Fairbanks synagogue Or HaTzafon

Fairbanks: Alaska’s Frozen Chosen

By | Alaska, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Fairbanks’ Jewish community welcomes visitors to the northernmost synagogue in the world

Arizona Jewish Life Magazine — December, 2014

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — They proudly call themselves “the frozen chosen.”

It’s a clever moniker, and one that fits.  Located less than 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the small and tight-knit Jewish community of Fairbanks, Alaska, must endure long, dark and brutally cold winters in a remote place where being an observant Jew can be as taxing as the Iditarod dog race.

Malta Chabad

Or HaTzafon, the northernmost synagogue in the world

Yet Congregation Or HaTzafon (Light of the North) has remained intact for more than 30 years.  And despite a membership of only about 50 families, it has even managed to acquire and maintain its own house of worship.

At a latitude of 65 degrees north, this gives it the distinction of being the northernmost synagogue in the entire world. (Trondheim, Norway, is a close second.  There is a Jewish congregation in Murmansk, Russia, that is farther north than Fairbanks, but it does not have a permanent synagogue).

I recently had the opportunity to visit Or HaTzafon and meet with four of the congregation’s leaders during a visit to Alaska’s interior on a Holland America land tour following a cruise on the 1,450-passenger Volendam from Vancouver, Canada, to Skagway, Alaska.  When I found out I would have a free afternoon in Fairbanks, I sent an email to the temple.  Within minutes, I received a response inviting me for a visit.

Before my arrival in Alaska, I wanted to learn more about the Jewish presence in the country’s 49th state.  I discovered that Jews have played a surprisingly prominent role in Alaska’s history ever since it was purchased from Russia in 1867.  Initially, Jews were heavily involved in the fur trade.  At the end of the 19th century, Lewis Gerstle, a Jewish steamboat operator, provided transportation to the Yukon during the famous Klondike Gold Rush.  An Alaskan river now bears Gerstle’s name.

Ernest Gruening

Bust of Ernest Gruening on display at the Alaska Capitol Building in Juneau

In 1920, a Jew named David Leopold was elected mayor of Anchorage.  Ernest Gruening, a doctor and journalist originally from New York, served as governor of the Alaska Territory from 1939-1953 and was elected one of Alaska’s first two U.S. senators when it achieved statehood in 1959.  During the cruise, I visited the state capitol building in Juneau and found a bust of Gruening on the second floor.  An inscription beneath the statue calls Gruening “the father of Alaskan statehood.”

Fairbanks was established in 1902 and just two years later, its Jewish community was founded with the arrival of Robert Bloom.  Originally from Lithuania, Bloom ran a general store in Fairbanks until 1941.  He was one of the founders of the University of Alaska and led the city’s Jewish community for nearly a half-century.  In the Clay Street Cemetery, just a block from my downtown hotel, I was able to see the Hebrew headstones of some of Fairbanks’ first Jewish residents.

Today, there are an estimated 6,000 Jews living in Alaska.  Of those, some 40 percent belong to the state’s three synagogues – two in Anchorage (a Reform temple and a Chabad congregation) and Or HaTzafon in Fairbanks.  Only about 6 percent of Alaskan Jews were actually born in the state.

Interestingly, a study in the 1990s by a professor at Brandeis University found that Alaskan Jews are actually more observant than those in the lower 48 states.  “Rather than this move to Alaska being an expression of assimilation, the first things that they do is try to connect up with other Jews,” wrote Professor Bernard Reisman, who added that contrary to public opinion, Alaska “is not a Jewish wasteland.”

Fairbanks has a large U.S. military presence and Jewish chaplains brought in by the military to meet the needs of GIs sustained the city’s Jewish community from the early 1940s until the 1980s.  But by then, military numbers dwindled and the Jewish chaplaincy ended, leaving the civilian community on its own.

In 1980, the Jewish Congregation of Fairbanks was incorporated.  During its early years, the congregation used facilities at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and Fort Wainwright to hold religious services and Sunday school classes.

