It’s every museum curator’s hope: That an exhibit will spark some type of reaction—a chuckle, a tear, a long stare, an “ooh” or “ahh,” perhaps even a small debate on what the art really means. However, what Leslie Fried, curator of the new Alaska Jewish Museum in Anchorage, Alaska, discovered when leading a party of Israelis through the museum shortly after its summer opening was completely unexpected.

The tour group, which included Jews of Yemenite descent, had been walking through the inaugural exhibit, “On the Wings of Eagles: Alaska’s Contribution to ‘Operation Magic Carpet.’” Through photos, personal testimonies, memorabilia and original art commissioned by Alaskan artists, it recounts how Alaska Airlines and its pilots aided in the rescue and evacuation of some 45,000 Jews from Yemen from the spring of 1949 to the fall of 1950, shortly after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

Suddenly, she recalled, one man started gesticulating wildly.

“He put his head down in his hands, and people started crowding around him. I said ‘What’s the matter?’ And his wife said, ‘He just recognized his sister’ ” in one of the photos.

“Everyone was just so overcome with emotion,” recounted Fried. "I looked at the image and I looked at his face, and they were identical. He looked exactly like her—the same expression, face, everything. It was really great. He was so happy. I sent him a copy of the picture.”

‘A Humanitarian Story’

Building connections to other Jews and the greater Alaskan community were key goals that Rabbi Yosef Greenberg had in mind when he first thought about opening a Jewish museum. He explained that the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—talked about the Seven Noahide Laws that non-Jews must follow, and how Jews can do a service to other nations by sharing the beauty of Judaism and the importance of a living a life with purpose and a spiritual connection to G‑d.

Capt. Elgen Long, a navigator during Operation Magic Carpet, was among the Alaska Airlines personnel to take part in the rescue of Jews from Yemen. (Photo: Lisa J. Seifert)
Capt. Elgen Long, a navigator during Operation Magic Carpet, was among the Alaska Airlines personnel to take part in the rescue of Jews from Yemen. (Photo: Lisa J. Seifert)

He thought a museum would be the best way to educate others, especially those of other faiths who might not feel comfortable in a religious setting.

Likewise, because a significant percentage of Alaska's 6,000 Jews are not observant, Greenberg figured that “a Jewish museum, which being inspired by and supported by Chabad, would be a way to engage the unaffiliated Jews who may not come to synagogue, the Chabad House or a [Passover] seder, but might relate to a Jewish cultural exhibit or museum.”

Equally as important was deciding what kind of museum to create because the rabbi wanted to be sure to convey a positive message with local ties, which may explain how “On Wings of Eagles” came to be the first exhibit.

“It’s a humanitarian story that connects Alaska with Israel, and praises Alaska’s humanitarian efforts,” the rabbi said. “It’s a very inspiring effort and done in a way that inspires [people] to act in a good way.”

The museum’s grand opening on July 3 was attended by a crowd that included Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska); Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska); Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska); Alaskan Gov. Sean Parnell; and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan. Since then, some 1,500 people have visited. The museum has also hosted religious and secular Jewish high school students from the lower 48 states, in addition to Christian groups, airline pilots, and, of course, residents of the Last Frontier.

The museum, said Fried, “creates connection and dialogue.”

“A museum is not only about items in a case; it’s about telling stories, learning the bigger concepts behind those stories, the bigger issues behind the stories, especially for children who haven’t heard the stories before,” she added.

Planning is well under way for a second exhibit, which will focus on the history of Jews in Alaska, including how they helped lobby for the territory’s purchase from Russia long before Alaska became the country’s 49th state. It’s expected to open in late 2014, to coincide with the city of Anchorage’s centennial celebrations. (The city, settled in 1914 and incorporated six years later, plans to host events throughout the year commemorating the milestone.)

Local officials, donors and more turned out for the grand opening of the Alaska Jewish Museum in July. (Photo: Lisa J. Seifert)
Local officials, donors and more turned out for the grand opening of the Alaska Jewish Museum in July. (Photo: Lisa J. Seifert)

“We want people in Alaska to know that this is a place where they can bring their items that tell their story—the story of Alaska Jews and the larger story of where they came from,” said Fried.

Chicago philanthropist Rabbi Morris Esformes donated the major portion of funds to get the museum up and running.

A Community Event

While a museum can affect those who walk through its doors, it also costs money to maintain, as do the myriad of programs run by Rabbi Greenberg and his wife, Esty.

To that end, the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska will be holding its 10th annual Jewish Cultural Gala on the evening of Saturday, Nov. 16. The celebration will feature live music (a Jewish band, the Nefesh Orchestra, is being flown in from Los Angeles for the occasion), a silent auction, dinner and more, with donations going toward further renovations of the museum, as well as the construction of both an indoor and outdoor playground for the Chabad-run Gan Yeladim Early Learning Center.

The gala will be a true Alaskan community event—not a solely Jewish one—as nearly two-thirds of the attendees every year aren’t Jewish, according to Greenberg. “We understood that there is such a thirst in the non-Jewish world for Jewish culture, Jewish music and Jewish food that by providing this in the state of Alaska, there will be people very happy to participate and attend and be inspired.”

The festivities don’t end there. The morning after the gala, Chabad will host a Jewish children’s concert for local families.

“Most of our community members are young families and you can’t bring children to the gala, but we don’t want our kids to lose out” on the music and fun, said the rabbi. “We’ve had several families who had met us for the first time at the gala, and the next day they brought their kids to the concert and ended up enrolling them in our school. The gala and concert caused them to be involved with the Jewish community.”

Now, there’s a brick-and-mortar museum to bring them into the fold as well.

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