‘The Islands will Rejoice!’
Psalm 96 comes alive for the writer, who recounts her joyous journey on ‘shlihut’ in Papua, as an emissary of the Ohr Torah Nidchei Yisrael project.
By Nili Salem B’Simcha – September 28, 2018
When the email was returned, we learned that the shlihut (emissary) opportunities to work with the dispersed/exiled/distant people of Israel that were available for us for the end of the summer were Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Indonesia.
I was surprised to hear that Indonesia was on the list because I have been very involved in lost tribe work and emerging communities, and I hadn’t heard Indonesia mentioned before as a place where people were practicing Judaism. So I wrote back, “Indonesia please!” …and then it got even better. “OK, so let me check in with the Papua community and the rabbis and we will get back to you….”
Papua, as in Papua New Guinea? In my wildest dreams I never imagined getting to do shlihut in Papua New Guinea! But I thought she wrote Indonesia.
Papua is the easternmost island and province of Indonesia. It is the same island as Papua New Guinea but the island is divided right in two, with PNG as a separate country to the east. So yes, we were destined for Papua, Indonesia, but not PNG.
So we were off, packed up with protein bars, instant soup packets, tons of little gifts from Israel, teaching materials, and not nearly enough bug spray for the tropical mosquito-thriving weather.
We were delighted to be greeted at the airport by throngs of community members painted in blue and white, sporting Star of David T-shirts, flying Israeli flags, an unabashedly dancing and singing “Am Yisrael Hai.”
But when Shabbat rolled in, that’s when we were truly floored.
Because the community of Timika does not yet have a synagogue, they rent a section of a local hotel every Shabbat. Every family rents a room and collectively they rent a large room for prayer and meals.
They also collectively purchased a new fridge, stove, oven, slow cooker (asking us to teach them how to make cholent), and even an electric water kettle for our stay, which they then proceeded to drive over long distances so that the appliances would be available to us in each of the communities we visited.
They wanted to make sure we had “kosher grape juice” for Shabbat so they also bought a brand-new juicer and massive boxes of grapes so that we could make our own. And, even though they culturally wake up before dawn, they stayed up all night long seeding every single grape and baking sumptuous shiny hallot with only kosher ingredients that they import from Australia when they can. Some of the first questions they had for us were, ‘How do we tovel the new juicer for the grape juice when we don’t have a mikveh?’ and ‘Why is the tradition to braid the halla?’
If that wasn’t enough, some of them even resigned from their jobs just to learn Torah with us for the three weeks that we were there.
Now, Papua is a developing country, so to say that we were taken aback by its residents’ generosity, unbelievable financial sacrifice, faith, knowledge and dedication to religious practices is a huge understatement. (Would you be willing to move your family to a hotel room every single week just to keep Shabbat with your community? Or to quit your job so you could cherish moments of learning Torah?)
Keep in mind, all communication was done through an interpreter, a clever young lady in the community named Levana. They have had two rabbis from Israel visit for a day or two in the past, and one other couple that came for a few weeks last Passover. This means that they have learned almost everything they know through community learning and personal study on the Internet (which is also very costly for them).
In the brief moments that we had WiFi, we would send a video to our friends in Israel of the women in Papua preparing for Shabbat while they hummed Shlomo Carlebach tunes, or of the community dripping from sweat, dancing so hard while loudspeakers blasted “Hashem Melech, Hashem Malach, Hashem Yimloch le’olam va’ed” (God is king, God was king, God will be king forever). Our friends would all respond with the same reactions: “I’m in awe that this is real and crying tears of joy.”
In the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat we sing, “When the Lord will reveal His kingship, the earth will exult, the multitudes of islands will rejoice…. all who worship graven images, who… worship idols will prostrate themselves before Him. Zion will hear and rejoice, the towns of Judah will exult… for You, Lord, transcend all the earth” (Psalm 96).
I felt I was living the unfolding reality of this psalm. The multitudes of islands are actively celebrating God’s kingship, and Zion was in fact hearing and rejoicing! This dawned on me as we explained to them the meaning of each psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat as we sat in Armopah Village, a beachfront town in a place called Bonggo.
My husband and I were alternating giving the explanations of the psalms that comprise the liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat, and as my eyes went down to the page, I was filled with joy.
In addition to being amazed and honored by all of their preparations for Shabbat, their genuine enthusiasm and honor for Judaism and the Torah, the actual services themselves were mind-blowing and could blow any Jerusalem minyan out of the water.
Men, women and children showed up early, sitting silently and respectfully, and then said every word in harmony at the top of their lungs. Not only that, but because not all of them can afford to own a siddur (prayer book), up to eight people politely crowd around the one person with a prayer book in order to follow along with the service.
And their post-Shabbat celebration was literally hours of singing and dancing.
Their devotion runs so deep that they asked us if we could show them which prayers to recite for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur because in the past they would just read the full prayer book cover to cover.
So who are these people? How did they get to Papua?
Let’s dip into a short history of the community. Because of communication challenges we didn’t get the clearest understanding, but I will share what we understood from them and from a lovely bilingual Indonesian Orthodox convert who helps the community stay in touch with the organizations that sent us.
There are a few heritage stories.
