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A good influence: Take a page from the Torah and start anew again

Visiting rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf talks about Alaska and Judaism

Posted: September 15, 2013 - 12:00am
Jessica Zimmerman Graf poses in an ice cave at the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau.  Lia Heifetz
Lia Heifetz
Jessica Zimmerman Graf poses in an ice cave at the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau.

For most of us, the new year is long past and we’ve likely forgotten about any resolutions we’ve made — we can start fresh this coming January — or if you are a member of the Jewish faith, you’ve likely just celebrated the high holidays and are feeling renewed.

Jessica Zimmerman Graf has spent the past two weeks in Juneau, for the high holidays, as a visiting rabbi. It’s not her first time in Juneau, nor will it be her last. She spent time in Juneau as a rabbinical student in 1999 and 2000, visiting once a month over the course of a year, and returned again in 2010. She said the decision to go to Juneau was all hers. She was curious to see how Alaska might influence Judaism and she had heard from the previous student rabbi in Juneau that it was a great community, so when the opportunity arose, she took it.

Zimmerman Graf chose to become a rabbi because she had always had an interest in her family’s history and story and their connection to the world at large, and she felt it was relevant to the modern world.

“I was always very aware of being Jewish and had a real love of the traditions and the holidays and the music, and I really wanted to learn more about the texts, the values, the philosophy and history, so I was interested in going to rabbinical school to really educate myself, and once I went to rabbinical school, I had a real interest in using that knowledge and information to really help other people explore their own Judaism and really love the tradition, which has been passed down to us for the last 5,774 years... and to help people really understand and appreciate Judaism, how relevant it is in our modern lives, and how to live in a Jewish framework,” Zimmerman Graf said.

Now, the high holidays of Judaism may not seem relevant if one practices another religion, or no religion, but as a man who Zimmerman Graf met on her last trip to Juneau said, he found things worth taking away from all the world religions he had studied — he was spending 10 days of awe in Southeast Alaska to recalibrate.

Zimmerman Graf described the high holidays, Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), and the 10 days of awe that come between, as a time of introspection and spiritual accounting.

If the timing seems strange, it’s because the Hebrew Calendar is a lunar calendar with solar corrections, with leap months added seven times every 19 years, and the new year falls on the new moon of the seventh month. This year, Zimmerman Graf said, is the earliest the high holidays will occur in a cycle.

So, some 9 months after the Gregorian calendar’s new year and six months after Passover, another holiday characterized by cleansing, are the high holidays.

Should anyone be interested in some mid-September soul searching, inspired by the high holidays, Zimmerman Graf suggested it is a good time to sit with children and talk about ideas of apologies and forgiveness. It’s a good time to do some personal and spiritual accounting, she said, to set intention for the year to come and to ask questions. It’s a good time to focus on what needs to be corrected and to cultivate a sense of awe and sacredness in the world, nature, God and community.

Tradition says Rosh Hashanah is the day God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into the book of life, while Yom Kippur is the day it is sealed, so these holidays are a good time to think about the fragility of life, Zimmerman Graf said.

Zimmerman Graf said Alaskans are in a unique position to understand the fragility of life, living as they do in a place of vast natural beauty and bounty, with many hunting and fishing and subsisting off the land. This was just one of the observations she had to share from her experiences in Alaska.

She said “Alaska Jews have a real Alaskan flavor,” with a great appreciation of the natural world, being outdoors, wildlife, food sustainability and a recognition that food is not to be taken for granted.

Zimmerman Graf said she saw similarities between Alaskans and Jews, that there is a certain pioneering spirit that both share.

“Jews have always been pioneering, entrepreneurial and self-reliant, creating what needs to be created to benefit the community,” she said, noting that she knows Alaskans who hunt or grow their own food and even build their own homes, while in the city there is more of a distance.

“There is a sense of exploration that comes directly out of the Torah, in one of the early stories in Genesis, God says to Abraham ... ‘Go forth and find your place,’ you know, go forth from the place where you’re comfortable, go forth from your parents’ home, from the land where you’re comfortable and find your place. There’s something to be said, and the sad part of Jewish history, is that the Jews have been persecuted and driven from their homes, our homes in many, many places over the centuries. There’s both a sense of sadness with not having the roots and history that other people have had the privilege to create... but also with that difficulty comes a real resilience that is about starting over again and not being so attached to one place, there’s a need to start over.”

Though she said she couldn’t speak for the Jewish community in Juneau, she said she got the sense that “people who came here as individuals, searching, whether they came here for a summer or a year, and I think the reason that so many Jewish folks from other places, without any connections here, stayed is because of a sense, an interest in creating a community wherever we go. And the people who came early on started a Jewish community and built a Jewish community and added more people as they came.”

Though the history of Jewish people in Alaska goes back more than a hundred years, Zimmerman Graf said, it was only eight years ago that Juneau’s congregation had a temple to call their own.

Prior to that, Sheryl Weinberg said in a 2005 Empire article about the dedication of the temple on Cordova Street, “We’ve been meeting in churches, people’s living rooms, the public library,” adding, “We’ll be here forever, hopefully.”

While many in Juneau’s Jewish community are transplants, she said there are new generations who have been born and raised here and who will raise their families here. “If they choose to settle here and live here, they won’t be New Yorkers anymore, they’ll be Alaskans... You know, it is sort of the story of the Jewish people in a way.”

How does your religion influence your life and how does being Alaskan influence your religion? Do you take from other religions, like celebrating the high holidays of Judaism or giving up something for Lent?

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