On the seventh night of Hanukkah, Saturday night, a man wielding a machete charged into a Hanukkah party at the home of a Hassidic rabbi in Monsey, New York and stabbed five people. Reports in the media are that the man had suffered from mental illness for many years that had been inadequately treated, but that does not in any way diminish the terror of the attack, especially when the man yelled, “I’ll get you!” as he lashed out. This incident capped a horrifying week of violence and intimidation against ultra-Orthodox Jews in the New York City area, with anti-Semitic attacks on the rise in the United States and in many other corners of the world.
Meanwhile in Indonesia, we’ve had the opportunity to connect with dozens of people who are committed to living fully as Jews in a time and place where many things are uncertain. The villa where we are staying in Bali was rented for a year by a community member in Jakarta who was concerned enough about the political environment that he set aside a refuge for himself and his loved ones if they needed to flee. Our gracious host for Shabbat here in Bali admitted that for most of the 22 years she’s been welcoming people to her home for Jewish celebrations, she’s been doing so in secret.
And yet, we’ve seen time after the time the incredible joy that our members experience by being Jewish. This was especially true this last Shabbat when we called seven young people up to the Torah. One was a 17-year-old from the Muslim stronghold of Surabaya, who had only finalised his conversion the day before. His father was the fourth generation of Surabaya Jews to look after the city’s synagogue. When that community was torn apart by tensions from within and without and the synagogue was demolished, his father fell into a deep funk and only emerged when he made contact with Benny years later. Now he and his son recited the prayers over the Torah together, and his eyes were alive with a complex mix of emotions. Benny and Rachel’s daughter Devora, who is a very gifted singer, sang the hymn El Adon with Shelley Kunin and then read Torah with grace and ease. So did Sabatin, Melanesia, and Solagratia, three young women from West Papua, 2400 km away. Ariella, who is mother to two of the girls, teacher to all three, and leader of her community, admitted that she’d made sure they got the work done. Her two daughters had already read Torah on a number of previous occasions, but did not want to miss the opportunity to celebrate with us, their rabbis.
We’ve visited West Papua twice before, but the current political situation there is very volatile, and the community reluctantly told us we should stay away. It was bittersweet for me to celebrate with these two families, when I’d grown accustomed to praying in their home town of Timika with dozens of adults and children belting out the prayers at the top of their lungs. Ariella had brought that community’s Torah scroll with her to Bali, carefully wrapped in a thick blanket and then packed in a backpack. This is the scroll that David arranged to bring from Edmonton; I was delighted and amazed to hear that the Timika community reads from the Torah every week. Usually, it’s Ariella who does the reading, but she has now been joined by her daughters. Now Sologratia has joined the ranks of Torah readers, and I hope she has many more opportunities to read with her family and friends back in Timika.
Florence, a quiet medical student whose father is the patron of the Jakarta community, read Torah too as her father proudly looked on. Benny and Rachel’s older daughter Rebecca, who had celebrated her bat mitzvah the week before in Jakarta, insisted on having the chance to read her own Torah portion once again so that she could be a part of this great occasion. Our hosts Liat, whose villa has welcomed thousands of Jews from overseas over the years, and her musical assistant Dan looked on with wonder. We were joined that morning by a number of overseas visitors, who had come for Shabbat dinner the night before and came back for the festivities on Shabbat morning. When all seven students had been called up, David and I offered a mishebeyrach—a prayer of blessing—to all of them, and then the congregation sang the song “Siman tov v’mazel tov” with great joy.
We moved on to lunch and enthusiastic singing, then Torah study, a few quiet hours, topped off with a rousing havdalah ceremony to bring Shabbat to a close. Now, after only 24 hours together, it was time to say farewell to our beloved friends from West Papua. We are so different in so many ways, divided by culture, language and political and economic circumstances, but my love for them seems to transcend all of these obstacles.
What a whirlwind it has been! In the nine days we spent with the Jewish community in Jakarta, Ambon, and Bali, we conducted conversions for nine new Jews, celebrated a wedding, and called seven people to the Torah. Perhaps even more important was the time we’ve spent connecting with people through teaching and private conversations. We’ve spent hours listening to Benny share his many stories of the challenges he faces working with communities all across the country. I would like to believe that our work here has strengthened the light of Judaism in Indonesia.
I learned during Hanukkah that the term “to light the candles” in Indonesian is menghidupkan api lilin Hanukkah, which literally means “to bring the fire to life.” I have no question that the people who let me into their lives here in Indonesia are finding that fire, and nurturing it from a tiny flame to a mighty bonfire. It continues to be my great privilege to be a part of that journey.
As an afternote, we are currently raising money to assist the Indonesian committee to produce a daily prayerbook similar to their Shabbat prayerbook, with transliteration from the Hebrew and a translation into Indonesian. All donors will be acknowledged in the prayerbook and donors of $250 and above will receive a copy of the book. Please contact me at email@example.com if you are able to assist.
We touched down in Denpasar, Bali on Thursday evening, boarded a bus from the plane and were transported to the passenger arrival area at the airport. A sign proclaimed “The Last Paradise in the World.” Benny had intended to rent a car upon arrival in Bali, but quickly discovered that there were no cars available for at least two days. We walked back and forth around the crowded airport, full of cigarette smoke, honking horns and people directing traffic with loud whistles. It sure didn't feel like paradise. We finally loaded into a car driven by an enormously cheerful man, who managed to remain cheerful during the 1 ½ hours it took us to drive the 21 km (14 miles) from the airport.
