Premiere of Jewish Cultural Booth turns out to be a big hit
Every year, Karen Mahoy and her husband, Steve, join more than 200,000 visitors to the annual Alaska State Fair in the town of Palmer. Like many of their neighbors in the Last Frontier, the couple goes to enjoy the various shows, attractions and more.
This year, however, something new caught their attention: the Jewish Cultural Booth, sponsored by the Mat-Su Jewish Center Chabad-Lubavitch in the nearby town of Wasilla, and the Alaska Jewish Museum and Chabad-Lubavitch Alaska Jewish Campus, both in Anchorage.
“My husband and I were walking through the fair, and we came around the corner and there it was. They had a large menorah outside the booth, and people were inside walking around. It was so exciting,” said Karen Mahoy, who has lived in Wasilla for more than 30 years.
“It was just a nice oasis in the middle of all this hustle and bustle of the fair,” she added.
According to Joshua Fannon, 42, a native Alaskan, the booth was a huge hit. “I thought it was great,” he told Chabad.org. “There were a lot of people coming in and out. It was very attractive in the way it was set up. I thought they did a great job to bring in Jews and non-Jews” to learn about the Jewish community and history.
Plus, they were selling homemade challah, said Fannon, who bought a few loaves.
Providing an interactive, engaging experience while being warm and welcoming were key to making the 10-by-20-foot booth a success, says Chaya Greenberg, co-director of the Mat-Su Valley Jewish Center with her husband, Rabbi Mendel Greenberg. (Rabbi Mendy, as people call him, was raised in Anchorage. His parents, Esty and Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, direct the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska.)
The younger Greenbergs moved to Wasilla three years ago and set up a very temporary booth at last year’s state fair, open for just a day. When they decided to have a booth again this year, they knew they wanted it to be there for the entire two-week fair.
“We took the time to plan a really well-designed, purposeful space,” she said. “For example, people could make their own shofars, as it was close to Rosh Hashanah. We also had a science-related, light-up activity using circuits to show kids the route that pilots from Alaska Airlines took to bring Jews from Yemen to Israel from 1948 to 1950.” (A detailed exhibit about this historic endeavor is on display at the Alaska Jewish Museum.)
In addition to showcasing various displays from the museum, there were craft projects for kids and adults, interactive workshops on Jewish holidays, story time, challah-braiding workshops, a food drive for a local pantry and more.
“People would stop by and say, ‘Oh, I have a Jewish friend’ or ‘I support Israel.’ They were happy to chat and see what the museum is all about,” said Chaya Greenberg. “We met so many Jewish people we had never met before, particularly young families. We even met a few Jewish teens who didn’t know any other Jewish teens.”
The parents of three very young children (their oldest is 3), the Greenbergs engaged two young rabbis from New York to be on hand at the booth each day. From helping men wrap tefillin to teaching kids how to blow a shofar, Rabbi Ari Herson and Rabbi Shmueli Butler were often the first to welcome visitors to the booth.
Pride and Celebration
Having a Jewish presence at the Alaska State Fair was something that Rabbi Yosef Greenberg had dreamed about decades earlier, when he and his wife moved to Anchorage in the early 1990s to serve as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
“We would take our kids to the fair when they were little,” recalled the rabbi. “I often thought it was a great opportunity to have a temporary Chabad House or park a mitzvah tank. There’s such a large concentration of people in one place at one time, just walking around and enjoying themselves. But I could never make it happen because we live an hour from Palmer, and it would have been too hard to make the trip every day.
“After Mendy and Chaya moved to the Mat-Su Valley, we were able to go ahead and make this happen,” he continued. “It was really amazing to see people stopping by and seeing the pride of Jewish people who visited. It’s like during Chanukah when we have the public menorah-lightings—the pride and celebration in being both American and Jewish.”
The rabbi believes that only a few Chabad centers around the United States have a presence at their state fairs, and said he would encourage other emissaries to give it a try. He noted that people who otherwise may not seek out a Jewish connection may welcome the chance to learn more about Judaism at a welcoming booth at the state fair.
The Greenbergs are already making plans for next year, including expanding their booth offerings.
“We hope to take it to a whole new level next year,” teased the elder Rabbi Greenberg. “Maybe offer some fresh food like falafel or other kosher Mediterranean fare.”
Regardless of what’s offered, Fannon knows they will be a welcome addition to the fair going-ons.
“Rabbi Mendy and Chaya are very good at figuring out different ways to get the community involved,” he said. “They have made a real impact on the Mat-Su Valley.”
By: Faygie Levy-Holt
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