Several times each day while we were visiting Moshe in Ambon, he would exclaim with frustration, “Indonesia!” This indicated something that was clearly wrong. In other countries, that thing might be fixed up, but Indonesia, one simply had to accept it as a fact of life. For example, closing a major thoroughfare in the middle of Ambon City with no suggested detour or other guidance, with the predictable result of a very, very bad traffic jam. “Indonesia!” Or a moped, no doubt carrying a family of at least four people, zipping down the wrong side of the road directly towards us as it attempted to pass a large truck. “Indonesia!”
I thought I might use this as a helpful prompt to share a few of my own personal frustrations about this developing but still not entirely developed country. At the same time, I want to share some of the really wonderful experiences that I had while there that were not necessarily connected to my rabbinic work:
First is Reddoorz Hotels. I’m guessing the name is loosely connected with the American budget chain Red Roof. But there the comparison ends. While Red Roof Hotels are pretty basic by western standards, they can still be counted on to have hot water. And toilet paper. And a sink. And a bed with more than just a fitted sheet. It is a poor commentary on our past experiences with Indonesian accommodation that we were actually relatively satisfied with the Makassar Reddoorz, where we stayed both on our way to and back from Papua. At least the rooms were clean! And there was reliable WiFi, which we all know is the most important consideration in choosing a hotel room. A different hotel was rumoured to have WiFi as well. However, the person staffing the hotel overnight explained that she couldn’t get us the WiFi password, because the person who knew the password was asleep. Indonesia!
Second is traffic, which we have dealt with in every place we’ve visited across Indonesia except for in West Papua. Jakarta is particularly notorious, and a big reason for that is that the city is almost completely lacking in any kind of helpful mass transit. If you want to get around, you can either drive (usually a large van or SUV), ride a motorcycle or moped, or (eek!) test your luck and lungs by riding a bicycle. However, traffic is pretty bad in Bali too, mostly because it seems that all the tourists want to have their own individual cars. The cumulative result is that I’ve come to dread having to travel almost anywhere by car, because you just never know if a trip that should theoretically only take 30 minutes will end up lasting two hours instead. And usually with at least one or more extra people packed into the back of the car. The most we packed in on this trip was seven adults. Plus all of our luggage. Indonesia!
Third is false advertising, although this really only applies to the city of Makassar at the southern side of Sulawesi island. With flights still not up to their previous level of frequency, we ended up with a whole afternoon and evening to spend in the city before we caught our connecting flight at 6:00 am the next morning. We had heard tantalizing rumours of a wondrous place called Losari Beach in the center of Makassar. David, Shelley and I all put on our flipflops in anticipation of walking on the sand and maybe wading a bit into the sea. Alas, when we arrived we discovered that there is no actual beach at Losari Beach. It’s really a waterfront, with a concrete boardwalk and a view of the 99 Domes Mosque on the other side of the port.
On the positive side, the Losari WATERFRONT is absolutely delightful. There are kiosks everywhere offering snacks such as roasted bananas, meatballs, and icy drinks. In the evening, people pack into the outdoor seating areas to enjoy each other’s company and live music. Makassar has a reputation as a devoutly Muslim city, but it just proves that Indonesian Muslims can be faithful and still enjoy evenings out with their friends and families. We had such a lovely time there that we resolved to spend a full day in Makassar as we transit to elsewhere.
That was our second time this visit that we had an extended layover in Makassar. Our first layover saw us arriving late in the afternoon and departing very early the next morning. We wandered a few blocks down from our hotel until we reached a small warong—an Indonesia restaurant offering local street food. I was a bit nervous that the cleanliness and quality of the food might be lacking, but we ended up having one of the most delightful meals of the whole trip. The workers grilled two whole fish over a charcoal fire for us, then served the fish in two different styles with a variety of side dishes, sauces, rice and condiments. All for about AU$24 for the five of us. We were their very first western guests, and the hosts and their family members kept coming back to the table to have their photos taken with us.