In the nine days I spent with the United Indonesian Jewish Community, I calculated that I spent 21 hours in the back seat of a car. There were a few days when it felt as though we spent more time in the car than doing anything else. Car time can be quality time, especially as Benny peppers us with questions about Jewish practices, ethics, and also presents some of the issues facing his community. But at a certain point, it just ceases to be fun.
I was prepared for how bad traffic would be in Jakarta. But nothing prepared me for the horrors that are to be found in Bali in the days after Christmas. I had some vague premonition during that drive from the airport, but in the days that followed, it just got worse and worse. The situation reached its climax Saturday night as we tried to get back to our villa from Seminyak. I was filled with feelings of desperation and hopelessness as we crawled a few metres at a time. I had some snacks in my bag and shared them around with the other hungry passengers, who had begun to worry that we might never get out of the car again. After more than 90 minutes, we’d traveled less than 2 km.
The city of Denpasar started out as a sleepy village and has adjusted very poorly to being discovered by the world. The streets in the older parts are often too narrow for two cars to pass each other, especially with hoards of motorbikes maneuvering to get ahead. There simply aren’t enough streets or lanes on those streets to accommodate the thousands upon thousands of cars trying to drive to and from the tourist areas at this time of year. Jakarta sees itself as a big city, and I have seen improvements to the infrastructure just in the 4 years that I have been visiting. A light-rail system is under construction that should make a huge difference for residents there. But I think that Denpasar is still in denial, perhaps hoping that someday everyone will wake up and the tourists will have vanished, allowing people to move back to a simpler time.
At long last, Benny found a Vietnamese noodle restaurant on the correct side of the road that offered parking. It was already 9:45 pm. The food turned out to be delicious, if rather pricey for this part of the world, and we had a lovely, relaxing time. Thankfully, by the time we had finished an hour later, the traffic had mostly cleared, and we covered the remaining 14 km in under half an hour.
But our adventures for the day had not yet come to an end! As we approached the villa, the heavens opened up. We raced from the car into the house, said goodnight to each other, and David, Shelley and I headed upstairs to bed. I’d just finished brushing my teeth when David noticed enormous quantities of water flooding the upper floor from the balcony. The water flowed right into David and Shelley’s bedroom, and we began madly transferring their luggage to higher ground. Soon after, the water began pouring down the stairs. Our hosts sprang into action, plugging the leak on the balcony, bailing water onto the yard below, and pushing water out the back door. Benny’s nine-year-old son was clearly having great fun; he bailed gallons of water with a gleeful smile on his face and didn’t mind at all that his clothes were completely soaked. Everyone else seemed surprisingly cheerful, especially given the fact that it was already past midnight. At long last we collapsed into bed after a thoroughly exhausting evening. Another day in paradise.
I wrote much of this draft on Sunday morning, but in the time since then, we've had a marvelous time in Bali. We've avoided the main tourist areas and the business district and have stuck to lesser known areas. It is here, off the beaten path, that the magic of Bali reveals itself. Hindu temples like the one in the photo below are everywhere, and the Hindu piety that has always captured me here is in evidence all around us. So, the last word is: do visit Bali, but try to do it sometime when tourists are at a minimum. And come for its natural beauty and lovely Hindu culture--not only to party.
As students finalise their conversion status, meeting with the Beit Din is only the second-to-last step. The last step is immersion in a mikveh (plural mikva’ot), or ritual bath. This is the precursor to baptism, but the rabbis attached significant restrictions in determining what is and isn’t an acceptable mikveh. Most important is that there be a percentage of water from a freshwater source. Jewish communities have constructed mikva’ot around the world, but communities also often need to get creative about how and where converts to Judaism can immerse in order to complete the process. For example, my practice in Adelaide is to bring my conversion students to the ocean very early in the morning or at twilight, when they can immerse in relative privacy and safety.
That’s especially true here in Indonesia, where there are only two mikva’ot that I know of. Both are built into the walls of the synagogue in Timika in West Papua. That building is still not finished, but the mikva’ot were constructed early, as purity is a high value in Papuan culture as well as in traditional Jewish culture. The Timika community built a mikveh for men and a separate mikveh for women, and we’ve made use of them both times we’ve been to visit.
Our other mikvah experiences have been varied and not always pleasant. In Jakarta, we brought the conversion candidates to the crowded city beach and took our chances with whatever might have been swimming in the ocean with us. If at least some of Jakarta’s 25 million people dispose of their waste in the ocean, that water is far from clean. Thankfully, we all emerged none the worse for wear.
We had a different experience in Magelang in central Java. Our local hosts drove us to the municipal water distribution facility, which is fed by mountain springs flowing towards the city. There are two small swimming pools there, one for men and a separate one for women. It was not in any way flashy or elegant, but the water was clean, and we had privacy among us women.
However, I can now boldly proclaim that the very best place for a mikveh, not only here in Indonesia but anywhere in the world, is in the Maluku Islands a short drive from the city of Ambon. We convened here on Wednesday (which happened to be Christmas) to welcome three adults, one girl, and one baby to the Jewish people. One of our local hosts Shmuel David, who himself was among the new Jews, chose as our meeting place a beach that his family visits often. To access the beach, it’s necessary to pay a modest fee to the chain-smoking staff member, sign in, and then negotiate quite a steep staircase down from the road. I was more than a little concerned for Moshe’s wife Vera, who bravely carried their 10-month-old baby Aharon down the stairs.
We took a minute to admire this lovely place, and then we were led up another set of stairs to a magical cove walled in on all sides by rock walls. This was the place Shmuel David had chosen for the mikveh, and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setting.
