Story Excerpted from A Rabbi’s Northern Adventure by Ch, Capt Yisrael Haber (USAF)
The call for my first Air Force duty assignment finally came. “This is Colonel Johnson from the Pentagon. I have your assignment.” “Great,” I said. “Where are we going?” “Rabbi, I want to tell you that you and Mrs. Haber are indeed a fortunate, young couple. We are going to send you to a place where the mountains are majestic.” “Thank you very much,” I said. “We are going to send you to a place where the air is pure.” “Thank you, sir,” I repeated. “You’ll be going to a place where the challenges are unique and monumental.” “That’s just what we want, sir.” “We are happy to tell you that you and your wife are going for the next three years to… Alaska.”
I stared at the phone. Maybe an old yeshiva buddy was playing a trick on me, I thought. “Yingy? Is that you?” I asked.
“What?” the voice answered. “This is Colonel Johnson from the Pentagon.”
“Yes, sir. I mean, could you repeat that once again? Where are you sending us?”
“Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. Good luck.” Just like that, he hung up the phone. I felt butterflies in my belly. What was I going to tell my wife, Miriam? That we’d be selling our car and buying a team of Huskies?
“Guess what? We have our assignment,” I told her when she got home. A smile lit up her face. “Where are we going?” she asked. “Uh… sit down,” I requested. She sat down on the sofa, and with a dumb smile on my face, I said, “You know, Miriam, we are a very fortunate couple.” Her smile grew bigger.
“They are going to send us to a place where the mountains are simply majestic and the air is pure.” She nodded, eager to hear more.
“It is going to be a great challenge for us,” I told her.
“Nu?” she asked. “Where are we going?”
“To… to… uh… Alaska.”
While I stood there with the same stupid grin on my face, her smile disappeared. “You may be going to Alaska,” she said to me. “I’m not going to any Alaska!”
That night, I couldn’t sleep. How was I going to get out of this mess? Then all of a sudden, a lightbulb went off in my head. Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of it sooner? I was sure it would work.
At precisely 9:00 AM, I was on the phone to the Pentagon. “Colonel Johnson, sir. This is Rabbi Haber. Your offer was very nice, but my wife and I won’t be able to accept the assignment to Alaska. We can’t go.”
The colonel laughed over the phone. “What do you mean you can’t go? You’re going!”
“No, we can’t go. You won’t understand what I am talking about, but for a Jewish couple there is something critical missing in Alaska.”
“What’s missing?” he asked.
“There’s no mikvah in Alaska, so we can’t live there.”
“Stay on the line,” he commanded. Certain that I had given him an unsolvable problem, I relaxed in my chair and waited for him to return. Maybe he knew what a mikvah was, maybe he didn’t. The main thing was that there wasn’t a single mikvah in the entire state.
Five minutes later, Colonel Johnson was back on the line. “Rabbi Haber, it’s no problem,” he said with military curtness. “Whatever you need, you’ll get.” And he hung up the phone. I couldn’t believe it. The Pentagon was going to build me a mikvah?
G-d certainly works in mysterious ways. That night, unknown to me, in far away Alaska, the stage was being set for my mikvah. The Jewish Community Council had met with the US Senator from Alaska, Mike Gravel, who was up for re-election. They reminded him that the rabbi of Alaska had, since World War II, always been an Air Force chaplain, serving both the civilian and military communities of the state. With the Vietnam War winding down, the Council was worried about a cut in military spending, including the elimination of the Jewish chaplaincy in Alaska. Since the Jews were the largest contributors of the Democratic Party in the state, and since Senator Gravel was in need of campaign funds, the Council was appealing to the senator to make sure that Alaska got a new rabbi. “No problem, gentlemen,” Gravel answered. True to his word, Gravel immediately called the Pentagon and put in a Congressional Order commanding the military to get a rabbi to Alaska, whatever the cost.
So when I called that morning demanding a mikvah, Colonel Johnson, a good Protestant who had no idea what I was talking about, discovered that there was a Congressional Order in place, requiring the Pentagon to give me whatever I needed. You see, the colonel didn’t have a clue what I was really asking for. He thought I asked for a “mixer,” and how much could a mixer cost the government?!
I only understood this many months later when I finally got to Anchorage, where we were greeted by the mayor of the city, the governor of the state, and other community leaders. Everyone had come out to meet Alaska’s new “chief rabbi.” After I had shaken hands with some two dozen people, a quartermaster came over to me and said, “Rabbi, would you prefer a Westinghouse or a G.E.?”
“A Westinghouse what?” I asked.
“A mixer,” he said.
“What kind of mixer?”
“Beats me. That’s why I am asking you. Here,” he said, holding up a military order. “It says you’re going to get a mixer along with your regular issue supplies.”
