By Nona Safra
As a child of Philadelphia’s Jewish community in the 1950s, I was surrounded by Jewish World War II veterans, Holocaust survivors, and immigrants from all over Europe. These people were survivors, had ‘shell shock,’ and needed jobs and opportunities.
My Dad, Meyer Safra, served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps and became a member of JWV’s Milton Kelkey Post #575. As treasurer of the local credit union, evenings in our home were filled with post members coming over for loans, payments, etc. I listened intently to their stories about the war, their lives, and sometimes their struggles following WWII and Korea. What I didn’t realize was the impact those heroes would have on my life some six decades later when I retired to Alaska and found myself as the Jewish godmother to a group of amazing veterans living in the Last Frontier.
My love for Alaska began when I was eight. I was always excited to get the third grade’s “My Weekly Reader” in school and the January 1959 issue had a story about the 49th state, Alaska. I came home and suggested that we move to Alaska. My father was appalled and cried out, “what would we do there? There are not Jews there! Are you crazy!” That was that – or was it?
Jews had lived in Alaska for 200 years and the largest groups were merchants and men who arrived due to military service. On October 1, 1867, the day of the formal transfer of Alaska to the United States, the American soldier who is credited with lowering the Russian flag and raising the first American flag in Sitka was a Jew named Benjamin Levy.
Among the many furriers who moved to Alaska was David Green, a man who helped Anchorage survive the Great Depression and WWII by making muskrat liners and parkas for U.S. service members who were monitoring the Aleutian Islands for Japanese activity. The hundreds of Jews who came to Anchorage during the war were welcomed by both the Green family and the rest of the Jewish community.
Green’s son, Perry, came of age during World War II. His father’s work making military parkas helped Perry understand support for our troops and he served in the U.S. Army for three years. Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan honored Perry Green’s enduring patriotism in 2020 saying, “I would say that Perry Green is the most patriotic American I know, and we have a lot of patriots in Alaska!”
The military bases in Alaska saw the arrival of hundreds of Jewish GI’s. Families, like the Greens in Anchorage and the Bloom family in Fairbanks, joined others in the Jewish community to host activities and organize Jewish holiday celebrations.
Among those Jewish GI’s was Private Joseph Sharp of Philadelphia. He was the first American killed in action on the North American continent in World War II. He died manning an anti-aircraft gun during an attack at Dutch Harbor in 1942 and posthumously received the Purple Heart for “meritorious acts.”
Another Jewish veteran who served in Alaska during WWII was Monroe B. Goldberg who was stationed in Alaska at Fort Richardson and Adak from 1943 to 1945. His archives comprise the Monroe B. Goldberg Collection at the Anchorage Museum in Anchorage.
It is reported that from the 1940s through the 1970s, Jewish military personnel outnumbered Jewish civilians in Alaska.
Jewish Chaplains at Elmendorf Air Base near Anchorage rotated every two years between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox leaders, and often ended up serving the entire Jewish community throughout Alaska. They would travel for bar mitzvahs and offered other learning opportunities. The Fairbanks Chaplain, Seymour Gitin, inspired the community to organize a Jewish Sunday school. In 2016, Captain Michael Bram became the first Jewish chaplain at Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson in 25 years.
This was the Alaska that called out to me. I am the daughter of a veteran, married two men who served our country, and had a daughter who graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. My parents even named me after my father’s best friend who died during the Battle of the Bulge. So, in 2011, I retired to Alaska and a new chapter of my life began. I became honorary Godmother to the greatest group of veterans – the ones who are part of a transition program called VIPER.
VIPER provides a seamless transition into the civilian workforce and meaningful long-term employment opportunities for exiting active-duty service members and their spouses. VIPER approaches an end to veteran suicide by tackling its primary causes of veteran underemployment, unemployment, and homelessness.
I must confess I have a favorite Godson among my VIPER veterans, Kyle Kaiser. While listening to him one morning, I thought about how I could help and what I could do. I remembered Rabbi Hillel’s saying that “he who saves one life saves the world.” And, the teaching of my great-grandfather, a Rebbe, that the only mitzvah greater than celebrating Shabbat is to save a life. I thought of my Dad and his cousins who had served in WWII and all of those men of the Milton Kelkey Post who I heard tell their stories. It all came together. VIPER was a fit!
As Alaskans, we know all good plans involve the outdoors. VIPER has outreach programs that create quality connections between participants and mentors in their Operation Combat Pike program. These mentors assess and clearly understand participants’ career goals while providing an opportunity to answer questions and concerns they may have about the transition from the military.
Alaska has more veterans per capita than any other state, a connection with a long-standing military history, and an understanding that Alaska stands ready around the clock as the United States’ arctic defense. With a focus on Alaska’s unique military history, VIPER has a division aptly named the Alaska Military Heritage Museum. This division’s objective is to identify, collect, preserve, and interpret Alaska’s rich military history from the remote Aleutians to interior locations in Alaska.
I am also involved with the Alaska Jewish Museum. It is an amazing place to learn about the role of Alaska during WWII, the Jews who wanted to leave Europe, and former Army Air Corps members who were part of Operation Magic Carpet which brought Yemini Jews to Israel. The Museum is collecting stories of veterans and their families who were stationed in Alaska. If you, your relatives, or friends have lived in Alaska, were stationed in Alaska, or were involved with military projects that affected the state, we invite you to submit your written stories directly by email or contact us to record your oral histories.
You can contact the Alaska Jewish Museum at www.alaskajewishmuseum.com.
Volume 75. Number 1. 2021