Shelley and I led the women through the mikveh procedure first. I stripped down to my bathing suit and jumped into the water to accompany them through this significant moment in their lives. The water was crystal clear and just a little cooler than the air, and I was instantly in a very happy place indeed. When our nine year-old conversion candidate proved reluctant to put her whole self under the water as required, I suggested we submerge together so that she would have company. It was nice for her but an absolute delight for me! When all three had immersed with the appropriate blessings, they dried out as best they could, and we made our way back up so that the men could take their turn.
The beach itself is just beautiful. Trees grow nearly right up to the water, so I had the unique pleasure of listening to the gentle lapping of the water while enjoying the shade. The beach is covered with a layer of pebbles and stones rather than sand, and so the surface can be very hard on the feet. But that takes away only a little bit from the serenity and joy of the place. The water is clear and warm—something that we never get to experience in Adelaide, which is too close to Antarctica for warm water even on the hottest day of summer.
The nine-year-old girl who had been so reluctant to put her head under the water earlier now refused to leave the ocean. As she bobbed up and down, I noted that she was swimming completely clothed, including heavy jeans. I looked up and down the beach and saw that the women were all doing the same. A question to Vera confirmed my suspicions: women here were expected to stay modest while in the water. So I waded out in the polyester dress I had on over my bathing suit, and enjoyed the water alongside everyone else.
David and Shelley swam out and discovered that there was a coral reef a distance from the shore. They came back brimming with excitement for the beauty they had seen. Unfortunately, I’m not a strong swimmer at the best of times, and it had been years since I really tried swimming any distance. I let them tell the stories and listened enviously.
Our hosts brought out a beautiful picnic, and we enjoyed a number of hours relaxing. I could not have asked for a more perfect day, nor for a better place to welcome new Jews to our tradition.
Our visit to Ambon in the Maluku Islands started with a bang. Literally. Our Garuda flight gently descended through the lush greenery of the island, then hit the tarmac with a very hard jolt. The last time I remember a landing that bad was in Macassar, way back in 2015. Landings like that stay with you for quite a while. Things could only go up from there.
We had left the glitzy and cavernous Jakarta airport and now walked out into a humble terminal. Drivers ringed by clouds of cigarette smoke vied for our business, so we were relieved when Benny spotted Moshe straight away. Moshe is the local leader of the Ambon Jews and one of the most enthusiastic representatives of the Indonesian Jewish community. He and his wife Vera joined Benny and Rachel at the biennial conference of the Union for Progressive Judaism in Perth back in 2016, and he’s since traveled to several other meetings within the region. It’s an amazing role for him to hold, considering how remote Ambon is from every other Jewish community in the world except nearby West Papua.
Ambon is probably the most unsafe place in Indonesia to live as a Jew—not because of threats from Muslims, but because of intimidation by the local Christian population. The city is approximately 60% Christian and 40% Muslim, and many of the Christians are adherents of particularly strident streams of Protestantism. Moshe’s group brought a lawsuit against a church down the street from his home, whose members regularly threw rocks at him and others who had come to worship and study in his home. At the same time, others in Ambon have an incredible affection for Israel, and some are not always clear where Christianity ends and Judaism begins. The menorah, an ancient Jewish symbol, is to be seen all around Ambon; we were driving from the airport when I saw a church with a series of murals painted on its walls—the menorah was directly underneath a picture of Jesus. As happens elsewhere in the Christian world, Judaism is mythologized and otherwise appropriated in many ways, which can make navigating life as a Jew rather tricky—especially when there community numbers only 20 or so people.
Moshe brought us to the delightful restaurant Kole Kole around the corner from our hotel, managed by a member of the Jewish community. It was here we had our first taste of Ambon cuisine, which has quickly become among our favourite of the Indonesian foods we’ve tasted. Tuna is a local delicacy, and we enjoyed amazingly delicious soup with tuna, tuna skewers, and tuna fried with tomatoes and shallots. We also had our first taste of breadfruit, which is a little starchy but otherwise quite addictive.
We walked back to the hotel and were dismayed to discover that the church across the street was BLASTING Christmas music. The music was so loud outside that I’m convinced it was well out of the safe range. Thankfully it was only that one night, and only until 10:00 pm.
That evening, Moshe picked us up and drove us up and up and up to his home for worship, Hanukkah candle lighting and some Torah teaching. As with the communities that I’d visited in Manado, Timika and Jayapura, the living room of Moshe’s house has been transformed into a small synagogue, with prayerbooks and a little ark. David and Shelley had brought along a lovely Hanukkah menorah to donate to the community, which had none of its own. I told them about the old practice in poor eastern European communities to cut four potatoes in half, scoop out some of the contents, fill them with oil, float wicks and thus celebrate Hanukkah inexpensively.
The next morning, we convened a beit din (a religious court) in Benny’s hotel room to interview five adults who wished to finalise their conversion status. One person’s story was particularly impressive: a man who had served for his entire adult life as the pastor of a church, but had gradually concluded that Judaism was the true path. He has been moving in the direction of publicly leaving Christianity for a number of years, but the decision was so fraught since it meant abandoning his livelihood as well. Everyone we spoke with came from a Christian background, but some talked of an ancient Jewish ancestry: there is a tradition that the explorer Vasco da Gama delivered a number of crypto Jews from Spain in Ambon in the early part of the sixteenth century. Many of the Jewish community here have tried to trace their ancestry back 15 generations to those Jewish refugees.
After the beit din, we headed out for a day of exploring. Moshe drove us 60 km (40 miles) or so to a Portuguese compound, fortified to protect both the people and the precious spices within. Cloves and nutmeg are grown nowhere else in the world, and these spices have been prized for hundreds of years. The drive there and back was absolutely charming, despite heavy rain as we were nearing our destination: the countryside is lush, green, and the villages are small and charming. We were especially taken by the tendency of villagers to paint their homes in bright blues, greens and oranges.
