Why does an Episcopal Church in an Alaskan town have a prominent Star of David window?
SITKA, Alaska (JTA) – It’s a special mystery that has endured for more than 120 years in the shadow of Mount Verstovia on Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska.
At 611 Lincoln Street in the heart of downtown Sitka, above the entrance to a red brick Gothic Revival Episcopal Church called St. Peter by the Sea, is a stained glass window in the intricate design with eight flower petals in different shades of blue and gold.
In the center of the window is something not usually seen in a prominent place in a Protestant church: a Star of David.
How the symbol got there is the subject of local folklore and an oft-repeated story recited by tour guides who lead cruise ship passengers and other tourists around Sitka, a town of approximately 8,500 year-round residents located nearly 100 miles south of Juneau.
As the sign welcoming visitors to St. Peter’s by the Sea notes: “Legends have grown up around the origin of the magnificent stained glass window at the front of the church, largely because it contains a Star of David. ; however, the definitive story has yet to be told.
Wanting to learn “the definitive story,” I met with church archivist Gail Johansen Peterson and Judge David Avraham Voluck, the unofficial leader of Sitka’s small Jewish community. Voluck, a lawyer and tribal judge for the indigenous Tlingit and Haida peoples, has lived in Sitka for a quarter of a century.
“I’ll give you the urban myth,” Voluck said when asked about the window of a local hangout called the Backdoor Cafe. “But,” he added with a hearty laugh, “I’m talking out of my tuchus.”
Voluck, 52, who looks like Topol in the movie “Fiddler on the Roof” and has a personality to match, told the same story I had heard the day before from a local guide during a visit by bus from the most important sites of Sitka. When St. Peter was built in the late 19th century (it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978), its leaders commissioned a stained glass window from a manufacturer somewhere in the eastern United States. The intention was to have a Rose of Sharon adorn the center of the window.
“I guess it took about a year of waiting,” Voluck said. “First it has to be made, then it has to be packaged. And then you have to ship it. But a shlemiel from the shipping department had to get through the windows.
On a cold November day in 1899—much to the dismay of local Episcopalians—the wrong window arrived. With winter looming and a cold draft blowing through the space, church leaders had to make a quick decision on what to do.
“It wasn’t exactly what was ordered, but the people who made the decisions at the time thought it was okay to keep that window because it was reminiscent of the Old Testament,” Johansen said. Peterson, adding that over the decades it proved to be the right decision.
“Everyone in the congregation is really in love with it because it lends itself to our Judeo-Christian traditions,” said Johansen Peterson, who has been with St. Peter’s for more than 40 years.
Kathryn Snelling, the current deacon of the church, agreed.
“I’ve never heard a derogatory comment about it. Visitors ask, and we share the story and the mystery,” she said.
Was there a misunderstanding in the window design process? Did a synagogue elsewhere receive the window that was intended for the church in Sitka? Johansen Peterson said the definitive answer will likely never be known.
Voluck, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, graduated from Lewis & Clark Law School in Oregon with a certificate in environmental law. After law school, he joined an Alaskan law firm specializing in Indian federal law. He traveled to rural villages across the state, providing representation for Tlingit, Haida and other indigenous peoples. In 2008, he was appointed Chief Judge of the Sitka Tribal Court. Voluck is considered one of Alaska’s foremost experts on Indian law and tribal courts.
As a Jew, Voluck says he has developed a strong kinship with the indigenous peoples he works with.
“I call them my ‘cousins’ and it’s nice,” he says. “We have a tribal past. We are genocide survivors. And we cling tenaciously to our history.
Twenty years ago, seeking to strengthen his bond with Judaism, Voluck took a two-year hiatus from his job in Alaska to attend Rabbinical College of America in New Jersey, where he focused on legal studies. Talmudic and Jewish.
He assumes that about 50 Jews live in Sitka, not enough to sustain a synagogue or any kind of regular events. “I used to dream about that,” he said. “Maybe I’m out of gas. Every year my reservoir drops a little.
Voluck calls himself the “secular leader” of the Jewish community, which fits well with Sitka’s informality. It’s a place where “Orthodox” is much more likely to refer to someone who worships at the local Russian Orthodox church – reflecting Sitka’s history as a Russian settlement – than an observant Jew.
“There is no hierarchy in Sitka; we all come to Judaism and offer whatever we have,” said Voluck, who flies in kosher meat once a month from Brooklyn. “It seems to be working. But if someone has a Jewish question or problem, they usually seek me out one way or another.
For now, Voluck is content to serve Alaskan natives, raise her three children in a kosher home, host Israeli tourists for Shabbat dinners, and whip up the occasional minyan for a yahrzeit service.
As for the window of Saint-Pierre, Voluck calls it a marvelous subject of conversation.
“I think it’s great that there’s a Star of David on display in the center of our city,” he said. “I don’t know how it ended here, but I love it.”