ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An interview with Ethan Berkowitz comes with distractions unexpected in the “Lower 48,” as Alaskans call the mainland United States.
“Hold on a second, we’re shooing away a moose that’s eating the early garden shoots,” Berkowitz, who was elected to a second three-year term last week, told The Times of Israel before getting back to the nuts and bolts of his policy priorities and the story of Jewish life in Alaska’s biggest city.
But big game in the garden is a normal, and welcomed, part of life in Alaska.
“As I’m talking to you I’ve got a moose in my backyard, there are eagles flying around, and I’m looking at downtown Anchorage,” Berkowitz said. “It’s an amazing place.”
The lawyer, local business owner, and former radio host moved to the Last Frontier in 1990 from his childhood home of the San Francisco area after he got a taste for the polar region.
In need of a foreign destination to study for his undergraduate thesis in international relations at Harvard, but without foreign language skills, Berkowitz settled on the political economy of Antarctica. The academic research led to a jack-of-all-trades job at the US Antarctic research station near the South Pole, from unloading ships to guiding tourists.
Although he returned to the Bay Area for law school afterwards, he said, “I was looking for something where I could have adventure as well as a little law, so I got a clerkship in Alaska.”
That sent the young man far away from his family once again, much to their chagrin.
“Because I started in Antarctica, I tell my mom that I’ve made my way up in the world,” Berkowitz said. “But they wish Alaska was a little closer, as all parents do.”
Not that his parents seem to mind the cold, as both were in town for his reelection last week to campaign in the subfreezing temperatures.
“My dad is a little confounded by the fact that he has to wave signs and knock on doors so that his son can get a job,” Berkowitz said.
Though all the mail-in ballots had yet to be confirmed, Berkowitz’s opponent conceded the race via her Facebook page on April 5.
He swears his parents love to visit, though he doesn’t expect they will pull a reverse-snowbird and retire to Alaska over Boca.
Not that Anchorage is an unexpected destination for a Jewish politician. Berkowitz is the city’s third Jewish mayor, which ties the Alaskan metropolis with New York City, the most Jewish city on the planet, and well ahead of Los Angeles, which elected its first Jewish mayor this decade.
“A lot of the early history in the state has Jewish connections because of Russian traders and some of the early pioneers here,” Berkowitz said, noting that Anchorage’s first mayor, German-born Leopold David, was Jewish.
Last year, the Alaska Jewish Museum celebrated 150 years of Jewish history in the state on the anniversary of the US purchase in 1857 from then-tsarist Russia.
While Berkowitz self-describes as “pretty secular,” he has always been familiar with the city’s Jewish movers and shakers and is a regular invited speaker at the Jewish museum. He says the city has not seen the same uptick in anti-Semitism as other places in the Pacific Northwest in the last year and a half, but that there is always some unsavory mudslinging.
“Some of it’s done overtly, but a lot of it’s done with dog whistles,” he said, describing loaded phrases like “He’s not like us.” As Berkowitz puts it, “There are trolls everywhere.”
As Anchorage mayor, Berkowitz takes the national surge in hate crimes as a personal affront to his city, which is home to the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the US.
“We’re working incredibly hard to be a more inclusive community and to make it socially unacceptable for people to behave in hateful ways,” Berkowitz said.
Thus far, Berkowitz touts his success rebuilding the police department and recrafting the municipal budget. As oil prices have plummeted, so have the fortunes of Alaska’s petroleum-dependent state budget. That economic reality has caused Berkowitz to push Anchorage as a small business and entrepreneurship destination.
“I want to make Anchorage more culturally vital and vibrant and develop pipelines — I use that term deliberately — to different ways of diversifying the economy,” Berkowitz said. “Anchorage will be in a secure position even though the rest of the state is grappling with a fiscal crisis. We must shift away from complete dependence on oil.”
In his second term, major challenges remain on homelessness, housing affordability, and opioid addiction, all local manifestations of national crises afflicting the US.
When he’s not managing city affairs, in winter Berkowitz can be found on the city’s 105 miles of maintained cross-country ski trails or riding an oversized “fat bike” that can handle snowy surfaces. In summer, he’s likely to be out on the water hunting for some of the 40-pound salmon for which Alaska is famous.
“We call that lox on the hook,” he said.