From there, we drove back to Ambon and out the other end to eat lunch overlooking the ocean. Moshe had packed a magnificent picnic for us, but in order to eat the food in one of the small seating areas by the beach, we had to all order coconut milk from the proprietor. I loved watching the coconuts be prepared so that we could drink the milk, and I was just as fascinated to watch our hostess prepare rujak, a delicious dish of fresh fruit coated in a paste of crushed peanut, coconut sugar and fresh nutmeg. Very yum!
It was getting late in the day, and we knew Moshe had a schedule to keep: Christmas eve was coming, and his street would soon be closed to traffic to allow for overflow parking at the church. But Shelley’s one request for our visit had been to visit some local weavers, and Moshe made that happen. We drove into Skip, a rather derelict village just down the road from our hotel with one very skinny street leading in and out. It took all three of our Indonesian hosts to negotiate our passage past another car on a lane clearly only built to accommodate one car at a time. Thankfully no scratches this time!
Moshe led us to a very lowly home where we met two older women. They explained to him that they’d already packed their looms away in anticipation of the arrival of Christmas, but would be happy to take one out again to show us. We followed them up a rickety staircase to a small room with a few photos and a large print of Jesus. The older of the two women began to assemble her very simple loom and to thread it as we watched in fascination. Benny explained to both women that we were visiting, that all of us were part of the Jewish community, and that David and I were rabbis. The younger woman—probably in her sixties—abruptly burst into tears and hugged me to her. She told Benny that she loved Israel and its people and that she believed God had sent us so that we could pray for her elderly father, who was also married to the other weaver. The two women declared that they would weave shirts for David, Shelley and me to be ready for our departure in only two days, and they proceeded to measure us for the clothes. Although they insisted that the clothes would be their gift to us, I was relieved when later on we all agreed that we would slip them a substantial payment for their work. After the measuring was done, we gingerly walked down the stairs to the small living room where an elderly man lay on a couch. His daughter roused him by telling him that people from Israel were here to pray for him. David and I recited a prayer for healing in Hebrew and then we all sang the 23rd psalm. The impact of our visit appeared to be quite great, as he sat up and blessed us for the next ten minutes. May he enjoy a healing of body and spirit and many more years!
We returned to our hotel to prepare for another evening of prayer and teaching. Across the street, people dressed beautifully were gathering for the Christmas eve service, and as I write this, I can hear them singing Christmas carols in Indonesian. Blessings of peace to all those who celebrate Christmas throughout the world, and may those celebrating Hanukkah bask in its light.
I'd like to encourage you to follow Rabbi David Kunin's blog as well at tokyorabbi.blogspot.com His photos are gorgeous, and he sometimes sees things in a different light.
...to my little garden in the garden state.
To the people that I love, and the places that I hate.
--”Ode to New Jersey,” composed many years ago by someone who probably wishes to remain anonymous
Ah Jakarta—how I have missed you! There’s nothing quite like the feeling of walking out of the airport into the warm soupy air tinged with the dull haze of pollution. It was wonderful to be reunited with our local rabbi Benny Verbrugge and also to connect with Rabbi David and Shelley Kunin. Less wonderful to spend the next two hours negotiating Jakarta’s horrendous traffic trying to get to our hotel. We were not long into our trek when we reached an intersection which was completely gridlocked despite the presence of an actual stoplight—apparently mostly there for decoration. We waited patiently for at least ten minutes before Benny began to ease us gently through the scooters, trucks and cars that were blocking our way. We moved about six feet, then stopped. A garbage truck on our right tried to cut in front of us and misjudged the distance, scraping across the front bumper and headlight of our car. Benny informed us that it was futile to try to persuade the trucking company to pay for the damage to the car; it just wasn’t going to happen. The driver didn’t even make an effort to apologise! Instead, the truck crossed in front of us, and we finally made it through the intersection and drove off towards our destination. Quite the welcome!
But although Jakarta is honestly one of my least favourite places, this is my fourth visit here. And that is because if you go through the doors of an unassuming local catering hall, walk up two flights of stairs, and open a very thick door, you will find yourself in Jakarta’s synagogue. And that is where I find the people that I love.
David and I are the consulting rabbis for this community, and there are lots of things that only happen when the community is able to save enough to bring us for a visit. Since we hadn’t been in nearly two years, we had a lot to do. On Friday afternoon, we interviewed two women who were ready to convert to Judaism after two or more years of study and participating in the Jakarta community. One of those women happened to be engaged to Benny’s son, so he was just a bit nervous as we spoke with her with Benny as our interpreter. We also spoke with three more candidates who are nearly through the process and who wowed us with their knowledge and their commitment. In their essays and interviews, all spoke of their previous religious connections, which were quite diverse: one had grown up with Confucianism, one of the religious traditions for Indonesians of Chinese descent. A brother and sister had come from a Buddhist household, and another student came from a non-practicing Muslim home. Most of the Jews in Indonesia were raised as Christian, but this was a helpful reminder that Indonesia, known as the world’s largest Muslim country, officially recognises all of these faith traditions and Hinduism as well. All five conversion students inspired us with their desire to become Jewish, despite the possible sacrifices and complications that such a decision might mean for them.