I walked three miles from my hotel to Or HaTzafon, which is located in a quiet residential area near the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  On the way, I passed several nondescript strip malls, a migratory waterfowl refuge and a store selling gear to gold prospectors.

Or HaTzafon, a Reform congregation, may not be a visually aesthetic temple, but its mere presence is – in some ways — as inspiring as some of the most architecturally splendid synagogues I’ve visited in Europe.  Built in the 1970s as a residential duplex, the building was later converted into a day-care center.  It was purchased in 1992 by the congregation for $80,000, with another $50,000 needed for renovations.

Cantor Kenneth Feibush

Cantorial student Kenneth Feibush in the sanctuary of Or HaTzafon

“We had two or three sugar daddies,” recalls Brenda Baxter, a member of the congregation since 1986 who now winters in Tucson.  “Within a year, we paid off the mortgage.”

The temple can’t afford a full-time rabbi, but each summer brings in a student chaplain to conduct services.  For the past two summers, Kenneth Feibush, a 26-year-old cantorial student at the Hebrew-Union College in New York, has completed internships at the temple.  He likes the informality of the congregation, which allows him to try some things that might not fly in a more traditional East Coast synagogue.

“Everyone here is open to new ideas,” says Feibush, who lives at the synagogue when in Fairbanks.  “I’m glad to be a part of that and to help shape the community.”

For the High Holy Days, the congregation brings in a retired rabbi from Juneau.  For the rest of the year, services are led by members of the temple.  Thad Keener, a fifth-grade teacher in Fairbanks and past president of the congregation, says not having a full-time rabbinical presence suits the personality of the congregation just fine.

“We’re a diverse community and we come from so many different parts of the country with our own different upbringings,” he says.  “So we come here with an Alaskan, individualistic kind of thinking.  We don’t want just one show in town.  So the lay leadership allows for this kind of variety.”

Frozen Chosen shirts

        A “Frozen Chosen” shirt for sale in the synagogue’s gift shop

The congregation enjoys solid relationships with other churches in Fairbanks, and for the past 17 years has even staged an annual Jewish film festival during the winter.  Last year, about 300 people – most of them non-Jews — attended six different movies related to Jewish topics.

Feibush says that during his two summers here, he has been impressed by the closeness of the Jewish community, noting an extremely high turnout for bar mitzvahs and other family events.

“Here, we are each other’s family,” he says.  “There’s a mutual love for each other that’s really something special.”

Like many small congregations, Or HaTzafon has financial challenges.  Heating costs alone are about $7,000 a year.  The congregation has come up with a creative way to raise money – selling “Frozen Chosen” tee-shirts in its gift shop.  The shirts, which cost $22, feature icicles hanging from the upper bar of a Star of David.

To inquire about purchasing a shirt, visiting the temple or making a donation, contact the temple at

Some other northerly synagogues have filched Or HaTzafon’s “frozen chosen” slogan.  But the congregation’s leaders say that no other temple can use the phrase with as much conviction.

“As the farthest north, we’re a little more frozen,” says Feibush with a smile.

© 2014 Dan Fellner

Denali whitewater rafting

Alaska-Yukon Adventure

By | Alaska, Cruising, Yukon Territory | 2 Comments

Pre and post-cruise land tours deliver breathtaking sights and fun

The Arizona Republic — August 24, 2014

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska – The Nenana River was in a nasty mood at 8 a.m. on a cold and rainy July morning and it looked like it was about to get even more ornery up ahead.

Our group of six was on a 12-mile whitewater rafting trip on this glacier-fed river that runs through Denali National Park less than 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle.  The water temperature was just 35 degrees; the air temperature wasn’t much warmer.

Nenana Rafting

 Whitewater rafting on the frigid Nenana River

As we approached an ominous-sounding section of the river called Ice Worm Rapids, our oarsman, a bearded young man named Wayne, warned us to hold on tight.

The raft plunged several feet.  No one fell off, but the only part of my body not covered by several layers of clothing – my face – was drenched by the ice-cold water.

Wayne, who looks like the quintessential Alaskan outdoorsman but actually is from Utah, laughed. “We call that a ‘glacial facial,’” he said.

