Mitzvah in Alaska Makes Waves Across the Globe

When a horrible tragedy struck a young teen at a Jewish travel camp hiking the glaciers in Alaska, the local shluchim stepped in to assist in any way they could. Their actions are continuing to make waves.

By reporter

When the shluchim to Alaska heard about a tragedy that took place in their state, they immediately jumped in to help. The effect of the actions is continuing to be felt around the world weeks later.

The story unfolded during a trip taken by Tamarack Camp, a Jewish camp based out of Michigan. While hiking near Exit Glacier in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park, Simon Mirkes, a sixteen-year-old Jewish teen suffered a medical emergency and tragically passed away.

Faced with this shocking tragedy, the staff at Camp Tamarack immediately reached out to Chabad of Anchorage, headed by shluchim Rabbi Yosef and Esther Greenberg, to aid and assist them with the deceased and with his traumatized fellow teens.

Simon’s family also contacted Chabad of Alaska to ask for their help with the treatment of their son’s body during the medical examination and the proper care during the transfer to Michigan for the levaya. The Greenbergs and their daughter and son-in-law, Rabbi Levi and Mushky Glitzenstein, immediately kicked into high gear to see to all the arrangements.

Mrs. Glitzenstein reached out to the staff who were en route to Anchorage from the site of tragedy with all the campers. “Our hearts go out to you, we are so shocked by this terrible tragedy. Please let us know when you are arriving in Anchorage so we can prepare for your group,” she wrote to them.

From there began a whirlwind of preparations; making food, finding shower locations for those that needed it, making sleeping arrangements, and finding local community members who were trauma therapists to come and meet the young teenagers upon their arrival and offer comfort at their time of need.

At 9:30 pm, the bus pulled up to Chabad where the shluchim had a hot meal waiting, phones to speak to their parents, and a place to spend the night. They were met there by two community social workers, Gigi Rygh and Nicki Addonisio who came to be there to help them deal with the shocking passing of their friend.

Afterward, Rabbi Greenberg and Rabbi Glitzenstein held a memorial service for the campers in memory of their friend. The girls light a candle in Simon’s honor, and being that it was still not shkiah in Alaska, all the boys were able to don tefillin then as well. Kaddish was recited in heartbroken voices for the friend who was just with them happy and healthy mere hours prior.

The shluchim spoke to them at length, gave them spiritual support, and explained that as Jews, we always go back to the eternal wellsprings of our heritage for guidance and inspiration.

“Judaism teaches that in a time like this, we unite and strengthen our faith,” Rabbi Greenberg told the campers and staff. “We are taught that the only tools we have to communicate with the soul is through doing good deeds, doing Mitzvos, and praying. There is no doubt that Simon, who is now in heaven, wants you to continue living and that will bring him joy, and that you should all increase in good deeds for each other.”

The campers, who remembered Simon as a unique personality, said that he was great in math, science, he was musical, and he was helpful and humble. “The greatest comfort for Simon will be for his legacy to continue. Not only will he be remembered, but his life will literally continue to live on by his family and friends,” the shluchim told them.

Following the service, and continuing throughout the night, the campers spent the night at the Chabad of Alaska campus, they received hot meals and many hugs and a place to make phone calls home. All the telephones on the campus were used by the kids for 24 hours to call home to their parents and their friends to share their feelings.

At the same time, Chabad of Alaska was taking care of the deceased as well. They arranged that the body was treated respectfully and in accordance with Jewish law when it arrived in Anchorage, and worked with the medical examiner to ensure that everything was done in accordance with Jewish law and the wishes of the parents. The shluchim also made sure there were people sitting and saying Tehillim by the body the whole time.

Before Simon was taken to the airport, the shluchim conducted a funeral procession service outside of the Alaska Jewish Campus with members of the Anchorage Jewish community in attendance.

At the funeral procession, Rabbi Greenberg shared a few heartfelt words for those gathered.

“We find ourselves now in the three weeks of national mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem. This is a time when the Jewish community comes together in unity and love in doing good deeds for one another. We have no better role model for that than Simon,” Rabbi Greenberg said.

Rabbi Greenberg said that both his Jewish names, Simon and Joseph, reflect on his life and journey. The original Simon, son of Jacob, was known as someone who was selfless and as someone who put his life in danger for his sister, family, and for the Jewish people. And Joseph was known to be very bright, talented, and beloved by his parents.

“So too, Simon Mirkes was known to be very bright and talented, and selfless. His life will always be the greatest role model for his family and his community. May his life be a blessing for his family and for the Jewish community,” he said.

The selfless dedication of the shluchim, and their help to the family and the camp, made waves across the globe. Messages came flooding to the Greenbergs and Chabad of Anchorage from campers’ parents, relatives of Simon, and community members from Farmington Hills, MI, where Simon lived. There was a huge outpouring of gratefulness for the immense support they provided at such a critical time.

The Mirkes family thanked the camp staff and first responders, noting that “in a world where kindness can seem lacking, we have witnessed an outpouring of love and support.” They noted that “we now know from personal experience the power of the Jewish Community. Our family would like to thank The Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska, co-led by Rabbi Yosef and Esty Greenberg, who went to great lengths to care for Simon and ensure halacha was followed.”

“Our Jewish community has truly fulfilled the mitzvah of chesed shel emet – true kindness,” the family concluded. “The care that was given to our Simon and our family has been extraordinary. We know we are not meant to thank you, but we need to tell you we are comforted and embraced by our beloved community.”

“I want you to know the gratitude of our entire community for how you are supporting our kids right now,” messaged Rabbi Aaron Starr of Detroit. Rabbi Michael Moskowitz, Simon’s Rabbi, called Rabbi Greenberg to personally thank him for everything he did for Simon and his family.

The messages didn’t only come to Rabbi Greenberg. His siblings and others as well received warm messages about his actions.

Mrs. Bassy Shemtov, a sister-in-law of Rabbi Greenberg, and director of Friendship Circle in Michigan, also received a message from a friend. “I want to share with you what comfort I have knowing [my daughter] is at the Chabad House with your family in Anchorage, Alaska,” she wrote.

“Hi, Itty. Not sure what to say or do so I’m starting by reaching out to you. I know the Chabad Anchorage crew has been a huge help to the Tamarack Alaska kids. Hoping you can please send my sincerest thanx and gratitude,” read another message sent to Mrs. Itty Shemtov, shlucha to West Bloomfield, Michigan and another sister-in-law.

Tens of other messages were sent to other relatives and Chabad shluchim in Michigan and elsewhere, expressing gratitude and amazement at their dedication.

One bochur even messaged Rabbi Greenberg that the gratitude had translated into action as well.

The bochur, Bentche Duchman who was learning in Yeshiva in Detroit, wrote that there was a man on his mivtzoim route who was usually very cold and distant to the bochurim. But after the story out of Alaska, the man agreed to put on tefillin for the first time.

“[It was] not just me, but also other [bochurim] said the same thing,” he wrote. “Thank you for helping my [mivtzoim].

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