From there, Benny, David, Shelley and I rushed over to the synagogue for the start of Shabbat. Well, “rushed” is not the most accurate term: it took more than 30 minutes to travel the relatively short distance, even as we used an alternative route through some back streets and local markets. It was lovely to come back to the space where we had spent some very sacred hours two years earlier. It was especially wonderful to reconnect with the community’s children, who had all grown at least a head taller since the last time we’d seen them. As soon as we began singing the beloved children’s song “Shabbat shalom” at the start of the Friday evening service, everyone joined in loudly. The level of energy over Shabbat was palpable, whether it was channelled into enthusiastic singing or listening intensely as David and I took turns teaching on various topics.
The service on Shabbat morning was particularly special: we brought out the beautifully-written donated Torah scroll that David had brought to the synagogue two years earlier. First up to the Torah was Benny’s eldest daughter Rebecca. Rebecca is already eighteen and a university student, but this was the first time that she had read from the the Torah scroll. Thanks to my hard work with my Indonesian teacher, I was able to read the Indonesian translation of the mishebeyrach blessing to her and personalise it a bit for her situation. The children in attendance threw candies at us, and we all sang “Siman tov and mazel tov” to Rebecca. This was only the first of two celebratory call ups of the morning.
Of course the second special call up was for Benny’s son Karel and his fiancee Junitaa, who would be married the next day. This time, David was the one to shower the couple with blessings. More candies, and more singing. After the service, we all enjoyed a meal together, then the congregation sat with rapt attention as David shared the complex history of Hanukkah. David, Shelly and I got to go back to our hotel for a nap before returning late in the afternoon, when I taught about that week’s Torah portion and we brought Shabbat to an end. It was then, that David and I sat down with the wedding couple to make sure they knew what to expect at the ceremony the next day. After that conversation, we finally got to the traditional post-Shabbat ritual in Indonesian communities: taking photos together!
The wedding was planned for the early hour of 9:00 am on Sunday so that Karel and Junitaa could start the long journey back to their home town of Lampung on the east coast of Sumatra early that afternoon. David, Shelley and I waited in the lobby of our hotel starting at 8:30 in our wedding clothes, but no car arrived. Finally, a full hour later, a member of the community rushed in to fetch us. It seems that Sundays are “Car-free day” in Jakarta, and a number of main roads are closed each week in an effort to encourage the local population to walk and exercise more. This is a great idea in theory, but the roads are already so completely jammed even when all streets are accessible that the main impact of closing some main roads is to ramp up the traffic still more elsewhere in the city. Our drive had spent an hour trying to figure out how to get to our hotel with all the street closures and was in quite a state by the time he got to us. It was a comfort to appreciate that the wedding wasn’t going to happen without us.
The wedding itself was beautiful, as all weddings are. Karel and Junitaa are a very sweet couple, and it was especially lovely to see members of both families gathered for what was certainly their first experience of a Jewish wedding. I must say I have never had so many cameras fixed on me in my life: it seemed that nearly every guest felt compelled to take photos throughout the ceremony despite the presence of a professional photographer. Nevertheless, the sense of joy and celebration was quite magical, and I felt so privileged to get to be a part of this day for them.
We said goodbye to the members of our community who had joined the wedding celebration, then headed off to a hotel near the airport in anticipation of a morning flight tomorrow to Ambon in the Maluku Islands. It is at our hotel that we’ll light the first Hanukkah candles shortly, with the rest of the festival celebrated in Ambon and then in Bali. David has visited Ambon before, but it will be the first time for me and Shelley. I anticipate that Ambon will be as different from Jakarta as Jakarta is from Bali, and I’m really looking forward to the next adventure!
The truth is, I’m very bad at taking vacations, especially when it’s me all on my own. So when it turned out to be half the price to arrive four days early in Bali in anticipation of my next visit with the United Indonesian Jewish Community, I didn’t arrange to spend that whole time at the beach with a cocktail next to me. Instead, I booked in Indonesian language lessons for four hours each day.
I have been doing touristy things here—like having a massage, swimming in the pool, and exploring the neighbourhood bit, but a lot of my time and energy is going in to trying to becoming more fluent in Indonesian.
Of course, the first word of Indonesian I learned was “thank you”—terima kasih. When I meet people from other countries, “thank you” is always the word that I want to learn from them. It just seems a matter of politeness to be able to say thank you in the language of the land I’m visiting or with those whose hospitality I’m enjoying. I think I can say “thank you” in at least fourteen languages now, and the list is still growing!
I was explaining to my teacher, the very gifted, enthusiastic and patient Magdalena Uta, that the second word of Indonesian I learned was “Tuhan”--the word for God. This came during my visit here in July of 2015, as I was experiencing Jewish worship in Indonesian for the first time. I kept hearing the word “Tuhan” and asked its meaning. So began my efforts to learn to speak the language of Indonesia.
After 4 ½ years of occasional study and 16 hours of intensive lessons, I know a lot more of the language but am still far from fluency. I am often reminded of what my friends Rabbi David and Shelley Kunin heard when they first started studying Japanese more than five years ago: it takes about six months to learn to ask questions, and at least five years to be able to understand the answers! Indonesian is a very wordy language, and so Indonesians speak extremely fast to compensate. Even my teacher admitted that there is a certain randomness to sentence construction. Every once in a while, I would throw my hands in the air and admit defeat, and that was just while trying to read and comprehend. Lucky for me that starting tomorrow, I’ll be interacting with a large variety of Indonesian Jews, most of whom don’t speak English. Lots and lots of opportunities to get better at listening comprehension!
In Australia, there has been a trend away from learning languages other than English for a number of years. Most students graduate from high school with only one or two years of a foreign language under their belt. Some don’t begin a foreign language at all. My life has been immeasurably enriched by having first learned Chinese and then Hebrew. I have seen time after time how much it means to others when I try to speak to them in their language. Now as I try to master a third language, I appreciate not only how speaking Indonesian shows that I really care about this country, but it also stretches my ageing brain in helpful ways. It’s tiring, but very worthwhile.
