Howie Sniderman was mesmerized when he heard about the needs of the re-emerging Jewish community in Indonesia. Spread across some 3,000 kilometres on six islands, Indonesia has two synagogues – one in Jakarta and the other in Timika – as well as “home synagogues” that contain an ark, but no Torah scrolls.
Until January 2017, Rabbi Ben Verbrugge – a national Jewish leader who has made it his mission to rebuild the Indonesian Jewish community – was carrying a single Torah scroll from one place of worship to another.
Sniderman, who’s a member of the Beth Shalom Synagogue in Edmonton, felt compelled to help. As a result of his efforts, a Torah scroll from Beth Tzedek, a now defunct Edmonton congregation, made its way from Alberta to Indonesia in December, where it is now being actively used in its new home.
Sniderman had attended a lecture delivered by his friend, Rabbi David Kunin, who serves as the spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Japan in Tokyo. Kunin had previously presided over the Beth Shalom synagogue in Edmonton for 10 years, and on a visit back to the city last summer, he spoke about his engagement with the Jewish communities of Indonesia.
“He let us know that there is only one Torah scroll in the country, which makes its way from community to community. The one item that the Jewish communities of Indonesia wanted most, he told us, were Torah scrolls,” Sniderman recalled.
A member of the executive committee of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), Sniderman immediately reached out to its head office in New York, asking that staff keep an eye out for a Torah scroll. In a short time, the USCJ was able to locate one from a defunct congregation in Pennsylvania. But Sniderman also contacted the president of Beth Tzedek in Edmonton, a small Conservative congregation that had recently closed its doors, to find out if he would consider donating one of the shul’s scrolls. To Sniderman’s delight, the answer was “yes.”
Sniderman’s job was to accompany the Torah from Edmonton to Atlanta, where it would be delivered to Rabbi Kunin, who would accompany it and the Pennsylvania Torah scroll on the journey to Indonesia.
He trolled West Edmonton Mall, trying unsuccessfully to find a piece of luggage that would accommodate a Torah scroll, and then found a different solution. “It occurred to me that golf clubs travel in style all the time in hard-sided plastic carrying cases and they have rolling wheels for easy transport,” he said. “So, wrapped first in a half dozen tallitot that were also donated by Beth Tzedek to the Indonesian communities, and many rolls of bubble wrap, the Torah scroll was secured and ready for the start of its travels.”
Airlines consider golf club cases to be oversized luggage, so Sniderman had to go through special screening at Edmonton International Airport. He was understandably anxious. When he reached the front of the line, the screening technician looked at the golf club case and declared: “Finally, something normal! You won’t believe how weird it’s been around here this morning!” Sniderman’s response: “Hold that thought, it’s about to get weirder.”
Still, the journey went smoothly and Sniderman handed off the Torah scroll to Rabbi Kunin in Atlanta.
In blog posts recording his journey, Rabbi Kunin described the enthusiasm that greeted the Torah’s arrival. “We passed the Torah to everyone, younger and older. Not a few people cried when they received and carried the Torah for the first time. Never in their wildest imagination had they thought that their community would ever have their own Sefer Torah,” he wrote.
“I can’t help but marvel at the dedication and courage of Timika’s (and indeed all Indonesia’s) Jews. As an infinitesimal minority they live as tiny islands surrounded by Muslims, Christians and other traditions. No one nearby prays or believes as they do, and the overarching influence of Islam and Christianity are seen everywhere in Timika, Ambon and Manado. Despite these challenges, the Indonesian Jewish communities are committed and vibrant.”
“We rejoice whenever we hear of Torah scrolls that have been lovingly restored, repatriated or donated from around the world to the communities of Europe devastated by the Shoah,” Sniderman said. “We should all be rejoicing equally at the travels of a Torah scroll halfway around our small Jewish world, in this case, from Edmonton, Alta., to its new home with the Jewish community of Timika on the island of Papua, Indonesia.”
To read more, visit tokyorabbi.blogspot.com