If I wasn’t already awake from my morning coffee, the Nenana had certainly finished the job. I had wanted a true Alaskan adventure.  And while it was nerve-racking, uncomfortable and downright frigid at the time, I had found it.

This was my third visit to Alaska.  The first two trips had been relatively sedate cruises through the Inside Passage.  Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway are charming – albeit a bit touristy – ports of call.  This time, though, I wanted to see the Alaskan wilderness.

Holland America Volendam in Alaska

     The cruise portion of the trip began on the Holland America Volendam, here docked in Juneau, Alaska

So I did what an increasing number of Alaskan cruisers are doing every year. I booked a seven-day post-cruise land tour.  In addition to exploring the interior of Alaska, the journey also took me off the beaten path into Canada’s ruggedly scenic Yukon Territory.

My journey began in Vancouver, B.C., on the Holland America Volendam.  About one-third of the ship’s 1,450 passengers were thinking like me and combined the cruise with a land tour taken either before or after the sailing.

More than 200 passengers and I disembarked in Skagway, three days after we left Vancouver, while the same number of passengers did their land tours first, then joined the ship for the remaining four days of cruising back to Vancouver.

I spent the next week traversing the Yukon and Alaska on trains, buses and an airplane with 42 other adventure-seekers.  We were shepherded every step of the way by Patrick Sanady, our Holland America “journey host.”

Indeed, the land tour seemed like a seamless extension of the cruise.  Each hotel we stayed in was owned by Holland America; even the ubiquitous Purell dispensers so often seen on cruise ships were in every hotel lobby and restaurant.  And though there were no midnight buffets or ice sculptures, the food was more than passable.

Holland America says more than half of its Alaskan cruise passengers add a land tour, a number that’s grown dramatically in recent years.  On some itineraries, the number of people buying the “land + sea journey” has been as high as 70 percent.

White Pass Yukon Railroad

The historical White Pass and Yukon Railroad

The first leg of the land tour was the most spectacular.  Our group took the historical White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad from Skagway to Fraser, B.C.  The railroad was built in 1898 to transport prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush.  Today, it takes mostly tourists through narrow mountain passes, past cascading waterfalls and across glacial terrain.  Billed as the “scenic railway of the world,” the three-hour, 28-mile trip did not disappoint.

A bus was waiting for us in Fraser, and then it was off to Whitehorse, capital of the sparsely populated Yukon Territory.  Larger than the state of California, the Yukon has a population of about 35,000.  As our driver Jess joked, the Yukon has the distinction of being the first Canadian region to be named after an American SUV.

Our three days spent in the Yukon were focused on learning about the colorful history of the gold rush, which brought more than 100,000 “stampeders” to the region after gold was found on a small tributary of the Yukon River near Dawson City in 1896.  Few of the prospectors struck it rich.  Only about 30,000 completed the arduous 449-mile, six-month journey from Skagway to Dawson City; the rest perished or gave up along the way.

Yukon gold panning

 Panning for gold at a working mine in the Yukon

It took our group just three days to make the trip.  In Dawson City, I especially enjoyed a sightseeing tour to a working gold mine.  James, our guide who lives and works at the mine, demonstrated how modern technology involving heavy equipment has made obsolete the gold-panning techniques used by the prospectors more than 100 years ago.

Nevertheless, James fitted us with boots and took us into the shallow waters of Gold Bottom Creek to try our luck at panning.  We were promised that we could keep whatever we found.  Two summers ago, a tourist pulled a 2-ounce gold nugget, worth an estimated $2,500, out of the river.  My luck wasn’t nearly so good.  After 15 minutes of shaking, dipping, bending and praying, the only material remaining at the bottom of my pan was worthless dirt. “It’s a bust,” James said after examining the results of my work.

However, not all of us went home empty-handed.  The tourist panning next to me – a man from Spain – had discovered a gold flake.  I vicariously celebrated his newfound riches until James burst my bubble once again.  “About a half-penny,” he said, when I asked him to estimate the value of the Spaniard’s discovery.

