United Indonesian Jewish Community - The Journey of the 'Lost Jews'
The United Indonesian Jewish Community (UIJC) was established to respond to the outcry of the descendants of Jews in Indonesia who longed to know the G-d of their forefathers. The community leadership's policy was to accept all and every descendant, whether it be of matrilineal or patrilineal descent, and despite of their current religious practices.
In its development, many of these descendants showed tremendous dedication and thirst to know the truth and to seriously return to the faith of their ancestors. These people were gathered in smaller groups of communities called Kehilla, and exist in Lampung, Jakarta, North Sulawesi (Manado) and Maluku - and recently, a community in Papua emerged with the same longing. (For a list of these communities click here.) The yearning was so strong that many Jewish people from all over the world was drawn to it.
In the effort of studying about the Torah and Judaism in the midst of severe lack of resources, a helping hand came from Rabbi Yosef Serebryanski, author of Revealing the Soul, who provided much valuable guidance to the community. He provided answers when no one else was available and even facilitated the community in connecting with another Rabbi in the region, which will happen much later.
Cantor Evan Cohen of Kehilat Har-El in Jerusalem was the first who was moved by this strange wave of Indonesians celebrating Shabbat and praying to the G-d of Israel. With the facilitation of one of UJIC's former elder member Mrs. Marlina van der Stoop, he came to Indonesia for a visit in November 2012, to the community in Jakarta as well as in Manado. He stayed long enough to lead a few Shabbat services and teach about the holiday of Hannukah. During his stay here, he also visited the historical old city of Batavia, which was founded by a Dutch Jew, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the Governor General of the Dutch East Indie Company in Indonesia.
The visit of Cantor Evan Cohen, who lead the Shabbat service with beautiful melodies, inspired one of the community members in Jakarta to learn about Jewish liturgical chanting on her own, solely depending on resources on the internet. This will later surprise the mentoring and converting Rabbis as they enjoyed the Shabbat Sacharit service in Jakarta.
It was also thanks to Mrs. Marlina van der Stoop and Cantor Evan Cohen's facilitation that the Jewish community in Indonesia are currently in process of affiliating itself with the World Union for Progressive Judaism. For this purpose, the leadership of UIJC has participated in the UPJ mini convention in Hong Kong in May 2013 as well as the WUPJ convention in Jerusalem in the same month.
In April 2013, with the facilitation of Christians for Israel Indonesia, UIJC, represented by Jakarta's leader and member, was introduced to Rabbi Ari Abramowitz and Shaul Ravid who were then with Keren Hayesod. This was further progress in trying to connect with the rest of the Jewish community of the world and obtain some form of acknowledgement of its existence.
Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg and Rabbi Steven Jules Peskind were two of the first ones to respond to the community's desire to convert. Many other rabbis of different affiliations have rejected the same request for various reasons. Rabbi Ginsburg mentored the community and supplied various books and resources on Judaism, feeding the community's hunger. After many months of mentorship and studies, in January 2014, he and Rabbi Peskind flew across oceans to meet with the community and guide them in their last steps of official conversion. For their love for these souls, they dared to venture into the unknown, setting foot in what they only knew as a country with the largest Muslim population in the world.
During the course of the conversion study, a member of the community made contact with Orthodox Rabbi Zev Schwarcz of the International Kosher Council who was fascinated to learn about a Jewish community in Indonesia. Although contact was made since before the conversion, it was only after the conversion that he had the opportunity to visit the community during one of his regular visits to Indonesia to assist a few Indonesian businesses in kosher certification. Since then, Rabbi Schwarcz has been in close communication with the community, and shares teachings to the community via Skype conference.
With facilitation by Rabbi Yosef Serebryanski, the community finally reached out to Rabbi Moshe Gutnick of the Chabad Hasidic Movement and member of the Beth Din (rabbinical court) in Sydney, Australia. The meeting with Rabbi Gutnick was truly a divine intervention - the day after he was first contacted by a member of the community in Jakarta, he 'happened' to be in Jakarta for kosher certification purposes. The leader of Kehilat Brit Beracha Jakarta and two members immediately grabbed the opportunity for a meeting, informing the Rabbi of the existence of the newly converted Jews. He was at first at a loss for words but ensured them that he will help the community's development and studies in any way he can.
Word of the small community spread far and wide and reached Rabbi Tovia Singer, the Director of Outreach Judaism and radio host at Arutz Sheva. Rabbi Tovia Singer did not need much persuasion when presented with the opportunity to visit the community. His passion to reach out to the 'lost Jews' was further fuelled by his eagerness to return as a diver to the country with a vast marine biodiversity, which he had already visited a year and a half before. He led a Shabbat service and held a study session in which numerous questions of the community regarding their previous faith was answered. He shared that most people who converted into Judaism with the help of his holy work in Outreach Judaism eventually discovered they have Jewish ancestry which they never knew of before.
Both Rabbis Singer and Gutnik believe that the Jewish prophecy regarding the return of the lost tribes of Israel who disappeared millennia ago, may come to pass in the form of converts. This prophecy might have just come true in the forms of many Jewish conversion nowadays, including the ones facilitated through UIJC.
The Jewish community of UIJC has taken up more and more responsibility as ohr l'goyim, spreading the truth of Torah to the Jewish descendants and leading them back to the G-d of their ancestors, and working towards the unity of the Jewish people. In November 2014, the leaders of UIJC will once again join a conference to be held by WUPJ, strengthening the bond and friendship, paving the way for future collaboration, contributing to the restoration of the world. The leadership of UIJC continues to cater to the community's needs - guidance in celebrating Yom Tov, facilitation in obtaining Judaica as well as assistance in various family issues such as brit milah.
The community continues to learn more and more with the help of Rabbi Tovia Singer as well as long distance mentors such as Rabbi Zev Schwarcz and Rabbi Yosef Serebryanski - who despite of their distance from the community have continued to monitor the community's development and offered continuous moral support and guidance.
Furthermore, a few members of the community have established the Eits Chaim Mevaserim Center (ECMC), an informal entity which provides a channel for people to study about the Torah. Having been on 'the other side of the fence', the founders of ECMC feel that there is a need for more resources and forums for studying the Torah and learning more about Judaism - a belief system which is not even recognised in Indonesia as an official religion. Some of the programs include online classes (regular newsletter on different topics from the Torah), a regular radio show discussing the Tanakh (which will soon be changed into a regular podcast), a discussion group hosted on Facebook, and a live study group with a weekly meeting. Although it originally aims to reach out to the 'lost Jews', many non-Jews have expressed that they have also been blessed by the teachings. In its endeavour, ECMC continues to collaborate with Rabbi Tovia Singer, who provides the much needed teachings and resources otherwise lacking in Indonesia. With Rabbi Singer, ECMC is also reaching out to quench the newly transpired thirst for the Torah in communities of Papua and other parts of Indonesia.
The story of UIJC and its members for sure will not end here. Having been carried in the tummy of the Conservative Movement, delivered by the midwives of the Progressive Movement and being fed with milk and honey by the Orthodox Movement, the Jewish community will continue on its spiritual journey towards the perfection of their souls until the day they join their Jewish ancestors in the Olam Haba.