“The problem is whale, seal, shellfish (obviously), even caribou — none of it’s kosher,” said tribal judge David Avraham Voluck, a man whose job entails puddle-jumping all over the state, sometimes to within 500 miles of Siberia. “But in Alaska, Baruch HaShem, there’s always salmon and halibut.”
This leads to the obvious question: How does a nice Jewish boy from the suburbs of Philadelphia wind up in such far-flung northern locales that during the summer he can’t make Havdalah until the sun finally “sets” at 3 a.m.?
“That’s a big question, with many threads,” Voluck, 44, recently told me.
“So, there are two ‘weird’ things about David Voluck,” he continued, laughing impishly, as is his habit. “Well, probably more than two, but two really weird things. First, I’m an observant Jew, which is not commonplace in Alaska. I’m also a tribal judge, the state’s only non-Native tribal judge — at least that I know of.”
Indeed, Voluck stands as one of the country’s foremost authorities on the subject of Alaska Native tribal law — an author of “Alaska Natives and American Laws 2nd and 3rd Edition,” he literally wrote the book on it (well, co-wrote).
In addition to maintaining a small legal practice and an adjunct faculty position at Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Voluck currently presides over the Tlingit (pronounced “Clink-get”) & Haida tribal court in southeast Alaska and the Aleut community tribal court of St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands. He has also worked with the Athabasca, Inupiat, Alutiiq and Yupik tribes and is currently helping to establish a tribal court on Kodiak Island.
Voluck, who has three children — Nechama Chaya, 11, Yehuda Dov Ber, 8, and Emunah Golda, 5 — splits his time between Sitka, Juneau, Seattle and any one of the many isolated communities dotting the Alaskan wilderness. (How isolated? Some Bush villages don’t even have running water.)
“My family’s based in Seattle,” said Voluck, who has taken to helping his kids with homework via Skype and traveling with prayer books, candles and other essential Judaica in his carry-on. “But I fly around so much, I’m not sure I, myself, have a home base anymore. Good thing the Jews created such a mobile religion.”
By chance Voluck’s overcrowded schedule placed him in Juneau — the state capital, a city of about 30,000 in the Alaska Panhandle — long enough for me to invite him over for dinner one evening (salmon, rice and salad, nice and pareve, served on paper plates with plastic utensils). But first, we’d met for an after-hours peek at the Tlingit & Haida tribal court, located in the Tlingit & Haida Central Council’s main headquarters, a small one-story house indistinct from all the others in the neighborhood except for the huge bronze statue of an Alaska Native veteran patrolling the yard.