Last week was a big week for Rabbi Tovia Singer: he arrived in Israel, made aliyah, and was finally able to tell the story of his experience as the only rabbi to an entire nation.
Exactly five years ago, Rabbi Singer arrived in Indonesia. His task was daunting. He was the only rabbi to minister to the literally untold number of Jews in the largest Muslim country in the world.
Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world with a population of 270.63 million with over 1.9 million square miles of land spread out over more than 17,000 islands. Over 225 million Indonesians (approximately 87 percent) are Muslim, making it the home to 12.7 percent of the world’s Muslims.
Though not officially a theocracy, the first principle of Indonesia’s philosophical foundation, called the Pancasila, requires its citizens to “believe in the one and only God.” Consequently, atheists in Indonesia experience official discrimination in the context of registration of births and marriages and the issuance of identity cards. In a seeming contradiction, the Indonesian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion but the government recognizes only six official religions: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Roman Catholic Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Indonesian law requires that a citizen’s identity card include a recognized religion. Judaism is one of about 245 unofficial religions in Indonesia. The situation was marginally improved seven years ago when a seventh category was added for ‘other’.
“They were aware of hundreds of Jews who wanted to learn about their faith,” Rabbi Singer told Breaking Israel News. “After WWII, people were required to declare their religion and Judaism was not one of the six recognized religions. No one was compelled to convert and it was not like the Soviet Union in which Judaism was outlawed, but the children were required to attend a school of their declared religion, with most choosing Christianity.”
Rabbi Singer was the only rabbi in Indonesia teaching Judaism and the first one to do so in fifty years.
“It is estimated that there are currently 20,000 Jews in Indonesia though we have no way of knowing how many there really are,” Rabbi Singer said. “I met an endless stream of people who were re-embracing their Jewish faith, turning to Israel with love and fervor. Scripture was coming alive in front of my eyes. This was so off the scale that it is impossible to imagine. And if they were permitted, they would be on a plane to Israel tomorrow. ”
Risks of God’s work
The remarkable story of Rabbi Singer’s work was embargoed until last week since, as a Muslim nation, Indonesia could not officially acknowledge his work.
“I would have at least been thrown out of the country and possibly imprisoned,” Rabbi Singer said.
How it all began
The saga began five years ago when Rabbi Singer received a phone call from a Eits Chaim Indonesia Foundation, an advocate for the Jewish faith, the Jewish people and the State of Israel for Indonesia.
Eits Chaim invited Rabbi Singer to head a three-day seminar Papua in which he would simply answer questions from Jews who had been incorporated into the Church of Indonesia. At the end of the three days, the attendees would then vote on whether they would continue their Jewish education. Rabbi Singer jumped at the opportunity, seeing in it the realization of a prophecy in Isaiah.
In that day, my Lord will apply His hand again to redeeming the other part of His people from Assyria—as also from Egypt, Pathros, Nubia, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, and the coastlands (islands). Isaiah 11:11
It is important to note that the Jews of Papua were descended from Jews who fled the Iberian Inquisition in the 16th century, arriving in Peru. Christian missionaries brought the Inquisition to the New World and the Jews fled again, some to Japan and others to Papua. Indonesia became a Dutch colony in 1800, attracting many Dutch Jews.
“They knew they were Jewish and had some memories: Sabbath songs and blessings,” Rabbi Singer said. “They absolutely knew they were Jewish.”
At the end of the three days, they asked Rabbi Singer to leave the room so they could vote. 168 of the attendees chose to re-adopt Judaism as their religion.
“They began to sing ‘Shalom Aleichem’ (a tradition Hebrew Sabbath song) in unison,” Rabbi Singer related. “Then they asked me to stay on as their rabbi.”
The situation is politically and religiously complex.
Lesser of the evils
“No one can gauge the anti-Zionism of Indonesia,” Rabbi Singer said. “As a Muslim country, Indonesia does not have relations with Israel. But of all the Muslim countries in the world, Indonesia is the most benign. Many times on my tour, I was greeted by crowds waving the Israeli flag. Of all the 57 Muslim countries in the world, Indonesia is probably the only one in which that could happen. And in the five years, I was there, I never experienced anti-Semitism. The Muslims actually showed me great respect as a rabbi, even allowing me to lecture in many mosques.”
Despite the current policies, Rabbi Singer sees great potential for a connection between Indonesia and Israel.
Room for hope
“Indonesia and Israel are opposites and relations between the two countries could only be mutually beneficial,” he said. “Indonesia has little technology but massive natural resources. This attracted the Jews to the far east. But people are very chill. There is no burning anti-Semitism. Indonesians say they are anti-Israel but when they meet individuals and become friendly, they very quickly change their opinions.”