Friday, February 26, 2010

Purim in Alaska 1973 & A Beautiful Photo of The Rebbe on Purim

The Avner Institute Would like to present a beautiful encounter that took place in Alaska with Rabbi Yisrael Haber, who was serving there at the time as Air Force chaplain.

The Rebbe Archive would like to present a special photo of the Rebbe on Purim 1953, with special thanks to Yechi Ezagui.

Good Shabbos

fter joining the U.S. Air Force as a chaplain and being assigned to Alaska, Rabbi Yisrael Haber informed the Pentagon that he could not go to Alaska as there was no mikva there. He was told, "Whatever you need, you'll get." Six months later, work began on the first mikva in Alaska, built at Elmendorf Air Force Base. The following is excerpted from Rabbi Haber's book "A Rabbi's Northern Adventure," Meor Menachem Pub.

Rabbi Haber relates:

"When I received word that the base engineers had gathered all of the material needed for the mikva's construction, I phoned Rabbi Gershon Grossbaum [an emissary of the Rebbe in S. Paul, Minnesota, and an expert in the intricacies of building a mikva], and he assured me that he would be ready to come at a moment's notice.

I asked for permission to bring the Rabbi to Elmendorf. Explaining that the holiday of Purim was just two weeks away, I suggested that Rabbi Grossbaum could visit Fairbanks at that time to lead the holiday festivities there. The Colonel agreed.

A few days later my wife Miriam and I went to Anchorage International Airport to welcome Rabbi Grossbaum. I explained that he would be meeting with Colonel Brame the following morning. Though the Colonel had spoken many times on the telephone with the Rabbi, he had no idea what Rabbi Grossbaum looked like. To ease the shock, I thought it proper to educate the Rabbi about protocol on a military base. "This is the military," I said. "People aren't used to black fedora hats."

I told him that when he walks into a building, he should take off his hat; he would still have his kippa on underneath. "When you leave the building, you can put your hat back on," I explained.

"No problem, Captain Haber," Rabbi Grossbaum said with a joking salute.

The next day, when we walked into the building, Rabbi Grossbaum looked around at the soldiers, put his hand to his hat and secured it in place.
"Now what am I going to do?" I thought.

People were gazing at us curiously. Many of them probably had never seen a Chasidic rabbi before. Rabbi Grossbaum looked as much a part of the Anchorage military scene as a polar bear would have looked in a Miami Beach hotel.

When I opened the door to the Colonel's office, I was in for a shock. Colonel Brame came around his desk and gave Rabbi Grossbaum a happy embrace. For six months, the Methodist Midwestern Air Force colonel and the Lubavitcher Rabbi had spoken on the telephone about mikvas, and now they hugged one another as if they had known each other for years.

A major and a sergeant from the engineer corps sat at a table observing the unusual greeting. Behind them, tacked to a corkboard, were blueprints and sketches of the proposed mikva. The engineers got down to work, explaining in technical jargon their plan for the mikva. In the middle of their discussion, Rabbi Grossbaum stood up, still with his hat on, and said, "Excuse me, may I say a few words?
"I have a few suggestions, if you don't mind. I think you've made some mistakes."

He took out a piece of graph paper and began to speak in technical terms, which I couldn't follow. I noticed that Colonel Brame was very impressed. As Rabbi Grossbaum continued to explain what sounded like a doctorate thesis in mikva construction, the Colonel flashed the major and sergeant disapproving looks for having made so many mistakes. When Rabbi Grossbaum finished, the engineers were speechless. They stared at their drawings and began asking questions.

Colonel Brame stood up and took me aside. "Chaplain," he said. "There's something about that Rabbi I have to talk to you about." Glancing at Rabbi Grossbaum, he whispered, "You see that Rabbi there? Now he really looks like a Rabbi."

In Colonel Brame's eyes, Rabbi Grossbaum could do no wrong. He dismissed the team of engineers and said, "Rabbi, you and I are going to build that mikva together."

Certainly it was no coincidence that the work on the mivka began in the Jewish month of Adar, a time of great happiness for the Jewish people. The following article appeared in the Anchorage Times on the eve of Purim:

"Today, Jews observe the Fast of Esther, followed tonight by the festive feast of Purim, with services scheduled in Chapel Number One at Elmendorf Air Force Base. During the one-day holiday, Rabbi Israel Haber will conduct services tonight and tomorrow morning, when Jews give charity, gifts to friends, and enjoy a boisterous Purim feast. Purim celebrates the victory of the Jews over King Ahasuerus who ordered that all of the Jews of his kingdom be put to death. Rabbi Haber said that this was a time of great joy, Jewish fellowship, and charity. Purim is especially beloved by children who are allowed to interrupt the reading of the Megilla, the Scroll of Esther, with special nosemakers called gragers whenever the name of Haman, the archenemy of the Jews, is mentioned.

"In Alaska, to conduct Purim and Shabbat services at Forth Wainwright in Fairbanks, is Rabbi Shalom Gershon Grossbaum, a member of the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect. He will return to Anchorage next week to direct the building of a ritual chamber called a mikva, to be located at Chapel Number Two. Rabbi Haber said that this will be the first ritualarium in Alaska."

The day after Purim, Rabbi Grossbaum was back on the job in Anchorage, working at a furious pace to finish the mikva. What a joy it was to see him standing with his black hat directing the plumbers, electricians, carpenters, cement layers and painters who arrived at each step of the project. And what fun it was to see the looks on their faces when they discovered that the construction site boss was a bearded Chasidic rabbi from Minnesota!