I’m going to probably sign off now until Sunday, with an exhausting three days ahead of me. I expect to have quite an amazing time in Jakarta and look forward to sharing the stories soon.
Let me now sing a hymn of praise to the smartphone—surely the greatest object known among humanity. In this blog post, I will endeavor to tell you all the different ways that my smartphone proved absolutely invaluable on this trip:
--Google translate: it’s not perfect, but I used it multiple times a day, and for me it was a brilliant way to reinforce the many words I learned in the last two weeks. It is a terrific bridge between peoples, and hopefully a contributor to increased intercultural understanding and world peace.
--Google maps, which we used primarily to navigate the mystifying traffic in Bali, but which also helped us get to where we needed to be in Jakarta and Jayapura. It was much less helpful in Timika, where very few roads appear to have names. It was also a source of amusement, such as in Jakarta when it announced, “increased traffic is ahead. Recalculating arrival times.” At times, Google maps became an additional passenger in our car, making its own contributions to our appreciation of the country. (He’s not an app, but I’d like to give a huge shout out to the amazing Benjamin Verbrugge, whose superb driving skills got us everywhere, and always in one piece!)
--Recording apps: I used these in Jakarta and Timika to record basic Torah cantillation patterns, and in Timika to record verses of the Torah for two of the women to learn. How amazing to be able to leave my voice behind to help them in their quest to read from the Torah.
--Tikkun Korim: This is a free app which does one thing: it presents the weekly Torah readings in Hebrew, with vowels and cantillation. Tap the screen once, and the vowels and cantillation disappear, allowing you to practice the Torah reading as it appears in the actual scroll. I loved seeing the delight from the Timika teens as they watched the vowels disappear. The app is small—only 2 MB—so easy to download even when your phone plan is quite modest.
--Facebook and Messenger: I love it and hate it. I love it for how it allows me to stay connected with the people here who have become a part of my life even though our lives are so far apart. I hate the overt ways it digs into my private life and lets me know in multiple ways just how intimately it’s come to known me. I leave Indonesia with at least half a dozen new friends from among those I’ve met on this trip. I’ve let them know that if they have any questions, they are more than welcome to ask them, and I’ll answer as best I can. And I know that I’ll get to see their photos and read their news from far away.
--Google, and all the places it takes you: I found a synagogue website that provided a terrific online resource for learning to read Hebrew, and I sent the link on to students in Timika and Sentani. I found batik stores, restaurants, relevant newspaper articles, and oh so much more. What an extraordinary thing to live in such a connected world.
So I call on all of you who carry your smartphones around and forget how wondrous they are to appreciate this truly magical object you have in your possession. It makes our world smaller, and brings other people so much closer. What an amazing age we live in!
I was on edge less than an hour after our plane landed at Sentani Airport outside of Jayapura on the north coast of Papua. We were picked up by a driver, who deposited us at the grand home of one of the leaders of the local Jewish community. He also holds royal status in the Sentani tribe. We were greeted at the threshold by him, dressed like a king in a traditional headdress, beautifully painted skirt, and holding a bow and a spear. He waited with his wife, as well as another community member who is a king of the Sentani and his wife. We had met them all on our visit to Timika 18 months ago, but this was our first visit to their country. Rabbi David Kunin was called first and was arrayed in regal garments quite similar to our hosts: a headdress, painted skirt, anklets, and carved stone bracelets. Then Benny was called and dressed similarly, but in a plain skirt rather than the painted one David had been given.
Then it was my turn. I was dressed in a grass skirt, and small beaded anklets were wrapped around my ankles, just like the women who had greeted us. Shelley and Rachel were dressed identically. The message could not have been clearer: David was royalty, Ben was slightly lower royalty, and I was a woman along with the other women.
The men and women were separated out to sit on the floor and eat a ritual meal of welcome: papeda, a gelatinous and nearly tasteless Papuan staple made from a local root which is freely available, and fish from Lake Sentani. Once we had eaten what was seen as the required minimum, we all sat together at the dining room table and enjoyed a breakfast of local dishes.
Our host then gave us a walking tour of the local Sentani homes. The houses are built right up to and in some cases over the lake and are surrounded by fish farms. I was shocked by how decrepit these homes were. One of our community members was embarrassed to show us her kitchen, which is a separate building from the rest of her home. There was a kerosene stove, a simple wooden bench, and a sink with water piped in from the community well. Her home was a single large room with a door opening to the lake and out to the road, but no windows. Her family lives there during the day and sleeps on mats by night. Her home was in quite good repair, but in other houses we could see the lake through the floorboards. The families here easily catch fish from the lake, harvest papeda root nearby, and raise pigs to sell at market at quite a good price. Our host admitted that malaria is a problem when the level of the lake falls, and many of the children are already showing signs of significant tooth decay. Some of our local families have good livelihoods working in education and other government jobs, but others appear to be struggling to meet their basic needs. It was very sad to see.
We were driven from there to Jayapura, a city of 400,000 stunningly set on the the ocean and surrounded by mountains. We spent the rest of the day sightseeing and shopping. In the evening, we went to the local hospital to visit the oldest member of the community, who has seen three of her six children convert o Judaism, including Ariella Korwa in Timika. She was in intensive care, and I was impressed that the hospital care appeared quite good. Ibu Anna was delighted to be surrounded by rabbis who took turns praying for her as she wiped away tears. Ariella had made no mention of her other’s illness during our time in Timika, and admitted that while our visit had been a source of joy, she had been anxious knowing how ill her mother was. We eventually met her younger sister as well, who lives in Australia but had flown in for a visit. Ariella’s two Jewish siblings live close by in Sentani and Jayapura, where they can keep an eye on her. As Sentani royalty, Ibu Ariella is a significant landholder, but insists on remaining in the ramshackle house on the lake where she’s lived her entire life.