A quintessentially Indonesian adventure was our overnight trip to the island of Saparua in the Maluku Islands. This involved a one hour ferry crossing each way, which was particularly concerning on the way back when the winds were blowing furiously. On-board, women hawked hot snacks up and down the aisles, and then we were left in relative quiet to gaze out the windows as we sped across the water. The ferry tickets cost a little less than AU$7 each, and that was for the first class seats. On our journey there, a stretcher with an elderly man who was clearly very ill was laid across the entryway. He was being brought home village to die. We reached the port and then piled into a very small pink bus, which took us all around the island. Much of our time was spent in the charming town of Tuhaha, where Ambon member Shmuel David grew up. We were kindly hosted for meals by his extended family, which runs a small business producing sweets and rolls for local markets out of their kitchen.
Another great treat was our visit to the Bogor region south of Jakarta. As we drove up and up out of the city, the temperature plummeted until it was...actually...cool! We stayed in the comfortable but slightly tired Pinewood Lodge, surrounded by lush foliage and the sounds of insects and frogs. We spent a delightful and utterly unexpected afternoon at the Bogor Safari Park. This is a drive-through safari with a difference: visitors can bring in carrots and feed them to the animals! The price of admission was pretty eye-watering, especially when we three foreigners were spotted in the car, but it was actually worth the expense! There are even a pair of giant pandas housed in a magnificent enclosure which is only accessible by the safari’s own bus. We spent many happy hours sharing our carrots with the wildlife and ooh-ing and ah-ing over the larger animals.
I have now returned to the fresh, cool Adelaide winter and to the relative predictability of my life here. I’m sure that no one would have been able to convince me ten years ago that I would someday eagerly anticipate my travels to Indonesia, a place I’d never imagined visiting even once. Now look forward to my next visit—an opportunity to celebrate the extraordinary commitment of the Jews of Indonesia and a chance to connect with my Indonesian families. Sampai jumpa lagi—until we meet again!
We spent much of our first day in Jakarta visiting three different cemeteries. The first was in the centre of Jakarta and contains a cluster of at least seven Jewish graves. Those buried here are predominantly Dutch Jews who traveled far from home with the Dutch East Indies Company. Some, like Ben’s grandfather, married local women and put down roots in Indonesia. The old cemetery is lovely and well-looked after by attendants hoping for small donations from those visiting their family graves. But the cemetery brought moments of quiet shock as well: most of the Jewish graves had been desecrated. The inscriptions have been partially or entirely broken off, so that it is no longer possible to see the names of those buried there. These were the only graves we could see that had been disturbed, and I wondered at the motivations of those committed enough to their mission to scout out the few Jewish headstones located anywhere in the hundreds of square miles of Jakarta so that they could destroy them. Below is the only fully intact headstone we saw.
These broken headstones were only one indication that something has shifted within Indonesia in the last 2 ½ years. In most ways, the country feels reassuringly the same: airlines still provide invocation cards in the seat pockets that enable passengers to offer prayers from any or all of the six different official religious faiths of the country. In Bali, I was invited to have my photo taken with a large group of Muslim tourists from Yogyakarta in central Java visiting Hindu sites richly decorated with the images of their gods. I had nothing but friendly and sometimes really delightful interactions with Muslims around the country.
But a closer look points to very worrying indications that the country is at a tipping point. We noticed a far greater military presence than in the past, most especially in the eastern areas of Papua and Ambon but in western Java as well. One afternoon, we were traveling down a main road in Ambon City when a military convoy passed us from the other direction. Among the vehicles were two open trucks with machine guns mounted on top. Soldiers were manning the machine guns, looking for all the world as if they anticipating having to open fire at any moment. It was more a sight I might have expected to see in an authoritarian state under siege rather than in a pluralistic democracy like Indonesia. I was so astonished that it took a minute or two for the full impact to hit.
We were at the outskirts of Ambon on our way back from visiting a neighbouring island. I returned from the bathroom to hear from David that he’d had a deeply disturbing encounter with a group of religious Muslim men. Of course, there was no way they could tell he was Jewish, but they could certainly tell that he was from a western country. He reported that the men had looked at him with absolute hatred in their eyes. He’d never experienced anything like it in his many travels here and elsewhere. Several of our Indonesian friends have commented on how the Indonesian government has chosen to look the other way rather than engaging head-on with rising Islamist extremism. Entire neighbourhoods of some cities have begun extremist enclaves, with non-Muslims advised to think twice before visiting. (below is one of the desecrated graves in Jakarta)
In Jakarta, expatriates from Saudi Arabia have begun popping up in decently large numbers. On our visit to the spectacular Safari Park in Bogor, we found ourselves surrounded by Saudi families. The men and boys were dressed casually and comfortably. The women, meanwhile, were concealed under matching black niqabs with narrow slits for their eyes. Ben said that they are using Indonesia as a way station as they apply for Australian visas, but I’m not sure that’s the whole story. We noticed the large number of magnificent mosques even in slum areas and wondered where the funding is coming from.
