In Jakarta with Rabbis, Christian Clergy and Imams, with Rabbi Lopatin

Arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia, to sweltering Tel Aviv-in-the-summer type weather. The airport kind of feels like a tropical hotel, with walkways to customs that look out on to lawns and gardens.

After thinking about whether I should where a baseball hat (with a suit?) or my kippa, I opted for a kippa. I thought that if someone starts to give me a hard time – a guard, etc. – I would switch to a hat. But people – everyone: guards, police, people at the passport control, customs, taxi people – could not have been nicer or more gracious. Totally comfortable here.

At passport the man in the booth asked purpose of my visit – I said it was an interfaith mission with Christians and Muslims and Jew. He asked – was I Christian? No, I said, Jewish. Stamp!

The Avis taxi people got me a cab, and then when one had already been ordered by my hosts, they graciously voided my cab fair, and the Avis driver was walked me back to get my money back – no fighting or quibbling as the taxi people do in some other countries, ehem, ehem, and another man seeing my kippa said, Oh you are Jewish… First I thought he said he was Jewish, but I think he meant he was going to visit Israel, but in any case, very friendly – he was Christian. A lot of Christians around here seem to be happy to see a Jew – an even smaller minority than them. Christians are about 10%, Jews – well, there are now 25 in the country including the 5 rabbis.

Believe it or not, but Jakarta has E-toll speed pass! Looks kind of like Israel when you leave the airport with a mixture of hi rises and low rises or single family bungalow. All of Jakarta looks a lot like Tel Aviv with its slummier areas and more modern areas.

Still have the auto rickshas I remember from India 25 years ago! But on the other hand, I think an important measure of how advanced the country is can be seen by the helmets worn by motor cyclists. Every single one of the drivers – on the smallest motor scoter, moped etc. – wears a helmet – and most passengers as well.

Many people wear face masks – pollution… I think that’s an Asian thing…

Right near the hotel is the national (Catholic) cathedral, which shares a parking lot with a giant mosque. Whatever he issues may be in parts of the country between Christians and Muslims – Muslims burning down churches and not being convicted – in theory and on the ground to a great extent this country is still firmly committed to diversity.

In our opening session, getting to know each other – there are 24 us total, with 5 rabbis, and about 8 Christians, one of the members of our group, who represents that largest Muslim organization in Indonesia – 30 million members – spoke passionately about how the Western world and Islam have to come closer together, not further apart. Also, the voices here were about Islam not blaming the West for its challenges – but he hoped the West would not blame Islam either for the acts of radicals.

Another Imam said how good things were in the old days of Medina, when Muhammad “hung out” with the Jews and Christians. But I challenged this view: The Qur’an speaks over and over again about how evil the Yahud – the Jews – of Medina were. Yet another Imam gave a brilliant – homiletic, forced, perhaps, but based on the great commentator Zemachshari – that even in the Qur’an there is a difference between Al-Yahud – THE individual Jews who were so bad to Muhammad and his followers – and Yahud – Jews in general who dwelled in Medina even after Muhammad’s death. Another Muslim leader concurred. It doesn’t really matter to me what Muhammad actually meant, or what the Qur’an really meant. What is important is that I am hearing that there is a different narrative – a narrative tolerant and respectful of the Jews – that is coming out of some circles of Islam. The question is whether this progressive, embracing narrative will win, or will the intolerant rejectionist narrative of the fundamentalists win?

Discovery: Our sponsor is not the Indonesian government. We are guests of the Indonesian Ambassador to Washington, who has taken serious risks to his own career for bringing this diverse multi-faith group together and to go to the Middle East. But our sponsor is mainly a very nice TV mogul who, in honor of our group, is going to have a Muslim, Christian and a Jew on Indonesian TV tomorrow morning. This is all unprecedented. Interestingly, the TV mogul’s parents are intermarried – Muslim father, Christian mother – but it has lead him to believe that we can bridge gaps. Interesting. Even in America, where we desperately are trying to get Jews to marry Jews, sometimes something good comes out of an intermarriage… Food for thought.

Speaking of food: I was able to pass through security (carry on) with tuna and mayonnaise and flat breads – and Rabbi Julie Schohnfeld packed more tuna in her suitcase for me – so even though there really isn’t any kosher food besides fruit, I will be fine.

Ending on one sobering note: For all the divisions that Muslims have, one of the Muslim ulama’a pointed out that they all pray together. Even millions in Mecca can all pray together – whereas Jews are really finicky about where we daven – certainly outside of our denomination, but even within! But Rabbi Peter Nobel pointed out that a Reformation has never really come to Islam. So maybe we just have to give them time…

It’s bedtime in Jakarta.

Layla tov and more adventures God willing in the morning – including meeting the Foreign Minister and I hope to push him on relations with Israel.

Asher Lopatin

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