On Friday, we left our hotel in Jayapura and moved into a guesthouse in Sentani. It was time for Shabbat. We gathered at our host’s two-storey home, which has a room upstairs set aside as a synagogue. I was delighted to see everyone dressed beautifully in local batiks; the last time we visited, everyone mirrored traditional Orthodox garb, wearing white shirts and dark pants on Shabbat. Now they had internalized the idea that batik clothing was just as appropriate a way to make Shabbat special.
David and I led a Shabbat service around the dinner table. There was no question that our roles here would be exactly equal. We would send a strong message that we held the same status as rabbis, and hope that the community might understand that its women could also be equals as leaders. Shelley, Rachel and I sat around the dining room table. The rest of the women sat in the kitchen. So too for dinner—we three women ate alongside the men, while the other women and the children ate in the kitchen. I began to despair that the community would simply assume that one set of rules applied to us visitors and foreigners, and another set of rules applied to them.
The next morning we crammed into the synagogue upstairs for Shabbat shacharit. At first, the women sat in the room adjoining (which was separated out by a large entrance). We invited the women to join us, and those women and girls who could fit joined us in the main room. I led the first part of the service, and David took over for the second part. As Shelley started the Torah service, David called upon our host’s elder daughter—who is about 11-- to come forward and open the ark. She was both surprised and utterly delighted to receive this honour. This community does not have an actual Torah scroll but does have a printed scroll, so we read off of that. We called up all the men and all the women to recite the prayer over the Torah reading. It was the first aliyah—the first call up, for each of them. No one stood up to tell us we were doing it wrong. The women sat happily through the service alongside the men. It was an amazing shift from the night before.
That afternoon, we gathered again. I spent an hour teaching a beginning Hebrew reading lesson to all the adults. (They pray a traditional service, but using transliteration.) It was a delightful time together, and I loved seeing their faces as they carefully sounded out the letters to make the word “Shabbat.” Meanwhile David handed out dreidels to the kids, whom he’d observed had almost no toys of their own. These were a huge hit, and my efforts to teach Hebrew were continually disturbed the shrieks and laughter coming from the next room.
Finally, it was time for havdalah—the service the ends Shabbat. Once again, the men gathered in the dining room, and the women moved back to the kitchen. We invited the women in, and this time they gladly came. The singing shook the walls. I was reminded once again by how the Papuan Jews find a level of deep joy in these simple observances. I’m certain the singing was that much more beautiful and enthusiastic because we women and men were altogether.
As we said goodbye at the end of the evening, there were abundant tears—especially from the women. I sensed that something profound had shifted within them. There is no guarantee that when I return next I won’t find that women have once again been relegated to the back room. But I do believe there is just as much chance that next time I will find the women standing proudly alongside the men, claiming their equal status within this faith they have embraced.
On Monday evening, I had the honour of standing before the Jewish community of Timika and addressing them on the occasion of the arrival of their first Torah scroll. The small Edmonton congregation Beth Tzedek, which closed its doors last year, decided that one of its three scrolls should be sent to this community, which former community rabbi David Kunin had written about so movingly on his visit here last year. The Torah scroll is by no means perfect: it is old and quite fragile. Nevertheless, for these people living at just about the ends of the Jewish world, it was a gift far beyond anything they could ever have imagined.
David repeated the procedure we had followed when he presented the Torah scroll in Jakarta just a few days earlier. The synagogue building sits empty, awaiting an influx of money to allow construction to be completed. So we met in the spacious house owned by the patriarch and matriarch of the community: Yokhanan Rumbiak and Ariella Korwa. A huppah was set up, using beautifully carved huppah poles created by the community for just this purpose. The Torah was carried from the front sitting room into the larger meeting room and then held under the huppah. Because it is quite lightweight, it was possible to pass the Torah among all the adults and older teenagers gathered for the celebration. We sang as the Torah was passed from one person to the next. Some people stood stoically, a bit shyly, cradling the scroll. Others wept openly, while many others wiped away tears. As I noted last year, for many in Papua, the average salary may be as low as a few dollars a day. It would never have been possible for them to purchase even a used Torah scroll, which could easily cost $10,000 or more. And now a scroll had been given to them.
We opened up the scroll, and David read three passages from this week’s Torah portion. The honour of the last call-up went to the children of the community, and there were a lot. Indonesian families are large, and in Papua they are even bigger. Nearly two dozen wide-eyed children gathered under the enormous tallit that had previously made the roof for the huppah. In many communities, the kids would have already have had enough by now, but these children were fully aware of just how magical this moment was. I led them in singing the Torah blessings, and the congregation joined in a joyful “amen.”
In my comments, I noted that there was no need to explain to them what a precious thing a Torah scroll is. I could see by the expressions on the faces of all those who had held it that they knew exactly what the Torah was all about.
Having a Torah scroll and using it are two entirely different things. Over the next several days, I introduced the teens as well as two women, Ariella and Junilin Takasihaeng, to the art of chanting Torah. Ariella and Junilin were particularly thrilled by the new skill. I recorded six verses for each of them, and Ariella spent the next half hour walking around the house singing out the first verse of Leviticus with absolute delight. On March 17, the two of them will become the first members of the Timika congregation to read from the Torah scroll. I bet it will be an amazing day.