Alaskan Husky puppies

Alaskan Husky puppies at the kennel of Iditarod champion Jeff King

From Dawson City, Holland America put us on a one-hour charter flight to Fairbanks, gateway to Denali National Park.  Our first evening in Denali, I booked an excursion called the “Husky Homestead Tour,” which took us to the home and kennel of Jeff King, a four-time Iditarod sled-dog race champion.

We got to see about 50 Alaskan Huskies living on the property and were even allowed to pose for pictures with some adorable 6-week-old puppies.  Some of the older dogs put on a racing demonstration.  But because there was no snow on the ground, instead of tugging a sled, they pulled an ATV.

Afterward, King – who, if he wasn’t one of the best mushers in the world, could easily make a living as a stand-up comedian — regaled our group with stories of his 24 races in the Iditarod, a grueling 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome held each March.

The next morning I was up early for my whitewater-rafting trip on the Nenana River.  In the afternoon, our group took a 126-mile bus tour through the heart of Denali, which at 6 million acres is about the same size as the state of Vermont.

Alaskan scenery

  Alaskan scenery visible from the McKinley Explorer train

We saw caribou, moose and red foxes.  Unfortunately, clouds and rain rolled in and we didn’t get to see Denali’s most famous site – the notoriously camera-shy Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak.  Sanady, our guide, told us that only about 10 percent of visitors to Denali are lucky enough to see an unobscured view of the 20,320-foot mountain.

On our final day, we took an eight-hour train trip from Denali to Anchorage on the luxurious McKinley Explorer.  The weather hadn’t cleared up, but we still enjoyed some stunning views of the Alaska Mountain Range and deep river gorges.

Other than the temporary discomfort of a few mosquito bites and one sobering glacial facial, I had survived my true Alaskan adventure.

© 2014 Dan Fellner

Downtown Juneau Alaska

Get To know Juneau

By | Alaska, Cruising | No Comments

Alaska’s cool capital is literally off the beaten path

East Valley Tribune – October 10, 1999

JUNEAU, Alaska – While we gape at a pair of bald eagles perched on a tree lining the road, the guide on our tour bus directs our attention to a nondescript building on the right.

“It’s the most dangerous school in America,” she says of Juneau-Douglas High School. Guns and gangs posing problems in such a charming and quaint city as Juneau, Alaska, we wonder?

Downtown Juneau

  Summer flowers bloom in downtown Juneau

No, she explains, the school must contend with threats of an entirely different nature – avalanches, earthquakes and tidal waves.

Such catastrophes are relatively rare in Juneau. Indeed, visiting what is arguably the nation’s prettiest capital city and most interesting cruise-ship stop on Alaska’s Inside Passage is well worth the risk.

Juneau is the proverbial “can’t get there from here” town. Surrounded by water and impenetrable mountains and forests, it’s the only state capital in the country that can’t be reached by road from anywhere else in the state.

Thus, Juneau is the answer to one of the most frequently asked bar trivia questions.

It’s also a cruise ship mecca. More than half a million big-boat passengers arrive in Juneau each summer. It’s not uncommon to see five or more liners docked in the city’s scenic downtown harbor, nestled on the Gastineau Channel beneath a pair of nearly 4,000-foot peaks — Mount Roberts and Mount Juneau.

Visitors like what they find. A Los Angeles Times readers’ poll ranked Juneau the fifth best cruise destination in the world. The city of 30,000 residents offers a unique blend of colorful history, politics and scenery, including the world’s only “drive-in” glacier.

Add to the mix the obligatory bevy of cruise-port shopping opportunities – yes, there’s even a Little Switzerland store — and it’s easy to see Juneau emerging as the St. Thomas of the Inside Passage.
Juneau has the distinction of being the first town founded in Alaska after the U.S. purchased the territory from Russia. In 1880, a Tlingit chief named Kowee led prospectors Joe Juneau and Richard Harris to gold in a creek off the Gastineau Channel. The gold rush was on.

Two Juneau museums capture the flavor of the town’s colorful history as a mining town – the Last Chance Mining Museum and Juneau-Douglas City Museum, the latter of which specializes in displays for children.

