Rabbis on the Frontier

How much does being Jewish mean to you? Did you ever have one of those moments when studying about the Jewish martyrs during the Crusades when you asked yourself, “Could I do that? Would I be willing to die for my faith?” At the time, my feeling was, Of course! And then I had children, and the question became much more fraught.

I now know of a community whose passion for Judaism puts me to shame: I’ve made two visits in the last 12 months to Indonesia, a close neighbor of Australia which nevertheless remains a mystery to many of us. People scattered all across the archipelago have chosen to embrace Judaism despite the considerable challenges facing them. Most of them are former Christians (yes, there are many Christians in Indonesia, along with Hindus, Buddhists and even Confucianists!)  A close reading of the Tanakh has led them to feel that Judaism is more a reflection of the monotheistic ideal than Christianity. In addition, many of them have Jewish ancestry: an estimated 80% of traders in the Dutch East Indies Company were Jewish, and many of them put down roots in Indonesia.IMG_5380

Indonesia is a not a place where it is easy to be Jewish. Judaism is not one of the faiths recognized by the government. There is deep suspicion for the state of Israel, and that is often linked to Jews as a whole. In my conversations with the people I’ve met, I’ve learned that many of them have lost friendships over their choice, and a few have chosen to quit their jobs so that they don’t have to work on Shabbat. In Jakarta, a sprawling city of 25 million people, Jews may travel as much as 2 hours one way to reach the monthly Shabbat services. The Jakarta community rents a hotel suite, and those in attendance spend the whole of Shabbat together, praying, eating, and sleeping on mats on the floor. In West Papua at the opposite end of the country, a community of about 15 families saved for two years to bring me and Rabbi David Kunin from Tokyo over from western Indonesia for a visit. The monthly wage is about $200.

I am awed by their commitment to living a Jewish life. I am humbled. I feel that I, a life-long Jew and rabbi, am not doing enough, am not living fully enough as a Jew. As Nachman of Bratslav said in his tale “The Treasure,” sometimes we need to go far away to discover the truth which is close by.

Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky serves Beit Shalom Synagogue in Hackney, Australia.