I filled my time in lots of other ways while we were in Timika. I taught two children’s classes and one teen class, all in really inadequate Indonesian. The teens loved how I kept forgetting the word for “sometimes”, as in “sometimes vav is a consonant and sometimes it’s a vowel,” and they laughed hilariously each time I asked for help. (By the way, the word is terkadang. I don’t have to look it up anymore!) I joined in when Shelley taught the women how to crochet kippot and led the teens to a guide to learning to read Hebrew online that they were thrilled to find. The heat and humidity wore me down, but how could I stop when everyone was so incredibly enthusiastic?
On Wednesday evening, it was already time to say goodbye less than two days after we’d arrived. Once again, I had the opportunity to speak to the community. This time, I managed to do it all in Indonesian: “I am very happy to be part of your family. I am also very happy that you now have a Torah scroll. It’s great to have a Torah scroll, but you also have to use it. I’m very happy that I was able to teach Ariella and Junilin how to read Torah, and that on 17 March, they will read from the scroll for the first time. I am very sad that we need to leave tomorrow, but I will always have a heart here in Timika.”
I will readily admit my return to Indonesia after 1 ½ years was not quite as rosy as I had hoped. The heat and tropical humidity took a far greater toll on me than I was expecting. I was less than impressed with Jakarta’s notorious traffic; on Friday, we sat for at least ten minutes at one intersection as hundreds of cars and scooters engaged in a complex game of chicken to decide who would get to move ahead next. I was underwhelmed by my move from a basic hotel in Bali to a basic hotel near the Jakarta airport to a very basic and not-quite-completed apartment in a distant Jakarta suburb. All of those complaints evaporated in an instant when we arrived at the Jakarta synagogue.
A prominent and relatively wealthy member of the Jakarta community began construction on a function centre and recording studio more than five years ago. He is very proud that he’s managed to build the whole complex without taking out a single bank loan. Up two flights of stairs and behind a set of doors is a synagogue. The synagogue has two podiums, including a solidly built reader’s stand, comfortable chairs, an area at the back for serving and eating food, and—most importantly—an ark. Thanks to Rabbi David Kunin and just a little bit of divine intervention, that ark now houses a Torah scroll.
David described how a casual conversation at his former community in Edmonton, Alberta, led to a local member deciding to arrange for him to take possession of a Torah scroll that had belonged to a synagogue that had closed. To his astonishment, when he arrived in Newark airport for his flight back to Tokyo, he was met there by someone bearing a second scroll from a second defunct congregation: Congregation Hadar Israel of New Castle, Pennsylvania. Hadar Israel has special significance for me, because for ten years I served at the Beth Samuel Jewish Center, an hour or so closer to Pittsburgh than New Castle. I was greatly saddened to hear that Hadar Israel—itself a merger of two synagogues—had finally shut its doors at the start of this year. Rabbi Kunin describes this amazing story and also tells more about the congregations and their other Torah scrolls in his own blog www.tokyorabbi.blogspot.co.id He transported both scrolls first to Tokyo—where they were warmly welcomed by his own synagogue—and then on to Jakarta. His ultimate goal is to secure the donation of three additional scrolls for the communities of Manado, Ambon, Jayapura. In the meantime, the scroll from Edmonton will accompany us to Timika in Papua, where we will present it in a few days.
Late on Friday afternoon, our host Benny Verbrugge drove into the synagogue compound with our old friend Moshe Manakha from Ambon, myself, David and his wife Shelley. I was sitting in the middle of the back seat, with the box containing the massive Torah scroll from New Castle, poking into my back. We got out of the car, hugged hello with the many familiar members of the Jewish community, and greeted some newcomers. Then David got to work. The large box was carried out of the car into the downstairs function centre area. The Torah was gently lifted out of the packing peanuts and the bubble wrap unwrapped. Four members of the community held huppah poles, and a huppah (wedding canopy) was set up using an enormous tallit (prayer shawl) that Shelley had brought with her. In typical Indonesian fashion, every step of this process was chronicled in countless photographs, as well as a video.
The second Torah was also brought out to make sure it had weathered the flight from Tokyo. I led the community in singing as we marched the Torah scrolls and the huppah up the two flights of stairs to the synagogue. We placed the Timika scroll in the ark, and David opened up Jakarta’s brand new Torah scroll and read the passage for Sukkot. He and I both noted how beautifully written the scroll was—what an amazing and generous gift from the other side of the world! The scroll was lovingly placed in the ark, and leaders of the Jakarta community shared a few thoughts—one while wiping away tears. There was little question this would be a day to remember.
With the Torah scrolls safely stowed in the ark, it was time to welcome Shabbat. I forget from one visit to the next the enthusiasm and joy this community emanates. I introduced a few new melodies to add to their repertory, but whenever we hit a familiar tune, the congregation exploded in song. I wish I could find a way to bottle this spiritual essence and carry it with me. David and I were encouraged to see how, in the face of a few challenges, this congregation has retained a stable core of members. Others are slowly finding their way here, and perhaps by our next visit, we’ll find more people prepared to convert to Judaism and throw in their lot with this community. Some members live hours away by car; one lives in Borneo, and travels to Jakarta at significant expense twice a year. Luckily, the internet provides so many ways to remain in touch and connected. Seeing the community pray in a beautiful space that felt very much like their spiritual home left me with a sense that the Jakarta s!ynagogue has now reached an important stage of maturity. They are here to stay!
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
I've been the rabbi of Beit Shalom Progressive Synagogue in Adelaide since 2006. As part of the Council of Progressive Rabbis of Australia, New Zealand and Asia, I'm now starting my fourth trip to Indonesia to teach, pray and celebrate with the communities here.