I took a look at the paper. Sure enough, the supply order said: “MIXER, (Mikve)”. They thought “mikve” was a brand name! “That mixer is going to cost you about forty thousand dollars,” I said.
Back in the Lower 48, I had two problems to deal with. Number one: they weren’t asking me to go to Alaska — they were ordering me. The punishment for refusing a military order can be a court-martial and prison. So as Colonel Johnson had said, like it or not, we were on our way. The problem was convincing my wife. Fortunately, her feelings soon changed. Seeing how downcast I was all through the day, that evening she came over to me and said, “Wherever you goest, I goest too.” Like the wonderful wife that she is, she sat down beside me to make a list of things to do in preparation for our big move.
That solved problem one. Problem two was the mikvah itself. I certainly didn’t know how to build one, and I was positive that no one at the Pentagon did either. That afternoon, I had been on the phone with different rabbinical organizations. Everyone said they would look into the matter, but none of them ever called back. Understanding that a real problem awaited us in Alaska, my wife and I headed cross-country apprehensively.
On the way, we traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota, to visit Sam and Adele Goldberg, a wonderful couple who had taken in Miriam’s mother as a girl of seventeen after she had survived Auschwitz. The couple had cared for the orphaned girl as if she was their daughter. When the Goldbergs heard that their “granddaughter” was traveling across the country on the way to Alaska, they insisted we come for a visit, and we were happy to oblige. Little did we know that this detour along the route wasn’t only a happy family reunion, but a key part in G-d’s great, unfathomable plan.
The couple was thrilled when we showed up. Sam, who always called me his “grandson,” proudly introduced me to his neighbors and friends. Wanting to do everything he could to please us, he brought us to meet two young Chabad rabbis who had just opened the city’s brand new Chabad center.
We were greeted by Rabbi Moshe Feller and Rabbi Gershon Grossbaum. “Where are your travels taking you?” they asked.
“I’m going to be the Chief Rabbi of Alaska,” I replied.
They looked shocked. “You should write to the Rebbe and tell him,” they said, and handed me a piece of paper.
The way these two young, sincere rabbis were staring at me, it looked like my life depended on this act, so I sat down and wrote a letter to the Rebbe, who I did not know personally, but having grown up around the corner from his headquarters, I had heard of. In the last sentence I wrote, “We have one problem—we have the money to build a mikvah, but we have no one to build it for us.” I signed my name and put the letter in an envelope.
“Now, how can we help you?” Rabbi Grossbaum asked. I didn’t think they could do anything for me—after all, they were just getting their own organization started in Minnesota. But I said, “Thank G-d, we have everything we need. We just have one problem. There isn’t a mikvah in Alaska. The government is giving us money for one, but we have no one to build it.”
“You need someone to build you a kosher mikvah in Alaska?” Rabbi Grossbaum asked.
“That’s right,” I said.
“I will build it for you,” he said.
I stood there open-mouthed—I had been searching all over for someone to build me a mikvah, and my prayers were answered through a providential visit to a Chabad House in St. Paul! A Jew believes in miracles, but this was too preposterous to believe. “You must be kidding!” I stammered.
“Nope,” he said simply. “That’s what I do. I build mikvahs.” Sure enough, a mikvah he would build.
Once we arrived and settled in Alaska, I brought Rabbi Grossbaum’s detailed Mikvah blueprints to the commander of civil engineering for all of Alaska, Colonel Horace L. Brame. His office had been informed about the need for the mikvah, and he was most cordial and willing to help. He inquired about every detail until he understood what was needed, and ordered the required materials.
In the meantime, my wing chaplain, Chaplain, Colonel Luther Gabrielson, prepared emergency leave orders for Miriam’s first mikvah trip to Seattle. After receiving the signature of the wing commander, we still had to convince the commander of the airlift wing to sign off. Since wives are only allowed to fly on military aircraft while accompanying their husbands, the colonel at airlift wanted to know what the emergency was before he okayed the order. Chaplain Gabrielson arranged a meeting between us, and after a detailed explanation of the regulations for spousal intimacy in Judaism, the airlift colonel exclaimed, “If that’s not an emergency, I don’t know what is!” Immediately, he signed the papers.
But when it came to the highest signature on the block, that of Major General Jack Gamble, commander of Alaskan Air Command, Chaplain Gabrielson took a different tactic. Gamble met with us in his office, a look of displeasure on his face. Probingly, he asked, “For a spouse to fly without her sponsor, she needs emergency orders cut by the highest ranking officer on the base, which in this case, is me. Is your wife well?”
