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.”
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 preparing for my second trip to Indonesia to meet with Jewish communities there.