Faith in the Wilderness
In a town where there is no rabbi, no synagogue, no Torah, and no roads out, it’s hard to imagine how a Jewish community could flourish. But in the far reaches of Bethel, Alaska, a few families have learned to pull their faith even closer, and make do with what’s available. Bethel was named by missionary settlers about 100 years ago, and grew quickly to its current status of around 6,000 residents and 16 churches. The small Jewish congregation is a mish-mash of about 20 members, who all have one thing in common: they call Bethel home. The town sits on the banks of Alaska’s second largest river, the Kuskokwim, about 50 miles inland from the frigid Bering Sea. Although it’s 400 miles away from the nearest road system, Bethel is still the metropolis of the river’s Delta, providing services to 50 remote villages, ranging in size from a few households to over a thousand residents each. Most of the people in the region are Yup’ik Eskimo, with the large majority speaking their native language.
The tree-less, tundra-covered landscape can be harsh, reaching -40 Fahrenheit in the winter – a season that lasts most of the year. When Solomon Krevans had his bar mitzva on April 30th, the Kuskokwim River was still frozen solid with ice, and local residents were traveling by snowmobile. Krevan’s bar mitzva was the first ever in Bethel. “It’s what’s going to give me my connection in other places to the Jewish religion,” Solomon said. “I mean, you can be Jewish and do the same things that Jewish people do, but you aren’t exactly considered as Jewish and you’re not exactly given as many responsibilities in Jewish communities if you haven’t had your bar mitzva.” His father, who goes by J.R., said he is proud of his son.
“I’m glad that he’s chosen to go on with that path. It’s worked for me,” J.R. Krevans said. “I’m also glad he doesn’t see it as the only path, that he has learned to really respect, not tolerate, others’ beliefs.” Solomon Krevans and his younger sister and brother have grown up learning first-hand the intricacies of the region’s native culture. Each one has attended Bethel’s Yup’ik Immersion elementary school, where the language of instruction is Yup’ik, phasing into English only in the older grades. J.R. Krevans said being Jewish in a public school hasn’t been a problem for them. “The background assumption of Christianity here is perhaps greater in some ways [than other places],” J.R. Krevans said. “The level of religion in the school is very high here, far beyond what is legal. It’s annoying at times, but it’s not a big deal, partly because our kids are pretty strong and pretty clear in their faith.” To prepare for his bar mitzva, Solomon Krevans studied every week for about a year with David Horesh. Horesh is not a rabbi, although some people in the small congregation affectionately call him one. “It slightly drives him crazy when we say it,” J.R. Krevans said.
Because of his strong faith and the fact that he grew up in Israel, Horesh was asked to guide Krevans in his studies. That and because the congregation’s new Torah is kept at the Horesh household. Horesh had been thinking about getting a Torah for a while. He had found an Iraqi Torah on the Internet two years ago, but decided to pass up the opportunity. “It was getting close to Shabbat,” Horesh explained, “and I told myself I can’t do it, it’s too late, I can’t bid on it. I’ll just go back and check on it Sunday morning. And it was 11 o’clock before I realized it, and being on the edge of the world, I missed the bidding. And so I missed out on the opportunity to get an Iraqi Torah, which broke my heart.”
Horesh, whose father is from Baghdad, spent most of his youth in Israel before moving to the US when he was 11. Although buying a Torah from his father’s country didn’t work out, things eventually fell into place. One night, a year and a half ago, Bethel’s Jews were gathered at the Horesh household. The men were in the kitchen, the women in the nearby family room, all discussing the bar mitzva. Eleven-year-old Krevans suggested they look for a Torah, and Horesh proceeded to pull out his laptop computer. He found three on e-Bay; one was from Israel.
“All the guys said, ‘I’m in for a thousand… I’m in for a thousand,'” Horesh said. “And that’s what all the women in the other room heard. And they yelled, ‘you’re in for a thousand for what?'” They found out the next morning they had won the bid – $3,000, plus $100 for shipping from Israel. Horesh said the funny thing was, it came wrapped in Christmas paper, which even made his children giggle. Horesh has four children, ages seven, six, five and four. The Horesh children are home-schooled, because David and his wife Dana think it would be too hard for them as Jews in public school. At home, Horesh teaches them Western studies along with Hebrew and a heavy dose of Judaism. Although the local culture involves the subsistence hunting and fishing of arctic animals, including moose, caribou, seal and birds, the Horeshes keep a kosher home. They fish a lot, and they air freight hundreds of pounds of kosher meat and dairy products from Seattle, Washington every year. Dozens of pounds of chicken and cheese can be found in the family’s freezer on any given day, and boxes of matza ball mix are stacked high in their pantry.
Horesh said having the Torah in his home has enriched his family’s identity. He said that they initially thought they would only take it out of the Ark during the High Holy Days, but he said it demanded more. “Because it’s here in my house, I can’t ignore it, out of a measure of respect,” Horesh said. “Because I can’t ignore it, I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do, and then because I’m doing that, it’s a natural progression that I’m going to invite others to join me. And so really out of nowhere about a year ago, we started having Saturday morning services here every week.” J.R. Krevans agreed that having the Torah so accessible is a good thing. Krevans grew up in New England attending a temple and weekend religious school. He moved to Bethel in 1984 to work as a doctor at Bethel’s regional hospital. “Most places, the Torah is owned and kept by a big congregation and you see it up at the front of the synagogue and maybe you handle it every now and then,” J.R. Krevans said. “What’s interesting is that handling one and being around one more frequently has not made it less special, it’s made it, in fact, more special.”
Bethel’s Jewish congregation held a community-wide Seder this year. About 100 people from different faiths gathered together in the hall Saturday evening to hear the Haggada read, and to eat matza ball soup. Although this was not the first time they had held a Seder for the general public, J.R. Krevans said this year was special because his son, Solomon, had asked to lead the ceremony. Under Horesh’s guidance, Solomon had prepared the Haggada from start to finish. J.R. Krevans said people in Bethel notice how hard they work to maintain their religion, adding that most people in the town are not only tolerant of Judaism, but supportive of it. “When you have to work at something, it becomes more important, and people recognize that,” Krevans said. “Actually, compared to where I grew up, and certainly compared to a lot of the places I’ve visited in my life, Bethel is a wonderful community religiously. While there’s not a big Jewish community to be supportive of, you know, our path, we have to work harder, which maybe is good.”