Rabbi Yossi Serebryanski writes: As a young child growing up in Australia I heard of an Israeli who had a hotel in Port Moresby, New Guinea. Prior to that I had never heard of any Jewish presence there. That’s not surprising because the history of Jews in Papua, New Guinea and Indonesia has been relatively unrecognized until recently. Their existence has come to light as a result of local people in those islands who wish to return to their Jewish roots.
Indonesia is a Muslim country. An Indonesian political activist named Gus Dur accepted an invitation to visit Israel in October 1994. But things didn’t begin to change until he, then named Abdurrahman Wahid, became Indonesia’s fourth president (from 1999-2001). It was during his administration that descendants of Jews began to come out of hiding.
Despite the country’s Muslim designation, in 2012 the National News Channel acknowledged that approximately 150 Jewish descendants from all over Indonesia assembled together to celebrate Sukkot there.
Elisheva Wiriaatmadja, an Indonesian who is pursuing an Orthodox Jewish conversion, was invited to speak in a messianic church in Papua. Church members had heard about a group of people from Indonesia who were involved in the process of converting to Judaism and were eager to learn the details of their journey.
Once there, Elisheva discovered people who are obviously direct descendants of Jews. In the 1400s and 1500s when Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, many of them traveled to Peru. When the Inquisition followed them, many fled to Japan and others continued on to Papua, where a large number eventually intermarried with locals.
Incredibly, one Papua tribe sings a lullaby with this line: “We were once twelve brothers but ten have disappeared.” Although unaware of the significance, many families have surnames like Sukkot, Torah and Menorah. As children they were taught never to step foot in any church as “it is an evil place.”
Recently the hierarchy and attendees of the messianic churches in two Papuan cities gathered together to decide if they should remain Messianic or pursue a return to the religion of their ancestors. After Elisheva contacted Rabbi Tovia Singer, he flew down to meet with and help them. Amazingly, 168 Papuans, including their leaders, left the churches and embraced Judaism.
Elisheva has worked diligently to translate Torah into the local language. She also runs a radio program to teach people Torah. By answering many of her questions I became part of the journey she and others around her pursued. She is a descendant of Dutch Jews who worked for the Dutch East India Company. She and her sister only returned to their Jewish roots within the last few years.
Their journey has not been easy. In an initial attempt to pursue conversion, the community, led by Benjamin Meier Verbrugge, contacted Orthodox rabbanim who rejected them. At the end of 2013 I discovered that, with no Orthodox leadership to guide them, their burning desire to convert led 75 members of the community to have a non-halachic conversion. This is a major issue taking place around the world. The vacuum created by the Orthodox world not dealing with the multitudes that wish to return pushes many to yield to the promises of non-halachic sources who take money for unacceptable conversions.
Baruch Hashem, I helped Elisheva understand that this “conversion” was not “kosher.” Yet, despite the fact that the conversion was not halachically acceptable, it caused a ripple effect throughout the Christian and Muslim communities in that part of the world. That is how the messianic churches in Papua heard about it.
We spent quite some time trying to figure out how the descendants of Jews could go through a halachic conversion. At my suggestion, in March of 2014, Elisheva contacted Rabbi Gutnick at the Beit Din in Sydney, Australia to arrange the conversion. He replied a few hours later that he (miraculously) intended to be in Jakarta within that week to do some kosher supervision. A first meeting was arranged. Since then he has continued to meet with them and is guiding a small group towards a halachic conversion with Rabbi Tuvia Singer as their teacher. The community is spread out and has limited income. They are currently trying to raise funds so they can pay for teachers to come and help them.
From when the first Jews arrived as part of the Dutch East India Company (established in 1602) and their official presence as of 1872, there has been a steady presence of Jews in this remote region of the world. Besides the Dutch, Jews also came from Iraq and Aden. There was a synagogue in Surabaya, which was torn down in 2013. There are accounts from travelers, including those of Rav Yaakov Halevy Sapir in the 1800’s and Israel Cohen’s Java Zionist newspaper in the early 1900’s, as well as stories of Jewish refugees who arrived in the 1930’s and 1940’s, that support the idea that, intermarried or not, there were many Jews who settled in Indonesia.