It’s also hard to escape the reality that Indonesia has fallen on very hard economic times. Unlike western countries, the government did not step forward with large-scale relief packages to assist its citizens through Covid. People suffered then, and they’re still suffering now. I am fearful how this combustible mixture of unemployment and Islamist extremism will impact on the country I have come to cherish and especially on the people I love.
Two of those beloved people were dearly missed on this visit, and I was grateful we had an opportunity to visit both of their graves. Ehud was one of the founding members of the United Indonesian Jewish Community, and held the distinction of being the only truly affluent member—at least by Indonesian standards. He put his heart, soul and resources into helping the community. When he built a wedding venue a few years ago, he added a small synagogue on the upper floor. This is where the community’s Torah scroll lives, and where the congregation continues to gather when it can. Ehud tragically died of Covid last year, and I was privileged to assist with the unveiling of his headstone at the second cemetary we visited.
The second person we’ve lost since our last visit was Yaakov, who died in his sleep only a month after we first met him in late 2019. He was not even forty years old. He had joined the community relatively recently, but it was already clear that he had the potential to be a fantastic teacher of Torah and all things Jewish in Jakarta. Very sadly, his sister became ill and passed away four years before he did—a terrible loss for his parents and his three surviving siblings. We visited his grave far outside of downtown Jakarta along with his stepmother and his sister Tziva, who is now a pillar of the Jakarta congregation. Two days later, we met with his deeply grieving father and younger brother and sister. All have decided to embrace Judaism since Yaakov’s death. His younger brother chose the Jewish name Nissim, which means “miracles.” He said that Judaism has been a miracle in his life, showing him a path back to life after so much grief.
That late afternoon and evening was another marathon of beit din interviews, with ten adults meeting with us individually. Once again, the stories were amazing: one man is a former Christian pastor who made it his special cause to attack Rabbi Ben on the internet. He has now chosen to become Jewish after a long period of self-reflection. How I would love to find that attitude of openness among others in the world! Another man wrote a beautiful essay which even referenced the revered scholar Maimonides. He later presented me with an extraordinary gift: an Indonesian-Hebrew dictionary, created by a Muslim scholar of Hebrew. I have brought it back to Australia and expect to find it really useful as I continue on my efforts to speak Indonesian well enough that someday I won’t have to rely on a translator at all.
The interviews finished up by 9:00 pm on Wednesday night. Sadly, I did not get to be present for the final step in the process: immersion in a mikveh. Ben, Rachel, David and Shelley all packed into the car on Thursday morning to drive me to the Jakarta airport, where I began the trip back to Adelaide. I arrived safely (with my luggage!) on Friday morning, and enjoyed deep breaths of fresh Australian air. Quite a change from the horrendous smog of Jakarta. I am so sorry to have missed what looked like an amazing Shabbat celebration at the Jakarta synagogue, as those who had now completed their conversion process had the opportunity to participate fully for the first time. At the service, Rabbi David also presented Rabbi Ben with a magnificent megillah, a hand-written scroll containing the biblical book of Esther. David’s colleague Rabbi Robert Kasman commissioned the scroll in memory of his wife Sharon specifically to be used in Indonesia. What a fantastic gift and a beautiful legacy.
I’ll have my last blog entry for this trip up in a few days, with reflections about the quirks and delights of Indonesia.
On Friday afternoon, just before the start of Shabbat, the Jewish community of Ambon welcomed a Torah scroll to its little synagogue in Moshe and Vera’s home. Rabbi David Kunin’s Syracuse congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas kindly donated the scroll. This is the third scroll whose donation David has facilitated; the first two were delivered to grateful communities in Jakarta and Timika in 2018. When we arrived at the home, four men were already standing at the ready with a chuppah (marriage canopy) set up. David and Shelley passed the Torah to me, and I in turn passed it to Ben, representing the United Indonesian Jewish Community. The chuppah was walked slowly in to the house, where the scroll was passed to a tearful Moshe. As with leaders of previous communities, he was overcome with the emotion of receiving something so precious.
