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Pot of Gold at Blue Mountain

Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

On the same island but right across the border, there were emerging Jewish communities in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

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W hen we heard that members of the Gogodala tribe in Papua New Guinea claim descent from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and are now expressing interest in returning to Judaism, we just knew we needed to plan a trip to the South Pacific jungles and see them for ourselves.

We wrote about that trip last month; yet while still in the planning stages of this newest halachic adventure, we learned that on the same island but right across the border, there were emerging Jewish communities in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

If that confuses you, we can explain: The island of New Guinea has a border drawn right down the middle; the eastern side is Papua New Guinea (PNG), our original destination, and the western side is Papua Indonesia. Indonesia, a country which is actually a collection of over 17,000 islands, straddles the equator and stretches over thousands of kilometers, from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean. With over 260 million people it is the world’s fourth most populous nation. Although overwhelmingly Muslim (85 percent), it is officially secular and there is a sizable Christian population. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are all recognized religions as well; Judaism is not.

In the last few years though, different groups in Indonesia have begun to call themselves Jewish and have even opened synagogues. It was the community in Jayapura, Papua Indonesia — just across the border from Papua New Guinea — that we decided to visit.

 

Border Blues
Our goal was to meet the members of Kehilat Yehudim Torat Chaim, in Jayapura, the provincial capital on the northern coast of the island on the Indonesian side. We went with no expectations, and even contact with their leader Aharon Sharon was difficult, as they speak little English.

 

Still, all of this was facilitated by the “chief rabbi of Indonesia,” the affable Rabbi Singer, a well-known anti-missionary expert who has been living in the capital city of Jakarta — 4,000 kilometers away — for the past few years. He now heads a congregation of descendants of Jews who hid their Jewish identity for centuries (and he’s also become a popular speaker in local mosques). Joining us along with Rabbi Singer were our travel partner Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum and our new friend Tony Waisa, leader of the Gogodala tribe which we had already visited deep in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

Nothing is easy in that part of the world. We were coming from Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, and needed to fly to Vanimo, in the north of PNG and not far from the Indonesian border. After we got to the airport we were told our flight was delayed and ultimately canceled. Finding another flight was no simple matter (as we learned the previous week, when a canceled flight meant we had to spend Shabbos in the jungle). We did finally find another flight, but the two-prop plane, acting like a delivery service, made stops in Lae, Madang, and Wewak, dropping off packages, mail, and about 500 baby chicks who were making quite a racket during the flight. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 687)

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