For Alaska kids, big day on the bimah occurs in summer

In most American synagogues, summer is the slow season for bar and bat mitzvahs. After all, once school is out, many kids scurry off to camp and others go on vacation with their families. It would be silly to invite 40 of your child's friends and have only a handful show up. Most people prefer shifting summer dates to June or September.

But for members of Congregation Or HaTzafon, summertime is simcha time — prime time to have a bar or bat mitzvah. Why is this synagogue different?

In Hebrew, or means "light" and hatzafon means "of the north" — which makes an appropriate name for the northernmost congregation in the United States, Or HaTzafon, in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Margot Crowson, student rabbi and last summer's spiritual leader of the congregation, said there are a couple of reasons why Fairbanks kids who reach bar or bat mitzvah age in the fall, winter and early spring decide to delay their ceremony and celebration until summer. "Family and friends from the Lower 48 prefer visiting in the summer," she said. Can you blame Aunt Sarah for not wanting to fly up from Miami in December?

The other reason many prefer summer celebrations, explained Crowson, is that Or HaTzafon — kiddingly called "the frozen chosen" by its members — doesn't have a permanent rabbi. The congregation, officially Reform and affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, is a conglomeration of Jews of many backgrounds and levels of observance. Though it's diverse, the congregation isn't large enough to afford a full-time rabbi. Ordinarily, congregants must share the responsibilities of leading services, working with bar and bat mitzvah students and meeting the day-to-day spiritual and religious needs of the Fairbanks Jewish community.

So when a student rabbi arrives in May, it's showtime.

Though the big day on the bimah might be moved to coincide with warmer weather, the requirements leading up to it are pretty standard. However, the combination of a precarious climate much of the year and the absence of a full-time rabbi has made it necessary for the synagogue to come up with a unique bar-bat mitzvah preparation course. After all, when you live in a place where religious school classes are often canceled because the temperature dips to 35 degrees below zero, you've got to be creative to fill in the gaps.

"Much of the current program can be done as an independent study with guidance from a Hebrew tutor and mentor from the community," said Crowson.

But aside from working on their Haftorah and Torah portions with a tutor, students are expected to compile a notebook full of answers to questions about the Torah, the holidays, prayer, lifecycle events and Jewish history. It's a big assignment, and a lot of research and thought must go into its completion.

During the year prior to a bar or bat mitzvah, students were expected to attend all Shabbat services (unless there was a blizzard). Crowson summed up the other requirements: "They must lead a Shabbat service and Torah service, and they are also required to teach the congregation through a speech, sermon, midrash or other acceptable format during the Torah service." Most kids choose the sermon.

A typical bar or bat mitzvah weekend at Or HaTztafon begins with a Friday night service. At that time, readings are usually given as honors to friends and family. Afterward, there is an oneg Shabbat. On Shabbat morning, the celebrant leads the congregation in prayer, reads from the Torah and Haftorah and delivers a commentary. At the conclusion, there is a Kiddush.

And just like anywhere else, the celebration usually continues with food and fun later. Last year's b'nai mitzvah festivities included a riverside picnic, a barbecue, a party at home featuring folk dancing, a small reception at a lodge, and a celebration that coincided with the Midnight Sun Fun Run, an annual 10k race on the shortest Saturday night of the year.

Some aspects of a bar or bat mitzvah in this central Alaska community are rather distinctive. It's not unusual for an honored relative of the celebrant to say the motzi over a home-baked challah. Although challah can be purchased at a local, Jewish-owned bagel bakery, many families prefer making their own for special occasions; long winter nights are great for honing those challah-baking skills.

But what if the family prefers a Havdallah service? Big problem! The sun doesn't set until about 1 a.m. in the summer. Imagine going to services in the middle of the night and then partying until dawn! Dawn? That's just an hour or so after sundown in July.

And since Jewish law mandates the appearance of three stars in the evening sky before ushering in a new week, it can get very confusing.

On the opposite side of the calendar, a Fairbanks Shabbat in midwinter can begin at 2 p.m. But since the city is south of the Arctic Circle, it doesn't endure months of total darkness. So the sun rises again the next day at around 11 a.m., and Shabbat ends about 3 p.m.

Crowson, who has spent the past two summers leading the Fairbanks congregation, studies during the remainder of the year at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. What lured her to interior Alaska?

"I am a former member of the congregation and have many ties to the Fairbanks community," she explained. "Once you live here, you either never want to return, or you never want to leave. I am one of the latter."