We quickly moved from one celebration to another, as Shabbat began with the setting sun. Since David had led the ceremony to dedicate the new Torah scroll, I led the Friday evening service. In the Timika community, female service leaders and Torah readers have been nurtured by Ariella to stand as equals with the men. Ambon is different; here the most active leaders are all men, including Moshe. I’ve loved the women I’ve met, especially the three women whose weddings we’d celebrated. But they’re more inclined to stay in the background and especially in the kitchen rather than stepping up to lead services. I’m hoping that seeing me and Shelley leading parts of the Shabbat service during our visits will inspire the women of this community to do more in the future.
Shabbat services came with a wonderful surprise: I discovered that this is a community that loves to harmonize. At points, the room was filled with four-part harmony. I found myself adding on song after song so that I could participate the beautiful singing. I truly experienced oneg Shabbat--the joy of Shabbat.
We enjoyed a delicious Shabbat dinner following services. Vera is a wonderful cook, and the food of Ambon is absolutely delicious—just spicy enough, but not absolutely overwhelming. Rabbi David led the blessing after meals from the dining room, which posed a challenge to those sitting in the living room just around the corner. I kept scurrying around making sure everyone was on the right page, since it was a bit difficult to hear. Once birkat hamazon was done, we returned to our hotel for a much-needed sleep before Shabbat morning services the next day.
Unlike other synagogues in Indonesia, where services begin at 9:00—or whenever most people are able to arrive!--Moshe begins his services in Ambon at 8:00 am sharp. He and Vera are high school teachers, and Indonesian schools meet six days each week. The two of them have been able to negotiate an arrangement with their school that they can miss the first several lessons on Saturday mornings, but they are expected to put in an appearance eventually. On this particular Shabbat, both had the day off, so we enjoyed a leisurely journey through the Shabbat morning service.
The highlight of the service was reading from the new Torah scroll. Both Moshe and his wonderful assistant Shmuel David had prepared a small portion of the Torah portion to read. Shmuel David in particular had taken advantage of the large number of resources now available on the internet to guide Torah readers. We had another lovely meal, then went back to the hotel for a long nap before more prayers and Torah teaching that evening. We sang the havdalah service to bring Shabbat to a close, and the walls shook with our joined voices. As the evening drew to a close, we were approached for much-anticipated photos. I slowly realised that this was our last night in this lovely place.
Moshe and Vera live far up the hill from the busy Ambon City centre, and at night most of what we hear is the sound of insects and frogs. The synagogue in their home feels like an island of serenity when other times the evangelical Christianity and fervent Islam of the region are completely overwhelming. Moshe and Vera have adopted a gorgeous, very active and intelligent boy named Aharon—Hebrew for Aaron. Like the other children of the community, he is being brought up with a sense that Judaism is his home. Just about everyone joined us at the airport the next day to say goodbye, and Aharon rewarded all of us with big hugs. I look forward to watching him grow up with Jewish joy and a sense of confidence that his community will always be there to embrace him.
We landed in Ambon City as the rain was coming down in sheets. Heavy rain was a recurring theme for us during our four day visit. I do think I saw the sun once or twice, but it was quite fleeting. A number of low-lying areas were experiencing flooding. We thought of the weaver women we’d visited 2 ½ years earlier in their very humble hut by a river. We wondered how they were faring.
After a very early start that morning, we welcomed a few hours’ rest in the lovely Orchid Hotel in the centre of the city. But at 5:00 that afternoon, it was time to go to work: over the next four hours, we interviewed nine adults and one teen to assess their readiness to become Jewish in a process called a beit din or religious court.
Over the course of the ten different batei din (the plural form), one theme kept recurring: times are tough in Ambon. We met several lovely couples who already have several children, but whose financial situation is precarious enough that they’re still living with their parents and other extended family. The parents are still fervently Christian (the predominant religion on the Maluku Islands), and so at the very least are grudgingly tolerant of their children’s adopted faith. In some cases, they are downright hostile, and so Judaism can only be practiced safely at the community synagogue.
