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 U.S. 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. Bob 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 minyan 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 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. Bob 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 record which make a 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.
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 at least 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. Seymore Gitin, chaplain during the early 1960s, inspired the community to organize a Jewish Sunday school which has been operating steadily for nearly 30 years and has schooled well over 100 Fairbanks Jewish children.
In 1960, Jews in the military still outnumbered civilian Jew 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. The close 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.
A new Fairbanks Jewish community and board of directors were formally organized as the Jewish Congregation of Fairbanks in 1980, and a chapter of Hadassah in 1986. Currently there are about 300 Jews in the Fairbanks area. About a third of these identify with and participate in Jewish life in one way or another and perhaps over half of their children attend the Sunday school. Regular High Holy Day and Festival services are held each year. Friday night Sabbat services were held once monthly until 1985 when they became weekly. Special events such as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or Brit Milah are celebrated as occasions arise.
Our first summer rabbi served in 1989, and since then we have featured an array of talented rabbis and cantors from the Hebrew Union College program and elsewhere. Our High Holy Day services are led by former summer rabbis/cantors who are eager to return, or other leaders who are interested in participating in our warm, inclusive community. Weekly erev Shabbat services are led by community members. The Fairbanks Jewish community is guided by a fluctuating but dedicated membership and friends from throughout Interior Alaska.
*Historian’s note – Michael Krauss
“As I was preparing to move to Alaska in the summer of 1960 and was buying a suit in Cleveland, Ohio, I asked for such heavy material that the department store clerk asked, “What are you moving to, Alaska?” When I said, as a matter of fact, I was moving to Fairbanks, his first reaction was, “Then you’ve got to look up Bob Bloom. I was stationed there during the war. We used to go to his house. Such a Seder I never had.””