Alaskans Warm to Chabad Rabbi On Religious Beliefs

by Tova Bernbaum - ANCHORAGE, ALASKA

November 9, 2004

The University of Alaska Anchorage has seen its share of religious tension in the past year, but the campus bookstore was a haven for tolerance and peaceful discussion on Monday night when a trio of local religious leaders, including Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, came together to speak on the topic of “Religious Beliefs Surrounding Life, Birth and Death.”

“This was an opportunity to speak to Jews who wouldn’t normally come to Jewish events,” Rabbi Greenberg said. “It (the discussion) also helps to ease anti-Semitism by us recognizing each other as human beings.”

The panel also included Achan Sungwarn, a Buddhist monk, and Soe Tha, a representative from the Islamic Center of Alaska. Though the tone of the evening was friendly, the speakers were not afraid to diverge on certain issues. Tha, for example, said that religious questioning had no place in Islam, while Rabbi Greenberg stressed the importance of soul-searching and spiritual inquiry in Judaism. Sungwarn pointed out that unlike Islam and Judaism, Buddhism does not believe in one G-d. However, the three men agreed that all religions essentially come from the same source.

Rabbi Greenberg emphasized that religion cannot simply be faith-based but must also be intellectual. “The audience was sitting there, literally, with their mouths open because they’re not used to hearing religious people talk like that,” he said.

To illustrate the concept of harmony between heart and mind, he told the story of Abraham, who felt in his heart that there must be one G-d but still had to search for answers for forty years before he knew monotheism to be true on an intellectual level. “That’s the journey of life: to bring heart and mind together,” he said.

The peaceful vibe of Monday’s discussion was a far cry from the controversial forum Rabbi Greenberg took part in at the University in April. That dialogue, between the Rabbi and a music professor named Philip Munger, who had composed a pro-Palestinian cantata to be performed at the University, resulted in heated hostility among audience members and highlighted the Jewish-Arab conflict taking place in many college campuses across the nation. The musical work paid tribute to an American activist who was killed by Israeli bulldozers in what Israeli officials argue was a horrible accident and others say was an intentional killing. The cantata, which argues the latter viewpoint and uses the incident to criticize Israel, provoked strong opposition from the Alaskan Jewish community and attracted much media attention. Munger eventually cancelled the performance of his work amidst criticism.

Though Rabbi Greenberg dislikes being embroiled in local politics, he says one positive thing came out of the incident: a Jewish student who had been following the controversy contacted the Rabbi and became involved with Chabad. She also happens to work at the campus bookstore, so when she was putting together a panel of religious scholars, Rabbi Greenberg was a natural choice to speak on the Jewish perspective.

According to Rabbi Greenberg, the smooth and cooperative nature of Monday night’s discussion is a far more accurate representation of the Alaskan culture, which he characterizes as mainly tolerant, than April’s rowdy forum. As an example of the Jewish community’s prominence and acceptance in Anchorage, he cites the success of the auction Chabad recently held to fundraise for a new Jewish museum. Several members of Alaska’s elite, including Senator Ted Stevens, were among the 400 or so people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who attended the event. The rabbi even managed to get the mayor of Anchorage to act as auctioneer. All in all, it was a long way off from the tiny community of seven or eight families he and his wife, Esty, founded when they first arrived in Anchorage in 1991. But Rabbi Greenberg, for his part, isn’t complaining.

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