I decided to have Kosher food for Shabbat in Alaska. With the Jewish communities found mostly in Juneau, Anchorage, and Fairbanks, I had a good chance of finding the food I needed. Fortunately, I found a place that could offer me some challahs. It got me thinking. I wanted to know how many Jews there were in Alaska and how they managed to observe Shabbat. In all, there are about 6,000 Jews in the state of Alaska. There are two synagogues in Anchorage and one in Fairbanks. Following up on the Shabbat customs in Alaska was quite easy. I had to find Jews that lit Shabbat candles. An interesting fact I learnt was that 91 percent of Alaskans observed Chanuka, which was about 30 percent more than what is observed in the rest of America.
Shabbat is observed as a ritual by all Jews. It is often stated that Shabbat is the most important of all observances that a Jew must follow routinely. So what does it ask me to do? The Ten Commandments clearly mention the rituals and give great importance to the seventh day of the week. What is also means is that members of my congregation can be given more chances to be summoned to the Torah on the day of Shabbat.
In general, Shabbat is a day of rest where most of my time should be spent in prayer and meditation. Abstaining from work is a part of the ritual, though it is often misunderstood by many as to what constitutes work and what does not. Melachah is the term used when reference is made to abstinence from work. It means to avoid work that is creative or that which allows one to exercise control over activities such as plowing, grinding, weaving, slaughtering, lighting or extinguishing a fire. In all there are 39 categories of forbidden acts.
Coming back to Alaskan Jews, another statistic of interest is that only around 6% of them were born there. The others came from other parts of the United States, mostly the Northeast and from the West coast. It was therefore safe to assume that most Jews do not have their families in Alaska. I had the opportunity to be part of the convention where a small group of around 10 Jews came together to have Seder together at the community meeting. This happened in Anchorage, which has a Jewish population of around 5,000 Jews. The same ritual is observed in at least 15 other towns.
A very interesting question I asked myself was how do the Jewish faithful get over the challenge of lighting candles in a place where the sun does not set in the summer, or rise in the winter. I knew that Shabbat candles are to be lit an hour after sunset on Friday. I probed further and found that reformists have safely fixed 7:30 p.m. as the time to light candles. However, orthodox Jews in Barrow would take a cue from Anchorage and do it at the same time as them. With the Jewish population living around just three areas, I found that mutual cooperation and well-set systems can help people get over the odd situation they were in.