The Jews of Jayapura

In a remote Indonesian province, a group of Papuans have begun to come back to their ancestral religion

The Jews of Jayapura.  (photo credit: ANNA CLARE SPELMAN)
The Jews of Jayapura.
(photo credit: ANNA CLARE SPELMAN)
Flying into Jayapura, the capital of Papua, Indonesia, is an experience in itself. The grandeur of the scenery approaching landing ‒ jade green mountains and low flying clouds scattered across sparkling water ‒ is contrasted with the very small and dusty airport that sees only about 40 departures per day.
Papua, not to be confused with Papua New Guinea, its next-door neighbor to the east, lies an almost six-hour flight east of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Papua and West Papua (previously only one province, it was split into two in 2003) are the two poorest provinces of Indonesia.
Nonetheless, Jayapura is a city of approximately 250,000 people, boasting glorious views of mountains and the enormous Lake Sentani. There are few buildings taller than eight or 10 stories, but large paved boulevards bustle with cars and motorbikes. Small shopping malls and hotels hint at growing development.
Just off one of these wide boulevards, down a short bumpy alley, is a large but modest house. A cement wall in front of it has been painted painstakingly with a blue Star of David. Across the small lawn, the sun begins to set behind the mountains, splashing the house with pink and purple light. Several children, all under the age of 10 and wearing suits and party dresses, peer from the windows and grin.
It is Shabbat at Harun and Diane Hokouoku’s house, which has become the de facto synagogue for Papua.
Shortly after sundown, the service begins.
Just as in Conservative or Orthodox synagogues in the West, the women sit behind the men. Some people know the prayers by heart, many read them from transliterated sheets of paper or books, and others simply listen.
Harun leads the prayers with the authority of a rabbi, occasionally looking down at his youngest daughter Shulamith, who can’t help but run up to the front of the room to greet her father, even as he prays.
Afterwards, there are hugs, as well as traditional Papuan greetings. As a visitor, I am lucky to receive many of these; the youngest nervous children, urged by their parents to take my hand to their forehead, a customary sign of respect, do so quickly and run away. We eat fruit and drink homemade grape juice that Harun has spent much of the day preparing, crushing the grapes by hand.
Harun and Diane have been teaching themselves about Judaism for some time and celebrated their first Shabbat five years ago. Like many members of the community, they believe their ancestors to have been Peruvian Jews who fled religious persecution.
Also, like many others in the community, they found out about Judaism through their church, which followed some Jewish traditions while still maintaining a belief in Jesus Christ.
This seemingly strange phenomenon is common in Indonesia, says Rabbi Tovia Singer, the rabbi of Torat Chaim, Jakarta’s new synagogue. Many churches in Indonesia, in an attempt to explore more of their religious roots, rely heavily on the Old Testament and other Jewish traditions in their services.
Isolated from the rest of the Jewish world, the Papuans came to the religion through questioning what was in front of them in their church services. For example, why were they going to church on Sunday when the Old Testament told them the Sabbath was on Saturday? These questions led them to seek out other Jews through Internet searches. Eventually, they found other Jews in Indonesia, including communities on the islands of Sulawesi and Sumatra, and in the capital Jakarta on the island of Java.
Two years ago, the growing group of Indonesian Jews convened to decide once and for all if they believed in Jesus and their church doctrine or if they were to become Jewish.
They voted Jewish, and the Indonesian congregation was born. In Papua, they still use Bibles with the New Testament ripped out until they can buy their own Torah scrolls.
Diane and Harun would like to make aliya to Israel. Singer believes that the community would be happiest in Israel where they would be able to create their own Indonesian community.
In the meantime, however, the community works toward educating themselves and their children. In the car, Diane’s oldest daughter, Venezuela, reminds the youngest, Shulamith, to say a blessing before her afternoon snack of a Hello Kitty cupcake.
Shulamith closes her eyes in concentration, and then, with the help of her mother and sister, begins quietly, “Ba-rukh, a-tah, a-do-nai…”