Gold enthusiasts also can go panning for riches near the ruins of an old mine. You get to keep what you pull out of the river, but don’t quit your day job – they sell vials of water containing as much gold powder as you’re likely to scoop out of your pan for $3 at local souvenir shops.

For a more adult-oriented taste of frontier Alaska, check out the Red Dog Saloon. It’s got sawdust on the floor, locally brewed Alaskan Amber beer on tap, and one of Wyatt Earp’s pistols on the wall. On his way to Nome in 1900, he stopped in Juneau, where the local authorities asked him to check his gun. He left town without claiming it.

Juneau’s gold mining era ended in the 1940s. By then, though, the town had shifted gears from prospecting to politics.

Trolley car in downtown Juneau

  A trolley car gives passengers a lift in downtown Juneau

The city became Alaska’s territorial capital in 1906 and has hung on to the state’s seat of government ever since, although there have been several unsuccessful attempts to move the capital to a more accessible and centrally located city.

Today, government is Juneau’s biggest industry, accounting for 57 percent of all wages. Tourism is second, followed by commercial fishing.

Piano-playing political satirist Mark Russell described the State Capitol Building as looking like “any Midwestern public works building.” He was right.

Despite its boring exterior, the inside has some fascinating old photos and free tours are offered throughout the day. If nothing else, take a look at a replica of the fractured Liberty Bell out front. Whoever did the engraving fractured the spelling of the state that houses the original (“Pensylvania”).

Just down the street is the Governor’s Mansion. Built in 1912, it could pass for a southern plantation house, if it weren’t for the huge totem pole on the side. Interestingly, the pole tells the story of the origin of the mosquito, which some refer to as Alaska’s “state bird” during the summer months.

The building still houses the state’s governor. Tony Knowles and his family host a tea here every Christmas and the guest list includes more than 600,000 people – all the state’s residents.

For an architectural change of pace, stroll over to the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, the oldest religious building in southeast Alaska. Built in 1894 in Siberia, this small octagonal structure with a gold onion-dome is a reminder of the strong Russian presence in 19th-century Alaska. It was refurbished in the 1970s and is a national historic landmark.

But Juneau’s most popular attraction is not man-made.

Mendenhall Glacier

 Mendenhall Glacier is the most visited glacier in the world

Located about 13 miles from downtown is the most visited glacier in the world, Mendenhall Glacier.

Mendenhall stretches 12 miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide. It’s got a bluish tint, common for glaciers, which absorb all colors of the spectrum except for blue, giving the ice its bluish appearance.

There may be prettier glaciers in Alaska, but none that are as accessible. A tour bus or cab will drop you off at a recently renovated U.S. Forest Service observatory. From there, a short walk takes you to within a quarter-mile of the glacier.

For those with more time and money, you can see the glacier by plane, helicopter, river raft, kayak or bicycle tour. Some excursions even throw in a king-salmon bake for those who get hungry watching the ice melt.

Since the mid-1700s, the glacier has been retreating about 70 feet each year, creating a flatland where they’ve put a nine-hole golf course the locals call the “worst golf course with the best view in America.” At high tide, it becomes an eight-hole course.

Another popular Juneau attraction is the Mount Roberts Tramway, located right next to the cruise-ship dock. A six-minute ride takes you to the top of the peak for a wonderful panoramic view of the town and its surroundings. There’s a museum and nature trails. It’s pricey, though — $19.75 for adults – and don’t bother going if the weather isn’t clear.

The weather isn’t clear most of the time in Juneau — it rains or snows an average of 321 days a year. Bring an umbrella, although it will identify you as a tourist. Alaskans are known for shunning umbrellas, partly because the rain here is usually accompanied by strong winds.

And bring your binoculars. Aside from bald eagles, plenty of other wildlife, including humpback whales and brown and black bears, can be spotted in the vicinity.

Sadly, most visitors to Juneau get to spend all of 12 hours here before their cruise ships depart for the next port-of-call. Like a trip to the midnight buffet, you’ll leave satisfied but wondering just a bit about all the treats you didn’t sample.

© 2009 Dan Fellner