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