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