People Who Smile at You Even if You Don’t Know Them: The Magic of Indonesia with Rabbi Lopatin

I’m overwhlemed and energized with one full day in Indonesia: A land of gracious, humble people who are courageously breaking from a fog and taking a new look at Israel and the Middle East. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, so please allow me to recap today’s events:

After waking up earlier than I had wanted, davening – facing West still – and scarfing down some tuna wraps, I had a bit of time to walk around our hotel.  Of course it’s impossible to “discover” Indonesia or even Jakarta by a 30 minute walk around the hotel, but I did discover gracious people all of whom smiled at me when I smiled at them – strangers, simple folks, deep frying food in the street for breakfast all around the area.  Indonesians are big foodies, and even just the fruit, which is all I have been eating, is fresh and delicious.  There is an element of innocence in this tropical Republic of 260 million people.  I know that’s probably naive, but the people’s responsiveness is captivating.  I only wish that when we wish “Shabbat shalom” to people around us, those we know and don’t know, that we get the same kind of warm, friendly, no-strings-attached response.  Im yirtzeh Hashem – may it be God’s will.  

We started with a visit to the Cathedral (Catholic), which overlooks the Independence Mosque, which overlooks the Protestant church. There certainly are issues with elements in Indonesia not being tolerant and burning churches. However, official line is one of tolerance and respect, and the Muslim organizations are supporting that. In fact, Dr. Yusuf, the co-chair from Indonesia of our mission, heads a 30 million strong Muslim organization and political party – he was a member of parliament – and he told me that his
Muslim organization sends its members to guard churches on Christmas. The
Minister of Defense of the largest Muslim country – is Catholic!

You go from the Cathedral, the biggest church in Indonesia, to the biggest Mosque in Southeast Asia (third biggest in the world), by crossing the street. The Istiqlal Mosque means independence mosque. Like many things in Indonesia, it is built with gematria symbols – the hight of this represents this, the length of this represents this, etc. Apparently, that is a Javanese influence – everything is symbolic. It was pointed out that the architect for the Istiqlal Mosque, Frederick Sylavan (sp?) was Christian and also designed the Lutheran church. In the mosque is a 300 year old drum – called a batuk – and… it’s a Hindu minhag (custom) taken over by Islam here. They use it twice a day to call people to prayer (even though prayers are 5 times a day…).

When you look out in the direction of the qibla – Mecca – you see the spires of the Protestant church. Everything in this country speaks of tolerance and blending and taking from other cultures. True, there were almost no Jews here to speak of – perhaps 1000 at its peak – but that makes the warmth here toward the Jews in the delegation even more surprising and powerful. The Muslim leaders in the group – some of them anthropologists, some studying women and Islam – are eager to learn, not only more about Judaism, but also about Israel. They are excited to be going, and everyone repeats that this is an historic gathering of leaders who really want to make a difference.

We met with some young boys and girls – the girls sit in the back, behind the boys – learning in the mosque school, and I even was introduced as a rabbi who knows the first chapter of the Qur’an (the Fatiha) by heart. I think they thought the whole thing strange… But as Indonesians, they were polite and clapped at the end…

From the Cathedral and Mosque we went to an ornate building, Independence Hall, where the Indonesian Declaration of Independence was signed, to meet with the foreign minister. Gold all over, crystal chandeliers, sitting around a fancy table with place cards – for some reason I sat right next to the Foreign Minister and our host, the Ambassador to Washington, Ambassador Jallal. White glove service of tea with Equal packets – what a country! – and sweets (not kosher- but they looked nice).

The foreign minister is a humble, youthful engaging man, tall, man who introduced himself and then asked us all to speak. After our leader, Rabbi Sid Schwarz, introduced the goals of the mission – to use religion to bring peace to the Middle East – he asked to hear from us. I urged him to bring the engaging, tolerant culture of Indonesia to the Middle East. I would love for Indonesia to recognize Israel. In subsequent conversation, we got the foreign minister to declare his support for a Two State Solution, but not – yet – to recognize Israel. Indonesia does “recognize” Palestine, and it even has a Palestinian embassy in Jakarta. But we tried…

Indonesians are the most humble and modest people I think I have ever met – Jews are supposed to be that way – and we are deep down – but Indonesians are that way from the moment you meet them and they smile back when you smile, and say hello – everyone, from the stranger on the street to the people you sit around the table with talking about the Middle East. The Ambassador, who came a few minutes late to the table, apologized not only to the group, but to me personally – how ironic, Mr. On Time Rabbi – for coming late. Amazing people. I need to remember to get a kippa for the Ambassador – he asked for one for his birthday.

And… all the Indonesian diplomats are using iPads. Very cool.

Foreign minister said he was very supportive of the goals of mission – admires “inclusive outlook”. Praise for Ambassador Dino Jallal who made the mission happen. Indonesia is proud of its motto: Unity in diversity. And he claimed that they practice on a day to day basis. He admitted that there were challenges from those less tolerant. But overall adherence to respect, etc. “Interfaith tolerance is in our DNA…”

From the Foreign Ministry – which occupies Independence Hall – we went to a modern building for lunch at the Religion Ministry. I had three courses of delicious fruit. So far I have subsided on a lot of fruit and the tuna sandwiches. The tune is fine; I am praying hard that all this delicious fruit will be OK.

The Assistant Minister of Religion who sat at our table, emphasized that at its moment of independence Indonesia specifically avoided calling itself an Islamic state. They are not. But, on the other hand, there is not a full separation of church and state. It’s not religious but not secular.

After lunch we headed for an Islamic Boarding school. There are thousands of these, throughout Indonesia, and they are even more religious than the government religious schools. Kind of like Israel and America: There are public schools, days schools (Mamlachti Dati/Torani in Israel) and then Yeshivas and seminars…

But these frumest of the schools still are co-ed – girls and boys have separate classes and separate dormitories fare away from each other – and we got to spend some fun time with the kids. They were all delightful, engaging, smiling, sweet – everything that their adult counterparts are. Very unique for students to be this engaging.

The boarding school teachers explained that even in this highly religious environment, the schools are multi disciplinary. #1 extra curricular activity: marching band – the girls said this! Frum, modest “tziusdik” cheer leaders…

But here’s an interesting fact:

Since 1970s Indonesia has had women judges in Islamic courts…

We came back inspired by the leaders, by the students and by our group which is excited to forge new frontiers by flying to Israel. Yes, we are also meeting with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Bethlehem. But the “chidush” – the novelty – will be our time in Israel and Jerusalem, Yad Vashem and far beyond and with President Peres.

I ended off the day eating fresh lichee fruit – learning how to peel them, which is as easy as a banana. And then hair fruit and some giant leather fruit. I’ll have pictures soon.

Time to get to bed to get ready for tomorrow’s meetings where we will finalize a letter to all the heads of state about our mission. Interesting discussions no doubt.

Shalom al Yisrael and layla tov – Good night from Jakarta!

Asher Lopatin



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