Rosh Hashanah in Antarctica

    Seoptember 2010 High Holydays            
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Chapel of the Snow


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A Chilling Rosh HaShanah Experience

By Kenneth V. Iserson

Overlooking frozen sea ice so thick that the largest Air Force cargo planes will soon use it as a runway, our small group met during the prolonged twilight of the Antarctic Spring to celebrate the 2009 High Holidays. . Our gathering—we couldn’t really call it a formal service—began at 8:45 pm. At home in Tucson, Arizona, it was not even four in the afternoon—on the previous day. So, along with other meshuganah Jews who had also traveled to the earth’s nether regions, I was celebrating our New Year nearly a day before my wife and our friends at Or Chadash.

The sky would not fully darken for another hour or so. In a couple of weeks, it won’t darken at all and we will have 24-hour sunlight. Now, at the end of winter, we had few enough Jews among the 500 or so people inhabiting McMurdo Station to gather in a small corner of the Chapel of the Snows, a picturesque white-steepled building on the edge of the sea ice that rarely sees Jewish services.

About 2,000 miles from New Zealand, McMurdo Station sits on Ross Island, [a relatively small, snowy place] made famous by Shackelton and Scott’s crews [more than a century ago]. “Mac Town,” with more than 1,000 residents in the Austral summer season (October through mid-February;), is Antarctica's largest community, and supports National Science Foundation-funded scientists, both at the Station and scattered around the continent in remote field camps. It also serves as the transit point for various other scientific groups going to their own stations—mostly Italians, Australians, and the New Zealanders, whose Scott Base is only 3 miles away.

McMurdo Station, built by Navy Seabees, is not America’s first base in Antarctica. That distinction goes to Little America, which Admiral Richard Byrd established in 1929. Used into the late 1950s, Little America is now deeply buried in the Antarctic ice and snow. Modern McMurdo Station includes a harbor, 3 airfields (2 seasonal), a heliport, more than 100 buildings (most from the days when the US Navy ran the installation), and the continent’s only ATM.

Most of McMurdo Station’s population is comprised of the enormous support staff, including myself as the Medical Director, required to put and keep humans in this extremely inhospitable environment. These personnel, both scientists and support staff, are members of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). Some awesome science emerges from this operation. Recent years have seen scientists discover microbes that thrive in the anoxic sub-glacier environment; a way to measure “space weather”; how to use a robotic submarine to map the underside of the Antarctic ice shelf; a huge new mountain range buried 2.5 miles under the East Antarctic Ice Sheet; how to use super-pressurized balloons to carry scientific experiments to the edge of space for 100 days or more; fossilized insects, plants and animals; detailed records of greenhouse gases over the past 100,000 years in ice cores; the first light emitted from our universe; and the presence of unique marine life in the frigid Ross Sea.

My own route to Antarctica was a natural extension of retiring from academic emergency medicine at the University of Arizona so that I could pursue a career in disaster and international medicine. Over the past year, I have been deployed with our National Disaster Medical System to Hurricane Ike, worked with a Harvard-based NGO in rural Zambia, and been the Medical Director of the Project HOPE team aboard the USNS Comfort hospital ship for several months in rural Latin America. The only sizeable Jewish presence on these journeys was in Zambia, where 4 of the 6 international physicians working in the hospital were Jewish. So, practicing medicine at the ends of the earth in Antarctica seemed natural. My relatives think that that I am a bit “meshugana,” but envy my travels. Luckily, my understanding wife of more than 35 years, Mary Lou, is holding down the fort and remaining active in the synagogue while I am away on “the Ice.” The striking lesson for me is that while most medical problems can be overcome—or at least handled within a systems’ capabilities—these systems tend to have Byzantine bureaucracies that stifle innovation and hamper patient care. That is as true in Antarctica as it was in rural Africa, after major disasters, and in non-governmental and governmental organizations.

Some people ask me, “Why did you go?” For them, as with the dull child at the Passover Seder, there is no answer. They wouldn’t understand. For those whose response is “Wow!” I describe the sense of awe, mystery and adventure that comes from living on the driest and coldest continent on earth. Not many people get that opportunity.

Emily Woodward was the only one of our small congregation who had spent the entire winter season at McMurdo. So-called “Winter-Overs,” numbering fewer than 150 people, are the brave souls who occupy McMurdo Station from February through September—the Austral winter. What sustained her through the dark, cold 6-month stint were her memories, including when her “little brother, Jacob, started attending Hebrew school. I vividly remember my father trying to put us to bed one night and my brother saying to my father, ‘you cannot tell me what to do. Moses freed my people. I am not your slave anymore!’ My dad and I just cracked up laughing!”

Outside, the wind howled with gusts up to 60 miles per hour and the relative temperature dipped to -60ºF. Inside the chapel, we ignored the cold air whistling through small cracks in the building and shared our Jewish experiences, including how we got to “the Ice.”