A number of the men have come upon a solution to all of their problems: they are hoping to strike gold. Earlier this year, they took a two-day ferry ride to a neighbouring island, then a fourteen-hour bus ride. Finally a 3 hour hike through steep terrain to the middle of a mosquito-ridden jungle on their hunt for gold. Their lives there are unimaginably harsh: they have to carry in as many supplies as they can for their 4-5 month stay, including tents, food, cooking fuel, and mining tools. Rain falls nearly daily, and the humid heat can be intense. At times, they have run out of food and needed to hike quite a distance to purchase food at exorbitant prices. They have made a valiant attempt to lead Jewish lives in these harsh conditions, including resting on Shabbat. But that doesn’t change the fact that a huge distance lies between them and their Jewish community.
In their first attempt, the men were moderately successful in locating a good supply of gold. But most of them also contracted malaria and are now dealing with ongoing health issues. The morning that we left Ambon, one of the men joined the community in meeting us at the airport for a send-off. Suddenly he became quite ill with intense chills and trembling. He is the father of a new baby, and I’m relieved that he will not be returning to the jungle. However, I worry deeply for the others, both that they’ll fail in their quest and that they’ll succeed and become a target for violence. But, as Rabbi David pointed out, there’s an illness that is even more severe than malaria, and that’s gold fever. I spoke with one of the men, who shared with me his dreams of starting his own business rather than working for others. He quit a longtime job at a local restaurant in the hopes of striking it rich. I hope and pray that they’ll succeed, but even more so, I hope they’ll stay safe.
It’s been a few years since I undertook such a long day of batei din. It was completely exhausting, but also joyful and hopeful. With these new additions, the Ambon community has now doubled in size and has become far more viable. The new families bring with them seven children to bring hope for the Jewish future. But, of course, our work was not yet done: it was necessary to immerse these Jews-by-choice in a natural body of water in front of witnesses to finalise their conversions. This was far more challenging that I would have imagined. On the day of the mikveh (ritual immersion), we arrived at the beach to gale-force winds and truly terrifying waves. Shelley asked about the sign clearly posted at the beach. I translated what I could, including the words “FORBIDDEN” and “WAVES.” Shelley, a former lifeguard, announced that she would never allow anyone to swim in these waters. Moshe Lemuel, the leader of the community, agreed that we would move to a river not too far away. A far better choice!
We traipsed down a muddy path, and I thought of the new strain of foot-and-mouth disease that’s been identified in Indonesia. I anticipate that the biosecurity agents at the Adelaide Airport will tackle me when I return. I’m hoping they don’t burn my shoes. It’s cold there, and having shoes is a good thing! The river was flowing relatively swiftly, but as Shelley pointed out, no danger of undertows or rips tides. Rabbis David and Ben and Moshe took the men through the process first. It was stirring to hear each man in turn speaking the required blessings that sealed their conversions.
Then it was time for the women. Shelley, Ben’s wife Rachel and I took charge. Sadly, one couple had not come due to illness, although they’d sent their daughter. We had one woman and three girls to look after. And then, a surprise: the woman and girls hadn’t realised that they needed to immerse completely naked! The ever resourceful Shelley located a sarong, and after a moment’s hesitation, I waded into the water in my sneakers and socks to hold up the sarong along with Rachel to assure their privacy. First the woman who had chosen the Jewish name Ruth Hannah immersed; she had learned the main blessings by heart just from the time I had taught it to all of the conversion candidates. Then it was the turn of her six-year-old daughter, and this is when the giggles started. As she removed each piece of clothing, she giggled more and more, and she continued laughing as the other two girls immersed as well. Of course, trying to get wet clothes on is pretty hilarious. Once she was dressed again, she proceeded to splash around the water with her still naked younger brother until her mother told her it was time to head home. Our wet but happy new Jews climbed on their scooters and made their way home.
