OCTOBER 18, 2018 – This year I volunteered to serve a small and unusual kehillah (community) in Bali, an Indonesian island. They have named themselves “Congregation B’nai Hof,” which translates into Beach Boys.
I was the only rabbi in this vast country of 250 million people, spread out over 17,000 islands. I did not receive any compensation, except for an airplane ticket, thanks to the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
I arrived two days before Rosh Hashanah, so I could get a leg up on the jet lag. I was briefed extensively by a friend who served here two years ago. He was the first rabbi to meet this makeshift congregation, so I was well prepared and knew exactly what to expect. At the same time, I was in for the most memorable High Holy Days experience of my career.
During the Holy Days, we lived in the home of our host, Liat Solomon. Liat is the spine and the muscle and the eyes and the ears and the heart of this small Jewish community. Liat, with her partner Rick, run a vegan empire on this small island of about 4.2 million people, employing more than 350 Balinese in the production and sale of vegan food at her restaurants and shops. She’s Israeli with a French passport and has been in Bali for 22 years.
Liat’s home, in the fashion of the island, is open. Weather is not a concern here. There are rooms and guest rooms and a swimming pool and a dance studio. Like many westerners, Liat has a crew of Balinese staff to keep the place clean. Around the compound are rooms tucked away and people show up and stay for a while, usually to help in her business. Everyone is remarkable, and everyone has a story.
No Jew comes to Bali for the express purpose of creating a rich and meaningful Jewish life. So everyone I served over the Holy Days and Shabbat sought out something Jewish, some connection to their past, and showed some level of desire for Jewish practice and connection. Judaism and Jewish life is tenuous on this Hindu island amidst this Muslim nation. Formally, Judaism was illegal until two years ago. Now it is “tolerated.” Everything Jewish is under the table and not out in the open.
Every Shabbat, Liat welcomes all who come for dinner. Every week, between 20 and 50 people are graciously received and amply fed. The dance studio was transformed into a synagogue. The mirrors were draped with white and gold cloth. Serge Davis, a Parisian, was my helper. He loves his Judaism. He is a raconteur of fascinating stories and interesting facts. He takes care of the religious matters. He made sure that we had a shofar and a Torah scroll (printed on rollers – an appropriate bar mitzvah gift, perhaps, for a Parisian 13-year-old) that worked just fine for us in our vegan enclave.
I was blessed by the presence of Dan Kohane, an extraordinary young musician from New Jersey who was a Jewish song leader and a master composer. He came to Bali to learn to play the gamelan (an assembly of bronze percussion instruments) and has stayed for three years. Dan plays every instrument and sings beautifully.
And Dan has friends. For our evening services, we were blessed by Kelsie from North Carolina, who sang for years in the North Carolina Opera company. During the days, Mikey showed up with his violin, which he taught himself. He can play anything. Dan and Mikey are two parts of Indonesia’s only Klezmer band. The clarinetist was out of the country. We had all the big pieces that mark the Holy Days.
Our biggest attendance was Rosh Hashanah evening. About 40 arrived – people from all over the world with several children. First, we had our worship service and then dinner. Some flew in from Singapore. In the morning, we were just shy of a minyan (the quorum of 10 Jews required to do a complete worship experience).
I was a bit dismayed. But I shifted gears. I taught, we sang, we did many of the prayers permissible without a minyan, and we were together in the studio for nearly three hours. There was no show and no pretense. The same was true for the entire High Holy Days season. Simple short sleeve white shirt, no coat, no tie, no shoes for that matter. Easy.
And then the beach for Tashlich with guitar and bread crumbs. The sun quite literally set on our sins.
On Yom Kippur, we gathered together at 5 p.m. to eat before the fast. Throughout the day, we had a core group of people and others came and went. We never had more than 20. We worshipped with Iris from Italy, who lives in India and travels to Bali now and then; Sylvie from Argentina, who came to escape the financial downturns in her home country; Ben, a remote working lawyer from North Carolina and his 16-year-old son, Aaron; Olivier (French) and Johanna (Finnish and Yeminite), restaurateurs in Bali; Avi, an older Israeli married to a Balinese woman; Jessica, a graphic designer from Colombia; Stephano from Cape Town; Danielle the surfer girl from Herzliya, Rick from Amsterdam, Marc the former French diplomat, and Liat and Serge. Julie from Israel joined us in the afternoon. My wife, Judi, and Dan and the musicians filled out the congregation. I felt rather ordinary in this adventurous crowd. We got to know each other.
On Yom Kippur afternoon, between the morning service and the study sessions, we lay on yoga mats for a musical meditation fitting the spirit of the day. We studied Jonah and Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance. We were cocooned in the compound. I didn’t have to drive or park or hear traffic. Yom Kippur was perfect, quiet, contemplative, fascinating, gentle, and beautiful.
When the shofar sounded, we hugged and returned for some more healthy food, along with lemonade sweetened with agave nectar. It was a sweet, sweet New Year.
I wish that all those who read this could experience these Jewish holidays, Balinese style.
Rabbi Jonathan Miller has recently retired from Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, Ala. He was raised in Malden, where his father, Rabbi Judea Miller, served as rabbi of Temple Tifereth Israel from 1965-1973.