Chaplain Gabrielson interrupted before I could get a word in edgewise. “Sir, this is a religious matter, and as your wing chaplain, I’d advise you to sign it without further protocol. Take my word for it.” Surprised by Garbrielson’s urgent tone, General Gamble signed the paper and handed it over to me. “Have a happy Mikvee,” he said. I realized he thought it was a holiday.
Several days later, after being outfitted with a helmet, sunglasses, and radio headset, Miriam flew off on a military chartered flight to McChord AFB, sitting in the cockpit of a C-130, beginning her monthly 1,500+ mile journey to the mikvah in Seattle.
When I received word that the base engineers had gathered the materials needed for the mikvah’s construction, I asked permission to bring the mikvah builder to Elmendorf. Colonel Brame agreed and said he would handle the arrangements. After watching my wife fly off to Seattle six times to go to the mikvah, I was thrilled when Rabbi Grossbaum finally arrived. He was a sight for sore Jewish eyes: a bearded Chassidic figure, dressed in a black suit and sporting a wide-brimmed black hat. Needless to say, he stuck out a little from the rugged Alaskans and their rustic Arctic clothing.
As we drove home, I explained that we would be meeting with Colonel Brame in the morning. Although the colonel had spoken on the phone with the rabbi from St. Paul, he had no idea what the Lubavitcher looked like. To ease the shock for both of them, I thought it proper to educate the visiting rabbi about protocol on a military base. The first thing he had to master was the dress code. “This is the military,” I told him. “When I walk into a building, I take my cap off. When I leave the building, I put my cap back on.” I told him to try it. “Pretend you are entering a building.” Good-naturedly, he took off his hat. “Okay, now you are leaving the building.” Patiently, like an obedient soldier, he squared the fedora back over his kippah. “Wonderful. you’ve just passed officer training. Tomorrow, when we go into headquarters, that’s what you have to do.” “No problem, Captain Haber,” he said with a joking salute.
The next day, when we walked into the building, Rabbi Grossbaum looked around at the uniformed personnel, put his hand to his hat and secured it in place. “Uh oh,” I thought. “Now what am I going to do?” People were gazing at us curiously. With his black hat, black suit, and long black beard, Rabbi Grossbaum looked as much a part of the Anchorage military scene as a polar bear would have looked in a Miami Beach hotel. Wanting to draw as little attention to us as possible, I led the way down the hallway, not bothering to remind him to take off his hat. I figured it was better to transgress a detail of military etiquette than to upset the man who was going to build me a mikvah.
But when I opened the door to the colonel’s office, I was in for a shock. Before I could introduce the two men formally, Colonel Brame got up and gave Rabbi Grossbaum a happy embrace. They were like brothers reunited after a long separation. For six months, the Methodist midwestern Air Force colonel and the young Lubavitcher rabbi had spoken on the telephone about mikvahs, and now they hugged 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 on the corkboard on the wall, were blueprints and sketches of the proposed building and mikvah. Immediately, the engineers got to work, explaining their plan for the “mixer” in technical jargon. 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?”
“Oy vey,” I thought. “Why does he have to speak?”
“I have a few suggestions, if you don’t mind. I think you’ve made some mistakes.”
From his back pocket, he removed a piece of graph paper and unfolded it as everyone watched. \ He stepped forward and stuck it up on the corkboard on the wall. Talking just like the engineers, he spoke 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’s thesis in mikvah construction, the colonel flashed the major and sergeant disapproving looks for having made so many mistakes in their plan. When Rabbi Grossbaum finished his professional presentation, the engineers were speechless. They stared up at their drawings and began asking Rabbi Grossbaum questions. In Colonel Brame’s eyes, Rabbi Grossbaum could do no wrong. He dismissed the team of engineers whom he had brought to the office and said, “Rabbi Grossbaum, you and I are going to build that ‘mixer’ together.”
The actual work on the “mixer” began on Sunday, March 3, 1975. With congressional orders backing him up, the rabbi from St. Paul dedicated himself to the work on the mikvah for the next 30 days. Each day, my admiration for Rabbi Grossbaum continued to grow. How many people would leave their families for an entire month to help build a mikvah that maybe only one Jewish woman would ever use?
It was also a pleasure having him as our guest. Finally, I had a colleague to talk to, someone who spoke the same language, someone who enjoyed a good Torah discussion. Also, it was a chance for me to learn more about Chabad. At first, I was a bit skeptical of the chassidic approach. After all, I had grown up in yeshivas where chassidic philosophy wasn’t taught. Yet here was a fellow with a suitcase filled with scholarly books and dazzling new insights into the Torah, presenting a whole other philosophy within Orthodox Judaism about which I knew absolutely nothing.