In the evening, I experienced another first in my endless succession of firsts in Indonesia: David and I celebrated the weddings of three couples in a single night! Two of the couples had already been Jewish for some time and were well known to us: the community leader Moshe and his wife Vera have been married for twenty years and have both been Jewish since 2014. They have poured their heart, soul, and finances into creating a Jewish community: the synagogue meets in their home. Now, at last, they would solemnize their marriage with a Jewish ceremony. Shmuel David and his wife Shira Avigail converted when we were in Ambon 2 ½ years ago. They are community leaders in their own way: Shmuel David has the voice of an angel, and I loved listening to him singing harmony in our Shabbat services. Shira Avigail is Vera’s right hand in making sure we and the community members are well fed and looked after. Both have a gentle energy, and I’m enormously fond of both of them. The third wedding was for Ruth Hannah and her husband Eitan Nachman, another gentle couple whose partnership in raising their two children was lovely to see.
Neither David nor I had every celebrated more than one wedding at a time, so it took more than bit of logistical planning to figure out how to conduct all three ceremonies efficiently but correctly. The first step was signing the ketubah, the marriage contract. We were just about to start when the three women stopped us from starting; they had to change into their wedding clothes! They emerged five minutes later wearing simple but lovely white dresses and SHOES! All three grooms were wearing shoes too, presumably so they could safely step on a glass at the conclusion of the ceremonies. This was one of the very few times that I’d seen people wearing shoes indoors. Now with the couples properly dressed up, we could begin.
The couples were called up one by one to make sure that both groom and bride consented to the conditions written in the ketubah. David then walked each couple through a short ritual of making sure that the grooms were marrying the right brides. We then launched into the first wedding ceremony, for Moshe and Vera. Moshe stood under the beautifully constructed chuppah, wedding canopy, as Ben’s wife Rachel walked Vera down the aisle. For all three weddings, David and I split the service in half so that we had equal representation before the community. All three brides carried lovely bouquets of felt flowers. Shira Avigail and Shmuel David’s daughter Rosa walked her mother down the aisle, but Ruth Hannah again chose Rachel, the mother of the community. As each groom smashed the glass, the community yelled “mazel tov!” and then called for a kiss. We managed to speed through all three weddings in about 90 minutes, and then it was time to enjoy a lovely community dinner.
There are almost as many different interpretations of the tradition of breaking a glass a wedding as there are rabbis. One popular understanding is that the broken glass represents the brokenness that must come into the life of every married couple. These three couples have already seen their share of brokenness. Moshe and Vera endured years of abuse from the pastor and members of a neighbouring church. Eventually Moshe sued them for human rights abuses and won the right to live and worship safely. He has promised to right a book about the many experiences he’s endured for living as a Jew...in English! Shmuel David and Eitan Nachman have already experienced lonely months in the jungle far from their families. They are preparing to return next month in the hopes of new lives for themselves and those they love. I could see that love is enduring bond in all three couples. I wish them many long and prosperous years!
After a much-needed nap and and shower on Friday afternoon, we headed over to John and Ariella’s home to begin our Shabbat celebration. We arrived to an enthusiastic welcome from guests who had flown in from Jayapura as well as those local to Timika. The house was full to over flowing with people, most especially several dozen children dressed in their Shabbat best. I was charged with leading kabbalat Shabbat, the opening section of the Friday evening service that puts everyone in a mood for a day of joy and tranquility. I started with the song “Shabbat shalom,” and the response from those gathered was electric. The children exploded into song. One little girl stood in front of me in her pink princess dress. I’d last seen her when she was four, and now she was nine years old. She absolutely belted out every song she knew, meeting my eyes with a fierce sense of pride and ownership. The younger children were not quite so confident with the words, but they made up for it by clapping whenever they could. A little futher back in the room sat the adults, singing with just as much gusto. The energy reached its climax for the song V’shamru in the evening service. I had forgotten the infectious enthusiasm of this community, and I could feel my soul being restored by the level of celebration in the room.
