On a rainy Wednesday, Shahar Azani nervously paces back and forth while a crowd gathers at the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska for an Alaska Jewish Museum summer programing event. A former Israeli diplomat and Executive Director of StandWithUs Northeast, an international Israel education organization, Azani is used to addressing a crowd but this time it is different. He has traveled from New York with a story to tell and like most stories worth telling, his story begins with an impossible journey and ends with a lesson learned.
The year was 1948 and Alaska Airlines was the largest charter operator in the world. Using surplus military aircraft that had been holed out to fit as many as 50 passengers at a time, Alaska Airlines pilots help relocate 50,000 Yemenite Jews to the newly created nation of Israel.
Known as the lost tribe of Israel, the Yemenite Jews had wandered the deserts for centuries after being driven out of Palestine. With little more than faith to carry them through, the Yemenite Jews clung to the belief that their deliverance to the Holy Land would come according to Exodus 19:4 “You saw that which I did to Egypt; and I carried you on the wings of eagles and brought you to me.”
The operation was nicknamed “Magic Carpet” but to the passengers who believed they would return to the promise land on eagles’ wings, the planes were more avian than woven. Azani’s grandparents were among those who returned home.
"One of the things that really got to me was when we were unloading a plane at Tel Aviv. A little old lady came up to me and took the hem of my jacket and kissed it. She was giving me a blessing for getting them home. We were the wings of eagles,” recalled flight attendant Mariam Metzger in an interview conducted by Alaska Airlines.
As nomads, they had never seen an airplane and never lived anywhere but a tent. So when the planes arrived with eagles vibrantly painted on their doors, it was little surprise that they believed the prophecy had been fulfilled.
“You have to factor in the naiveté of the Jewish community in Yemen. When I was sitting with my grandparents, when they were talking about this, it was for them nothing more and nothing less than the realization of a prophecy,” said Azani.
Sixty-seven years later Azani’s own pilgrimage would take him not on the wings of eagles but by modern plane.
“My good friend told me a few years ago that there is a shiny little star delivering in the dark, all the way in Anchorage, Alaska and so I knew I had to come. I had to give thanks for what Alaska did” said Azani.
The shining star Azani was referring to is the Alaska Jewish Museum and its current exhibit “On the Wings of Eagles: Alaska’s Contribution to Operation Magic Carpet.” The exhibition was carefully curated over the course of a year by museum director Leslie Fried who likes to think of it as an ongoing project.
“I was taught that a museum is meant to be a place of civic engagement,” said Fried. “We frequently have Israeli visitors who come to the museum and they correct the labels and they tell me their own family’s history. Many of the items, the stories in this exhibit, came and continue to come from the community.”
The museum is a hidden gem that stands as an important reminder of Alaska’s remarkable contribution to world history. As recently deceased Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, remarked in 2001, “We tell these stories because perhaps we know that not to listen, not to want to know, would lead you to indifference, and indifference is never an answer.”
The museum is located at 1221 E. 35th Ave. and is open Sunday - Thursday from 1 - 6 p.m. Admission ranges from $5 - $10. for more information visit alaskajewishmuseum.com
*Published by the Anchorage Press