One night, to probe deeper into the mystery surrounding him, I asked what he was really doing in Alaska. He was the only person who had been willing to donate his time and energy to this project; I couldn’t figure him out. “You hardly know me, and I don’t belong to the Lubavitch movement. Why is your boss from Chabad of Minnesota letting you stay here for a month? What do you guys really want?”
“First thing,” he said with a smile, “Wherever there is a Jew in need in the world, we try to be there to help. And secondly, we know the Lubavitcher Rebbe is deriving a lot of nachas from us building a mikvah in Alaska.” “You mean to tell me that the Rebbe in Brooklyn, New York really cares about this mikvah in Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska?” “That’s right,” he answered. And the two page letter we later received from the Rebbe hammered that point home.
Certainly, it was no coincidence that the work on the mikvah began in the Jewish month of Adar, a time of great happiness for the nation of Israel. As the work progressed, I worked alongside Rabbi Grossbaum in the evenings, helping out wherever I could. Finally, in the middle of March, the mikvah was at a stage where a Torah authority could come to determine if its construction met all of the specifications set down in Jewish law. Rabbi Grossbaum made arrangements for Rabbi Yitzchak Hendel of Montreal to travel to Elmendorf for the inspection. Jewish history was made the day that Rabbi Hendel arrived. Not only was the mikvah approved, it was the first time that three Orthodox rabbis were in Anchorage together.
Quickly, “Mikvah fever” hit the Alaskan frontier. The Elmendorf Air Force Base newspaper, The Sourdough Sentinel, published the following report:
Alaska’s first and only mikvah, a Jewish purification bathing chamber, is nearing completion in Chapel Two. According to Chaplain, Captain Israel Haber, this will be the first permanent mikvah to be constructed on any United States military installation in the world. Built to serve Jewish military and civilian populations, the mikvah will be used in accordance with the laws in the Old Testament, which state that a woman must immerse herself each month in natural water. Chaplain Haber noted that large Jewish metropolitan areas are likely to have many mikvahs. Rabbi Gershon Grossbaum of St. Paul, Minnesota, developed the plans for the chamber. He spent three weeks working up here working on the structure and supervising its construction. Commenting on the support he has received for the project, Chaplain Haber said, “It’s been a Herculean effort by the civil engineers on the base. Many, many people have been involved. My special thanks go to Chaplain, Colonel Luther Gabrielson, Colonel H. L. Brame, Colonel John S. McKean, and Art Reinikha of the Corps of Engineers for their help.”
The story was also printed in Anchorage, St Paul, Montreal, and New York City newspapers with picture coverage as well. Even Alaska’s lavish geographical monthly magazine printed a story on it. Radio stations in Anchorage and Fairbanks also ran spots on the mikvah. If the Jews of the region were unfamiliar with the laws of mikvah before it was built, the event received so much press that both they and native Alaskans in the farthest reaches of the state could probably tell you what a mikvah was by the time it was completed!
Now that the structure of the mikvah was finished, there was still one problem to be solved: water. Not just any tap water would do; a mikvah can only use natural rainwater. It was “break up” time in Alaska, when temperatures reach the high fifties and snow banks start to melt. Just the week before, seventy blue Air Force dump trucks had gathered all the remaining snow from the airstrips and across the base and hauled it away to the nearby forest. You can imagine the surprise of thirty thousand Air Force personnel when a caravan of snow-laden trucks drove back through the streets of Elmendorf and queued up at Chapel Two, causing confused airmen to wonder, “Why in Heaven’s name are they bringing the snow back?”
Rabbi Grossbaum stood outside the building, directing traffic like an airfield controller. One by one, he had each truck back up to the side of the Chapel, where a wide board was sticking out of a gaping hole like a slide. When the trucks dumped the snow onto the board, it slid through the hole in the wall straight into the seven-foot deep mikvah cistern. Inside, a large heating fan melted the snow. Thus, thanks to the United States Air Force and its Elmendorf fleet of 70 dump trucks, the water in our mikvah was as natural and pure as could be.
Once the mikvah was filled with water, the hole in the wall was repaired. The room was painted and carpeted, and decorative wall padding was added. Chaplain Gabrielson proudly assisted with the history-making labor. Carpenters built a carpeted wooden cover for the mikvah, to serve when the ritualarium wasn’t in use. Electricians installed an aquastat, and an attractive vanity table gave the room a feminine touch. Now Elmendorf didn’t just have a mikvah; it had a halachic and aesthetic show-piece. Miriam felt like a queen.
As a result of the incredible effort, many Jewish women began practicing the laws of family purity. Operation Mikvah had become a reality!
Note: The Mikvah at Elmendorf AFB served the Jewish community of Alaska from 1974 until 1999, when Chabad of Alaska built a new mikvah to serve in its place.
Originally published in the Purim 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.