This is our first visit to Timika in southern Papua since January 2018, and it’s amazing to see how the children have grown up. More children have come along as well: one family now has six children, and another five. John and Ariella share their home with their two daughters who are in their twenties, but also an eleven-year-old boy and a gorgeous two-year-old girl that they’ve adopted. They are well into their fifties, but seem to be finding the energy to look after a very active toddler. They’d also found the funding to enable two families to travel in from Sentani in northern Papua so they could celebrate with us. Both families are desperately poor, surviving by catching fish from Lake Sentani each morning and them selling them at the local market. Other families are more affluent, but it is all relative here. I consider that I live a fairly modest life my Australian standards, but I am impossibly wealthy compared to these families. I am reminded of a text in the Talmud, in which God praises the Jewish people for declaring that they have eaten their fill even when all they have eaten is a portion of food the size of an egg. I have no doubts that many of these families have had times in their lives when getting enough has been a struggle.
Shabbat morning was a marathon of prayer, study and celebration. The community had been saving up its special occasions for our visit. Five young people read from the Torah scroll for the first time, including two sets of siblings. Ariella had spent hours coaching them through the Torah reading, and I could see her mouthing each word as the students read. I realised that we had not seen the Torah read since Rabbi David delivered the donated scroll back in 2018. Each teenager read with grace and confidence, some more loudly than others. After each reading, the congregation threw candy and applauded, and we all sang “Siman tov v’mazel tov.” The sixth aliyah to the Torah was given to the three mothers who had watched their five children called to the Torah. It turns out it was the first time each of them had blessed the Torah, so it was appropriate to sing to them too.
The last aliyah went to John and Ariella, in anticipation of a very special celebration: after thirty years of marriage, the two of them would be married in a Jewish wedding ceremony that evening. After a few hours’ break and a delicious nap at the hotel, we all returned late in the afternoon for more prayer and Torah study. Once Shabbat was over, the wedding could begin! A rented wedding dress arrived at the door, and Ariella dashed off to her room to change. She emerged looking absolutely gorgeous to huge cheers and good-natured laughter. David led the couple through the signing of the marriage contract, the ketubah, and then through the bedekin ritual in which John lifted Ariella’s veil to make sure he was marrying the correct woman. Then the wedding ceremony itself began.
John and Ariella’s two daughters Sabatin and Melanesia walked their mother down the aisle. As the ceremony moved forward, the children crowded closer in to get a better view, all with broad smiles. I sang the seven wedding blessings near the end of the ceremony which recall the first wedding of Adam and Eve. I noted that the two of them were made at the same time by God in the first chapter of Genesis and so were created as equals. It has been abundantly clear to me in the years I have known John and Ariella that they stand as equals in their home and in the Jewish community they are largely responsible for creating and nurturing. John broke the glass, and the community sang out their congratulations. Then I tried to nudge the couple into the traditional kiss to great hilarity. After the customary five minutes of solitude, the newlyweds emerged. Each was lifted up in turn on a chair carried by a number of very nervous people to more cheers. What a joy to be a part of this moment in their lives!
Monday morning saw still more celebration. One further young man, already twenty years old, was called to the Torah. David also conducted a baby naming for three little ones who had been born in the last two years. And then, after lunch, we headed over to a nearby river to immerse John and Ariella’s adopted daughter. She squealed with joy as her mother coaxed all of her into the calm waters. I was greatly relieved that the water was so quiet after the heavy rains we’d experienced.
On Monday evening I led the evening prayers and then we enjoyed a last dinner. We’ve almost grown used to the awkardness of eating at our own table, with the adults of the community waiting until we’ve finished to eat their own dinner. Just one of many ways we are elevated in every community we visit. David and I each taught briefly, and then it was photo time! John and Ariella’s daughter took literally hundreds of photos of the five of us with each and every community member in all different configurations. Even though my cheeks started to hurt from smiling so much, it was a lovely time. We had one more ritual to perform: a community member had asked us to afix a mezuzah or amulet to the front door of her home. We finally made it back to the hotel at 10:30 pm so that we could prepare to depart the next morning.
The entire community joined us at the airport for the hour before we made our way to the gate. And we had a special surprise! A young man had come home the previous evening from his posting as a police officer in Jakarta. We remembered what a strong impression he had made on us when we first met him in 2016: he was only sixteen at the time, but already appeared as self-possessed as his police-officer father. He had shared at the time his hope that he would someday go into the same profession as his dad, and here he was, standing straight and tall. His mother told me that for his first two years in Jakarta, his responsibilities had now allowed him to join with the Jewish community there, but that he now would be able to celebrate Shabbat.