While no children were in attendance, Sharon Dinah White stood in as our youngest congregant, leading us in songs she had learned growing up in the modern Orthodox tradition with private religious schooling. This 26-year-old effervescent Dining Assistant, who her family describes as their only “normal member,” says, “My Jewish friends and relatives are all really excited about me being here, although it confuses them a bit. They are completely unaware of how life is lived here, so they can't wait to hear about what I'm doing.” At a recent party, the former middle-school math teacher taught a group of non-Jews how to play dreidel. “They really loved it. Now, I frequently see a group in the hallway playing dreidel. They've even gone so far as to nickname our hallway ‘dreidel alley’.” Of our service, she enthused, “I am a big fan of tradition and I feel like anywhere I go I can find family if I get involved in Jewish life. I think it is amazing that even in an isolated place like McMurdo we can have a Jewish community.”

the small group: (Left to right): Andrew Engelstein, Marci Levine, Kenneth V. Iserson (author), Sharon Dinah White, Alayna Joelle Thomson, Linda Fallowes, Emily Woodward

Our other “youngster” was Alayna Joelle Thomson. Nomadic best describes this 29-year-old, who has moved for work 21 times in the past 7 years. After serving as an air traffic controller in the U.S. Air Force, she worked in occupational safety for the Department of Defense and related groups until she heard about an opening in Antarctica. She immediately “jumped at the chance” and works here as an Environmental Safety and Health officer. “It follows the old idea,” she says, “that occasionally God shakes the earth and everyone not tied down falls to the bottom—Antarctica.” Alayna described our gathering as her “mini-congregation.” “I am a nomadic Jew,” she said, “who has firmly returned to the fold. Judaism stuck with me; I feel connected.”

We had one small machzor for the Rosh Hashanah evening service, donated by my synagogue. We read and sang some selections, in no particular order except that they struck a chord with members of our group. We also discussed a common theme of many synagogue sermons: why, on one of the few days many Jews go to synagogue, is the Torah portion (2nd day) about Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a shofar to symbolize sacrificing the ram instead.

What little institutional Jewish memory we had was held by Linda Fallowes and Marci Levine, best friends and traveling companions, who participated in a similar gathering at McMurdo last year. Linda, a petite McMurdo chef, says that her most cherished Jewish experiences occurred with the Havurah (chavurah) of South Florida. “The Rabbi would show up on a motorcycle wearing jeans and cowboy boots. Dress at all functions was casual. We met a people’s homes for lessons, at the local Hillel [University of Miami] for Saturday morning service.”

Marci is McMurdo’s head chef, and in the “real world” works as a culinary instructor at a residential high school for at-risk boys. Brought up in a kosher household, she generally attends synagogue every week when in the States. She said that she loved our Rosh Hashanah gathering, where our tiny group huddled together to reinforce our Judaism. This was a much more intimate gathering than the station’s first-ever and very successful Chanukah party that she’d organized last year — featuring a Station-made penguin menorah.

Aside from the donated prayer book, we had the contents of the chapel’s two “Jewish Boxes,” a strange mix of objects, ranging from a can of matzo ball soup to some stale matzoth and a somewhat battered menorah. A small torah scroll that had once been on-Station disappeared back to the U.S.; no one seems to know where. As Jews have done whenever they have landed in strange and remote settings, we made do with what we had.

Nine days after Rosh Hashanah, we met again for our version of Kol Nidrei, although, unlike other parts of the world, we held ours long before the 10 pm sunset. (Soon after, the sun would not set at all; the next sunset was scheduled for February 20, 2010.) As part of our celebration, we spoke of how our tradition was that God could forgive us, as a community, for transgressions. In that spirit, Andrew Engelstein, a large guy from a religious background who attended New York Jewish schools through high school, chanted the traditional rite. Andrew had attended UC Berkeley in economics, but now is doing his second season at McMurdo, where he is a “Lead DA,” a supervisor for the dining hall staff. “Drew” attended our small service because he believes in tradition. He keeps kosher as much as he can on the “Ice” and attends High Holiday and some other services throughout the year when in the States. He said that he hoped someone would bring a shofar down, since he can blow it; perhaps he will bring one next year.

Then I, the eldest of our group, led our small congregation in what I have always thought of as the centerpiece of the holiday: “Al Chait she'chatanu lifanecha . . .” [For the sins that we have sinned before You . . .]. As our small service ended, we went our separate ways into the frigid evening, having celebrated our most sacred holiday, Yom Kippur, in a manner and place of which our ancestors never dreamed.

Songs, prayers and treasured remembrances of our Jewish heritage may not be the traditional way to celebrate our New Year. It lacked my sense-memory of large-group singing and praying and the warm embrace of family and long-time friends. Yet, it was also a testament to our people’s solidarity and endurance that we could meet and pray on an inhospitable continent, as far from our coreligionists as it is possible to get. Ultimately, to have l’shana tova uttered among landsman in this remote place with its glacier-topped mountains and ice-capped seas was both a strange event and a real joy.

The Author with his Menorah

Postscript: During Chanukah, I was at the at the South Pole (Amundsen-Scott) Station to do some work. With my menorah sitting on the South Pole globe, the world really did revolve around Judaism.


from the September 2010 High Holyday Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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