‘The is­lands will re­joice!’

Psalm 96 comes alive for the writer, who re­counts her joy­ous jour­ney on ‘shlihut’ in Papua

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By NILI SALEM FLAKS B’SIMCHA

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 [rit­u­ally im­merse new ves­sels in a mikveh] 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 Is­rael Project, and to the amaz­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion Ku­lanu (ku­lanu.org) 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. ■

GO­ING OUT to Sen­tani Lake to learn on the shores for the day. AN IS­LAND ‘class­room.’

TOP RIGHT: Lo­cal chil­dren draw Jewish stars on the un­touched beach as a com­mu­nity el­der plays his ukulele.

SMIL­ING FACES at a Melaveh Malka cel­e­bra­tion after Shab­bat.

THE WRITER re­ceives a warm wel­come to Bonggo, where they smudge your fore­head with sand to in­di­cate the fam­ily has wel­comed you to the vil­lage.TOP LEFT: A com­mu­nity home decked out with a large Jewish star; they build their sukkah here as well.

MORN­ING MINYAN in Jaya­pura.

ANI AND the halla she bakes.

LEARN­ING HOW to make cholent.

THE WRITER and her hus­band get to know vil­lage el­ders.

MINHA ON the beach.

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