There was little time for hugs as we walked into the airport, but we had had plenty the night before. The day before, Ariella had spoken tearfully of how David, Shelley and I see each of the children of Papua as our own children. I couldn’t agree more! These young people, whom with luck we’ll see in another two years, are part of our lives now, and we would love nothing more than to see them live joyful and successful lives. We will wait eagerly for our next visit.
On Thursday, we flew 1 ½ hours from Denpasar to Makassar, on the southeast coast of the island of Sulawesi. Makassar is a fervently Muslim city, with at least one large mosque on every block. The muezzins appear to compete with each other to see who can sing the longest in calling worshippers to prayer at 4:00 am. I clocked our local mosque’s call to prayer in at twenty minutes! Luckily, we had to be up that early anyway to catch our 6:45 flight to Timika in Papua. We flew nearly three hours and discovered that a sparkling new airport had apparently replaced the homespun Timika airport we all remembered from 4 ½ years earlier. It appears that change is afoot in Timika, at least as far as the central authority in faraway Jakarta is concerned.
After 2 ½ years and what feels like a lifetime, I returned to Bali on Monday afternoon. Much feels the same: the island is still utterly soaked in its own, unique Hindu culture. The land is still lush, and the rains still fall nearly daily. But a second look reveals that much has changed here. Many stores are shuttered, and there is a note of desperation as hawkers approach at sacred sites to promote their wares. I had the joy of spending Tuesday as a tourist in the company of my beloved friends Rabbi David and Shelley Kunin and their guide Karma. We visited a serene, beautiful temple with a magnificent banyan tree at its heart. As we left, women surrounded us and tugged on our sleeves, begging us to visit their little shops. Prices for food and especially for alcoholic drinks have fallen, with many establishments offering two drinks for the price of one. Bali only re-opened to tourism in April, and while the hotels are full, there is still a sense of precariousness in this place which has placed so many of its eggs in one basket.
I found accommodation on a laneway in Ubud for the lofty cost of AU$17 per night. Rusma House consists of three spacious guestrooms with a shrine to the god Ganesha in the middle. I was a bit concerned to find out that the booking.com promise of air conditioning was not true. But a powerful ceiling fan assured that I slept peacefully for my two nights there. On the long drive through traffic jams from the airport, my host shared with me how in the two years without tourists, his family had grown its own rice in a field not too far from his home. They almost exclusively ate what they could grow themselves, because they simply didn’t have the money to buy food. He was kind and attentive, but it was hard to miss the disappointment when he discovered that I was not going to need his services as a tour guide. I’m very happy to provide contact details for anyone who wishes to stay in this gracious home.
The quality of Jewish life has changed in Indonesia as well since the arrival of Covid. I anticipate we will be interviewing close to twenty people who wish to convert to Judaism while we are here. Most are located close to the established Jewish communities we’ll be visiting in Ambon and Jakarta, but not all. Two men will brave the arduous bus trip from the eastern end of Java to Jakarta so that they can fulfill their dream to become Jewish. There is a small remnant of the Iraqi Jewish community in Surabaya, but their primary connection to community has been via the internet. Just as for those of us in Australia, Covid has both reminded us of our distance from one another and encouraged us to cross the miles using available technology. It has also begun to change our understanding of what it means to be a part of community, as we have seen that it is possible to remain connected even when we cannot pray together in the same space.
On Wednesday, we met with our first candidate for conversion, a lovely young pharmacist whose home is in Bali. He grew up in the charismatic Christian tradition, but was already interested in Judaism as a boy. For the last two years, he has joined Shabbat services each week with Jews from across Indonesia who gather in a virtual synagogue to pray together. On Wednesday evening, we went to dinner with him and his parents, as well as two others here in Bali who chose to become Jewish a number of years ago. We urged him to join physically with other Jews in Jakarta for the High Holy Days and for Pesach. Hopefully he will not be too lonely as he continues to reach across the miles to be a part of the Indonesian Jewish community.
At the end of our interview with him, he asked for permission to hold the Torah scroll that has traveled with David and Shelley from Syracuse and that will ultimately end up in Ambon. The joy on his face was clear for all of us to see. I was deeply touched to see his parents, who remain dedicated to their Christian faith, celebrating with their son. What a privilege to be here!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.