A Jewish neshama shining bright in Alaska

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, Liz Ross also carries with her the love and respect of her double heritage: Judaism and Native Alaskan.

Dr. Liz Ross

Liz’s great-grandparents had fled their native Kyrgyzstan 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 Liz. “We were told there are some doors that should not be opened.”

In the 1920’s, 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 thirty years, a career that took Anna and seven of their children, including Liz, to military bases throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.

After graduating from high school in Colorado Springs, Liz began her post-secondary education in a community college before enrolling in the University of West Florida. During this time, Liz 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 Liz an interest in learning about Judaism that has lasted a lifetime. 

In 1979, Liz 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 of the children were home schooled, where they received an “eclectic” education which gave them the flexibility to join Liz on her trips to Alaska as well to travel around the world as a family. “I wanted them to understand all backgrounds,” said Liz. “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, Liz continued with her education despite her arduous schedule, She completed her bachelors and masters 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 Liz 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 Liz. “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, which is as important to her as her Inupiaq name, Kanuk (snow goose).

While the family established their home base in New Hampshire,  Liz 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. 

Being the only practicing Jew in this remote rural area of Alaska provided challenges.  Liz 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 Liz was in Alaska during the High Holy Days, she would travel to Fairbanks, the closest place with a synagogue. 

In 2005, Liz 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.

Liz 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.” Liz told her students.

Liz 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 Liz. 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 the they found they could buy meat and vegetables in a supermarket.”

While in Fairbanks, Liz 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 the Sabbath including, including the weekly oneg. 

The congregation has established that candle lighting time was 7:30 pm, no matter when sundown officially occurred. Long, cold Alaska winters, however, impacted many Jewish holidays.  Liz remembers building a Sukkot in several inches of snow and eating the traditional meals with heavy coats and snow boots.

In 2015, Liz 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, Liz mentored members Native American tribes in Southwest Colorado through business education classes and entrepreneurial support. The move was, in part, driven by the need to be closer to her widowed mother, who was living in Colorado Springs. 

Liz in Alaska

After contracting an infection during a trip to Vietnam in 2017, Liz retired and moved to the home in Florida that  she and Jeff had purchased several years earlier. Her mother and her sister Karin live near by. A member of Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, Florida, Liz continues to teach classes in Jewish ritual to its congregants. 

 Liz strives to keep kosher, satisfying much of the requirements by keeping to a fish and vegetarian diet. Jeff, who is Catholic, follows Liz’s dietary restrictions up to a point.  “After almost 40 years together, we both have found a middle ground,” said Liz. “ Our values are conservative with a strong faith in G-d.”

Meanwhile, Liz keeps learning about both her Native Alaskan and Jewish heritages.  A Chinese quote, “Learning is a treasure that follows its owner everywhere” is embedded on Liz’s email signature—and in her heart.

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