The first Jews came to Alaska with the Russian explorer Vitus Bering. In the period of Russian rule, the Jews of Alaska were trappers and traders.
In the 1850s and 1860s, San Francisco Jews developed extensive commercial ties with the Russian-American Company in Alaska, and many Jewish fur traders visited regularly. Shortly after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, Jewish traders, miners, fur dealers, and merchants arrived from San Francisco to probe the new territory. Lewis Gerstle and Louis Sloss, San Francisco merchants, founded the Alaska Commercial Company in 1868. The company developed steamboat transportation and financed some of Alaska's first mining ventures.
Polish immigrant Solomon Ripinsky arrived in 1884. His various occupations echo those of other Jewish pioneers: law clerk, teacher, trading post operator, postmaster, notary, lawyer, elected convention delegate, and U.S. Commissioner. Mt. Ripinsky in Haines is named for him.
The first Jewish settlers of Juneau were Robert Gottstein and his wife (1885). Their son Jacob came to Anchorage at its founding in 1915. He established a trading and warehouse business, the J.B. Gottstein Company, that later combined with Carr's Grocery to form Carr-Gottstein, Inc., at one time the largest private employer in Alaska.
Gold Rush Attracts Jewish Immigration
Jews began coming to Alaska in sizable numbers during the Gold Rush of the late 1890s, when they set up general merchandise stores, law offices and mining operations. After the Gold Rush subsided, some Jews remained in the cities. As many as 200 Jews lived in the Klondike at the height of the gold rush. Dawson City, in the Yukon Territory, was site of the region's first Jewish services (1898). The small Jewish section of Klondike's cemetery Bet Chaim was established 1902 and later restored in 1998 through the efforts of the Jewish Historical Society of the Yukon.
During the Nome gold boom of 1900, a Jewish congregation was initiated when some sixty Jews attended Rosh HaShanah services. In 1901, the congregation established the state's first Jewish organization, the Hebrew Benevolent Society. The isolated community declined after World War I.
In 1904, a group of fortune hunters and businessmen in Fairbanks organized a congregation and a year later acquired a cemetery that is still the only Jewish burial ground in Alaska. The congregation became Congregation Bikkur Cholim in 1908, holding services at the home of Lithuanian Jew Robert Bloom, a congregation founder who had arrived in the Klondike in 1898 and served as the Yukon's first lay rabbi for nearly half a century. He was chairman of Alaska's Jewish Welfare Board, instrumental in the establishment of an Air Force base in Alaska, a founder of the University of Alaska (1918) and a charter member of its Board of Regents. Jessie Spiro Bloom established the Fairbanks kindergarten and first Alaskan Girl Scout chapter (1925).
In 1906, a Jewish emigre to Alaska from Russia named Abe Spring first proposed that Alaska be used as a refuge for persecuted Jews. His suggestion that victims of Russian pogroms be allowed to settle in Alaska, however, was rejected by the U.S. Congress.
From the 1940s to the 1970s, most of the Jewish population consisted of military personnel, including chaplains serving at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage. From 1970 to 2001, the Jewish population increased dramatically, going from 190 to 3,400, as many sought out a quieter lifestyle.
As of 2013, approximately 6,150 Jews live in Alaska, accounting for less than one percent of Alaska's total population. More than three-quarters of the Jewish population resides in the three largest cities - Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Smaller communities exist in Sitka, Homer, Ketchikan, Soldotna, Kenai, Haines and Bethel.
There are currently two synagogues operating in the capital Anchorage - the Reform Congregation Beth Sholom and the Orthodox Lubavitch Jewish Center. Congregation Beth Sholom was established in 1958 - its current building was built in 1982 - and is the state's largest synagogue. From 1984 to 2000, Rabbi Harry L. Rosenfeld was Beth Sholom's rabbi.
The Lubavitch Jewish Center in Anchorage - which is officially named the Esformes Jewish Campus of Alaska - was established in 1991 by Chabad emissaries Rabbi Yossi and Esty Greenberg. It is Alaska's only Orthodox congregation. In July 2013, the campus held a ceremonial opening of the Alaska Jewish Museum and Cultural Center. Concieved as an idea in 2004, the Jewish Museum houses exhibits that trace Alaska’s contribution to Jewish life and the contribution of Jews to Alaska. “On the Wings of Eagles,” the museum’s opening exhibit, tells the story of the role Alaska Airlines pilots played in Israel's Operation Magic Carpet in 1950, during whcih 49,000 Yemenite Jews were brought to the Jewish State. Senator Mark Begich, Congressman Don Young and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan all attended the museum’s grand opening on July 4, 2013.
In Juneau, the Reform Congregation Sukkat Shalom purchased its first synagogue building after a number of year operating in public locations and members homes. In 2011, the congregation reached another milestone when it installed its first residential rabbi.
Fairbanks' Reform Congregation Or HaTzafon (Light of the North, in Hebrew) is touted as the world's farthest-north synagogue, located just 125 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Each February, the synagogue organizes a "Farthest North Jewish Film Festival."
From the time Jews first settled in Alaska, they have been prominent in political life. The first mayor of Anchorage was Leopold David; several years later Zachary Loussac served in the same capacity. In 1958, when Alaska was approved for statehood, Ernest Gruening, a former territorial governor, was elected as a United States Senator. From 1965 to 1997, Jay A. Rabinowitz was a justice on the Alaska Supreme Court, serving four terms as Chief Justice. Avrum M. Gross served as Attorney General from 1974 to 1980.
As of 2017, the Jewish population in Alaska was approximately 5,750.
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved; Yereth Rosen, "Alaska: The Great Big Jewish Land," Moment Magaine, (January 2012); JTA (July 21, 2013)
J.S. Bloom, "The Jews of Alaska," in: American Jewish Archives, 15:2 (1963), 97–116. R. Glanz, The Jews in American Alaska, 1867–1880 (1953); R. Gruber Inside of Time: My Journey From Alaska to Israel (2002); J. Katzen-Guthrie, "A Thriving Jewish Life on the Northern Frontier" (2004), at: www.joyfulnoise.net/JoyAlaska5.html; T.T. Kizzia, "Sanctuary: Alaska, the Nazis, and the Jews," in: Anchorage Daily News (May 16–19, 1999), at: www.adn.com/adn/sanctuary/stories/; B. Reisman and J.I. Reisman, Life on the Frontier: The Jews of Alaska (1995); S. Steinacher and K.J. Graham, "Jewish History in Nome," in: The Nome Nugget (2000), at: www.yukonalaska.com/Special/baylestorah.htm