On the western half of the island of New Guinea, in the Indonesian town of Jayapura, live 150 people who are part of a vibrant Jewish community called Kehilat Yehudim Torat Chaim. One thing that makes this community unique is that they are a proud and open Jewish community in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. They are proud of their heritage and openly fly the Israeli flag and declare themselves as Jews.
We were met at the border of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia by members of this community and we immediately drove to Jayapura, Indonesia, the provincial capital, where the synagogue is in the house of Aharon Sharon, the community’s leader. We were welcomed by passionate singing—with dancing and jumping—for close to 30 minutes. This is a community of all ages, including many young people and kids. Everyone works; most of them work in the world’s largest gold mine for 2 weeks on and then two weeks off. They explained that they arranged not to work on Shabbat when they are at the mine.
Aharon shared this story about his family’s history : his ancestors fled to Peru during the Inquisition. When the Inquisition followed them to Peru, the community sent some young people in a boat westward to a place their ancestors called the “Blue Mountain.” After a sojourn in Japan, where Aharon’s unique last name comes from, they landed in Jayapura.
They kept Shabbat and Jewish customs. When Indonesia required all residents to declare membership in one of the five official religions in the country, they chose to be called Christians. Yet they did not go to church. The missionaries caused them to dilute their beliefs and practice.
When asked about their customs and traditions, Aharon related how they were sung a lullaby with the words, “Once you were 12 brothers, now you are none.” Discussing his ancestors, he did not remember first names as they would not call an elder by his or her first name. “However,” he explained, “we have a word we used to call the elders. That word is melamdim.” He did not understand the word, nor did he know it was the Hebrew word meaning teachers.
There were 3 different communities represented.
The one from Timika, about 2 hours by plane, had an interesting story. They actually had a Torah that they brought with them. Around the turn of the 20th century, the missionaries took it and burnt their books. They, too, have now reemerged as Jews and have a synagogue as well. It is hard for the groups to get together as a community because the flights are expensive. One thing that bodes well for them is the interesting American-born Orthodox rabbi who lives in Jakarta. Rabbi Tuvia Singer, who is well-known as the director of a counter-missionary organization, moved to Jakarta and helps and supports the Timika community. I hope that with Kulanu’s assistance one or two people will be able to travel there for a month. The community also desires to have a Sefer Torah.
Time will tell where this story goes.