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.
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.