Being Jewish in Alaska
March 15, 2019
When Dr. Liz Ross joins her fellow women congregants at Congregation Shalom Aleichem on the bima for the blessing over the candles, she pulls the hood of her kuspuk, her traditional Native Alaskan snow dress, over her head. And on her neck, her gold Star of David catches the light of the flickering flames. A business woman, a college professor, and a black belt in karate, Ross also carries with her the love and respect of her double heritage: Judaism and Native Alaskan.
Ross will share her knowledge at Congregation Shalom Aleichem in her talk titled “A Jew In Alaska.” The presentation will be held on Friday, March 29, at 8 p.m. on 3501 Oak Pointe Boulevard, Kissimmee; email email@example.com or call 518-859-6774 for more information and to make a reservation.
Ross’s great-grandparents had fled their native Kyrgyzstated in the late 19th century to escape the pogroms. A fur-trapping family, they were nomads who lived throughout the then-Russian territory. Out of fear of discrimination, they rarely spoke about their Jewish heritage to their only child, Ola. “It was a taboo subject,” said Ross. “We were told there are some doors that should not be opened.”
In the 1920s, Ola married Joe Nashoalook, a Native Alaskan who served as the chief of the Inupiaq village of Unalakleet in the Bering Straits region. Their daughter Anna, the oldest of the Nashoalook children, met her husband Arthur Ellis when he was stationed in Nome, Alaska, during World War II. He continued in the Army for 30 years, a career that took Anna and seven of their children, including Ross, to military bases throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.
After graduating from high school in Colorado Springs, Ross began her post-secondary education in a community college before enrolling in the University of West Florida. During this time, she often visited her older sister, Nancy, who had been raised by a childless aunt and uncle from Nome, Alaska, who were observant Jews. Experiencing this “taboo” subject for a first time sparked in Ross an interest in learning about Judaism that has lasted a lifetime.
In 1979, Ross met her husband, Jeff Ross, and they were married in 1980. Over the next several years, they had four children. All of the children attended private schools through eighth grade. Their oldest son attended public school from eighth grade through his graduation. The other three children were home schooled, where they received an “eclectic” education which gave them the flexibility to join Ross on her trips to Alaska as well to travel around the world as a family. “I wanted them to understand all backgrounds,” said Ross. “There was so much prejudice, and I wanted them to be open-minded.” Liz and Jeff are proud that all four attended college or trade schools.
A self-confessed “Type A” personality, Ross continued with her education despite her arduous schedule. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration in New Hampshire and a doctorate in finance and management from the Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.
In addition, the time spent with her observant relatives led Ross to study for eight years with a rabbi to reconnect with her Jewish roots, opening a door that her mother had kept closed. Her learning culminated in her formal conversion, complete with the mikvah, or ritual bath, in 2003. “The rabbi said that since my mother was Jewish it was unnecessary,” said Ross. “As I wasn’t brought up with a traditional Jewish education, however, it was important for me to undergo a formal conversion.” She chose Leah as her Hebrew name, a moniker which is as important to her as her Inupiaq name, Kanuk (snow goose).
While the family established their home base in New Hampshire, Ross split her time between New England and Alaska. She worked as a board member of the Thirteenth Regional Corporation, where responsibilities included procuring and implementing government contracts to invest in local business ventures. She also volunteered as the CEO of the Native Village of Unalakleet Corporation, her way of giving back to her grandparent’s home.
Practicing Judaism in remote rural Alaska provided challenges. As the only Jew, Ross often observed the holidays and festivals on her own—baking challah, lighting Shabbat candles, and drinking grape juice—the best alternative to wine in a “damp” community that set limits on the amount of alcohol a person may fly in per month. Determining the Sabbath candle lighting time was difficult, as sunset happened as early as 3:30 in the winter and 1 a.m. in the summer. If Ross was in Alaska during the High Holy Days, she would travel to Fairbanks, the closest place with a synagogue.
In 2005, Ross took a position as the program director of the master of business program at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. She also was the business and karate instructor for Rural Alaska Honors Institute, mentored the Native Alaskan Business Leaders, a student organization, and founded a martial arts class.
Ross also became the first Native Alaskan to teach the business class for the Rural Alaska Honors Institute. The six week summer-program was developed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks at the request of the Alaska Federation of Natives to encourage Native Alaskan high school students to finish college so they could bring back new ideas and business expertise to their villages. “You need to use your time here so you can grow, and then give back to your own communities,” Ross told her students.
Ross stated that most participants had grown up in small remote villages that could only be accessed by air taxis or dog sleds. “Many had never left their home villages,” said Ross. In addition, some students having grown up in a subsistence lifestyle where all their food was obtained through planting, hunting, and fishing. “The students experienced culture shock when they found they could buy meat and vegetables in a supermarket.”
While in Fairbanks, Ross established her first official membership in a synagogue when she joined Congregation Or HaTzafon. Rabbinical students/cantors lead services during the summer months, while an ordained rabbi oversees the High Holy Day services. During the rest of the year, members of the Ritual Committee plan and oversee events, including the weekly oneg.
The congregation has established that candle lighting time was 7:30 p.m., no matter when sundown officially occurred. Long, cold Alaska winters, however, impacted many Jewish holidays. Ross remembers building a Sukkot in several inches of snow and eating the traditional meals with heavy coats and snow boots.
In 2015, Ross took a position as executive director of the Small Business Development Center at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Similar to her position in Alaska, Rossmentored members of the Native American tribes in Southwest Colorado through business education classes and entrepreneurial support.
Ross strives to keep kosher, satisfying much of the requirements by keeping to a fish and vegetarian diet. Jeff, who is Catholic, follows her dietary restrictions up to a point. “After almost 40 years together, we both have found a middle ground,” said Ross. “ Our values are conservative with a strong faith in G-d.”
Meanwhile, Ross keeps learning about both her Native Alaskan and Jewish heritage. A Chinese quote, “Learning is a treasure that follows its owner everywhere” is embedded on Ross’s email signature.