwright (Army) Post Chapel. Some Fairbanks Jews held the dream of the Jewish Congregation of Fairbanks having its own home.


In late summer 1992, Congregation Or HaTzafon's board located a day care center that had been originally converted from a side-by-side duplex and was later repossessed by the federal mortgage program that had financed its construction. A few members stuck out their necks and made an offer to buy it for the Congregation.

The building fund had roughly $30,000. The purchase price was $80,000. Renovation costs were estimated to be $50,000. Only eight people attended the meeting to vote on the building purchase. Yet, an army of volunteers was recruited and worked around the clock for a few weeks so that the building could be ready for Rosh Hashanah. It was quite moving as members saw their dreams become reality, Fairbanks finally had a synagogue!

When people entered the sanctuary on Erev Rosh Hashanah, there was not a dry eye to be found. Instead of an abstract concept, the Jews of Fairbanks had something that they could see and touch. Fundraising began in earnest. With member contributions and the proceeds from state sanctioned charitable gaming, the congregation paid for the purchase and renovation of the building (roughly $150,000) within five months.

Congregation Or HaTzafon

With a building, the congregation needed a name and, thus, became Or HaTzafon, the Light of the North. Congregation Or HaTzafon now has 45 household members. Some household members live outside of the Fairbanks area, ranging from Denali Park, Kotzebue and Palmer, Alaska, to Ohio. In addition, there are nonresident associates and supporting non-Jewish friends. Readers from outside of Alaska who wish to support our efforts are invited to join as nonresident members or friends.

Shabbat services are held every Friday evening. During the winter, the Congregation's board members and congregants take turns leading services. Even in the coldest and darkest depths of winter, between 10 and 20 people can be found in attendance at Friday evening Shabbat services.

A Rabbi?

Congregation Or HaTzafon's members cannot afford to hire and sustain a rabbi on a full time basis. However, the Congregation has had a creative method of fundraising, including sales on the World Wide Web of
"I HELPED SEND A RABBI TO ALASKA" T-shirts.

Affiliation

At its 1994 annual meeting, the membership voted to affiliate with the Reform movement. The application for entry into the Union of American Congregations (UAHC) was submitted in October, 1996. Although, many of the Congregation's practices are closer to what would be viewed as traditional Conservative Judaism and its members have included Orthodox Jews, the Reform movement was considered best suited to work with and accommodate the diversity of the Jewish community that makes up Congregation Or HaTzafon. Its membership includes many mixed marriages, Jews, Jews by patrilineal descent and Jews by choice. With resources and services that would otherwise be unavailable, e.g., student rabbis, lay leadership training, religious school curriculum and small congregations assistance, it is expected that the Jewish life and observance in the Interior of Alaska will be enriched by the UAHC membership. The Congregation's application was approved in June, 1997.

Back to Top