The town in Alaska where one finds real do-it-yourself Judaism at the grass- roots level is Juneau.
The state’s capital city, population 29,000, has no rabbi, no synagogue and no community center.
What it does have are some determined Jewish families and singles who wish to perpetuate their heritage, according to Mary-Claire Bernstein, a leading community activist.
Compared to the bleak Jewish situation she found 11 years ago, when she moved here from Berkeley, Calif., as a newlywed, there have been considerable forward strides.
“We have monthly Shabbat services in private homes, although conducting them remains a challenge,” she told a guest in her comfortable home. “We are a very young group, the kids run around and we’re not experts on the order of service.”
Bernstein said that about 40 families and 10 singles participate in Jewish activities, each paying $150 in annual dues, and she guessed that there are an additional 100 to 150 unaffiliated Jews in the city.
She and her husband Pete, who owns a marine supply store, are among the five or six couples in town in which both partners are both Jews. Only half of the Jewish community board members are Jewish.
Another problems is that Juneau’s population is highly mobile, with many departures and arrivals, and Bernstein estimated that over the past 15 years there has been a complete turnover among Jewish residents.
Yet with all the obstacles, things get done. For the High Holy Days, the community brings in a rabbi from the Lower 48, as the contiguous United States is known here.
Over the years, other communal observances have been added, including a Passover seder, Chanukah, Purim and, most recently, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust memorial Day). A summer camp for the kids is now a going concern.
The community has adopted a Russian-Jewish family and put on a benefit for it and for Operation Exodus, the absorption program for Russian immigrants in Israel.
In terms of education, Pete Bernstein said, “you can’t buy a Jewish education for your kids here. You’ve got to order the books, read them yourself and then to your children.”
In general, he said, “If you want something done, you have to make it happen yourself.”
Occasionally, services are augmented by Israelis working in fish canneries during the summer or following the dream, widely touted in their native country, that there is a fortune to be made in salmon fishing. Jews coming off the large cruise ships that anchor at the local port also drop by.
Juneau’s resident Jews have little contact with national Jewish organizations. “Occasionally, an (Anti-Defamation League) person comes up from Seattle,” said Bernstein, who directs the elementary education programs at the University of Alaska Southeast.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee “tried to get a few things going, and we did some lobbying for Israel with our legislators,” she added. “The nearest Israeli consulate is in San Francisco. I tried to become active in Hadassah and was told to join the chapter in Anchorage.”
Juneau is surrounded by glaciers and can only be reached by plane or ship. It is some 570 miles from Anchorage, where half of Alaska’s 3,200 Jews live.
Jews, who constitute less than 0.6 percent of Alaska’s 570,000 residents, are also scattered about in outlying areas far from the main concentrations in anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks.
Steven Cohen is a ranger guide in Denali National Park. His folks live in Missoula, Mont., pop. 43,000, where he worked as a bicycle mechanic. But the town got too big for him and he now earns a living in various national parks in Alaska and the Lower 48.
Manning the tour desk at the Denali Park Hotel, William James makes an arresting appearance with his luxuriant black beard, multicolored yarmulke and Megan David dangling from his neck.
The son of a Gentile father and Jewish mother, James grew up non-religious in Topeka, Kan. Now 38, he decided some years ago that he would become an Orthodox Jew and embarked on a self-directed program of study.
He works in national parks the year around, in California, the Grand Canyon and Minnesota.
Keeping kosher and the Jewish holidays is not easy, but he has a stack of canned tuna in reserve and eats a lot of salads. Absent any other Jews, he hikes into the back country for Yom Kippur, pitches his tent and conducts his personal services.
Does his unusual appearance elicit any comments from fellow workers or visitors? Not at all, he said. “I get a very positive reaction from people, especially if they are from New York or Florida.”