During the time of the Spanish Inquisition some of their forefathers went to Peru for safety. Unfortunately, when they arrived in Peru, they met continued persecution. They were advised to leave, so they headed out on boats and arrived at the shores of Papua, via Japan, after guidance from the their sages, whom they refer to as “melamdim,” to head for “the blue mountain.” One incredible revelation is that they had no idea that melamdim means teachers in Hebrew, but they were clear that it was not a word in Japanese nor Indonesian.
In Bonggo there were Jewish traders on the spice route who settled in Armopah Village. It was there that some set up homes and some continued to travel to other areas of Papua.
The tradition goes that they had with them a Torah scroll, a Talmud, a crown and staff, and they called this their treasure. They kept the treasure in a special hut and had a continual appointed guard from the community watching over the room. One of the grandmothers in the community, NeyNey Avigayil (age 81 and spry as can be), says that her great-great-great-grandfather was one of the guards of the treasure.
In 1811, the Dutch conquered the area and a missionary named Van Hasel came and tried to convert them to Christianity. He stole their treasure, burnt the hut, and handed them a New Testament. Eventually most Jewish practices were lost, but their heritage stories live on until this day.
About five years back, in 2013, that lovely convert I mentioned, who was also a radio-show host, began doing shows on the truth about Judaism and Israel, as Indonesian is 90% Muslim and there is an abundance of anti-Israel and anti-Judeo-Christian sentiment.
In her own words, Jewish neshamas (souls) just starting coming out of the woodwork all over Indonesia! Some people began getting in touch with her, others found each other, and a few members of the community were inspired and decided to begin to study Torah online, because even though they had been raised with Christianity, they remembered their roots and all claim never having really believed in Jesus and never feeling comfortable with the idea of anything but one God. There is even a former pastor who is now a leader in the Jewish community.
Today, the larger community, consisting of about 20 families across five islands, has welcomed new members who share stories about their ancestors believing in one God, or who had dreams to go in the way of Judaism or who married in, and in their words, who “simply love being a Jew!” and who are ‘so, so grateful that we have the truth!”
The community in Jayapura has built a synagogue and even inherited a Torah scroll which they cherish. And here is the real mind-blower: The majority of men and boys choose to have a brit mila (circumcision) at various ages. We asked Daniel, a young man who had his brit at age 16 why he agreed to do it, and he answered simply and exuberantly: “Because it is a mitzva, a big mitzva, and our forefather Abraham did it!”
The gray-haired elders of the community of Bonggo await their imminent circumcisions as soon as the doctor’s assistant can make it out to their rural beach town, which should be any day now.
Just so it is clear to the reader, while we are not talking about halachic Jewish status, we are sharing a picture of a stunning community who is giving their all to practice Judaism and who proudly tells all of their neighbors, “We believe in one God and in the Torah!”
This is all the more amazing (and in line with Psalm 96 above) when the majority of islands in the area drip with temples, idol stores, churches and mosques.
During our three weeks and four Shabbatot with the community, we were treated with so much respect and honor, and they hung on every word throughout hours and hours of translated Torah learning and question-and-answer sessions – during which they asked endless incredible questions spanning every imaginable topic. They often had tears in their eyes because they could not believe God sent them a rabbi from Jerusalem, a dream come true for them.
In their free time they love listening to Israeli musician Yonatan Razel and every other Jewish song they can get their hands on… and they know all of the words! During our initial car ride from the airport we were almost overwhelmed when they all started singing along to “Vehi she’amda” and “Hatikvah.”
I would like to share one final story because it was my favorite. It was like hearing an old Yiddish story come to life in modern times.
There is one couple, Eliezer and Ani, who named their children Shechina Gloria, Yisrael Miracle, and Shmuel Rabbi, who just want to do every mitzva to the fullest. They had abandoned Christianity and had been practicing Judaism for a few years, even building a sukkah, but they had no success in trying to create or find a lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron).
Enough was enough, they decided. They would use all of their savings to fly to Singapore to try to locate a lulav and etrog for the holiday. They didn’t know the language, funds were severely limited and they didn’t even know who to ask or where to find it, but eventually, on the last day, they were directed to the Chabad center.
The Chabad rabbi there promised to try to procure and send one to Papua for the holiday, and in the meantime they stocked up on kosher wine, matza and the like. And then they waited in anticipation for the arrival of their first lulav and etrog!
But sadly, on the first day of Sukkot, it had still not arrived. Ani cried and cried and begged God, but on the second day it still had not arrived. And so the story went, with her begging, crying and pleading to God every day.
Finally, on the fifth day, it arrived and she was so ecstatic that she called the community in all three cities and invited them all to come celebrate and stay over for the rest of Sukkot so that they could all shake and bless the first-ever lulav and etrog in Papua!
She said it was just incredible and she prays that God will send her another lulav and etrog this year.
I am grateful to God, Ohr Torah Stone Institutions’ Nidchei Yisrael Project, and to the amazing organization Kulanu for generously sending us to Papua and for coordinating so many details to make it possible.
And I am also so grateful to the people in these communities, for though we were sent to teach Judaism to them, what happened is that we ended up learning so much from them. My hope is that just as God has blessed them, may He bless us in similar ways: to re-awaken our passion, our curiosity and thirst for Torah, our generosity, our readiness to sacrifice financially and physically for mitzvot, our excitement to say how much we just love to be Jews, our feeling of being blessed that we have truth, and our ability to go the extra mile to prepare for the holidays.