We know that there are small communities of Jews all around the world, often in the most surprising places.
There are not only clusters of Jews in Shanghai and Tokyo and Hong Kong — which isn’t so surprising, given how important those cities are for trade and finance — but also on Bali.
And not only are there Jews on Bali, and in other cities across Asia, but they are so interested in forming connections with each other that this January, they met for the second time.
One of them — Dan Kohane, originally from Teaneck, and now, for however long “now” might turn out to be, of Bali — came back to the United States to spend the summer as a camp counselor, and will talk about his experiences at his home shul, Temple Emeth. (See box.)
Mr. Kohane, who is 29, “has been a member of Temple Emeth since before I can remember,” he said; his parents, David Kohane and Wendy Kosakoff, who now live in River Edge, are active in the shul, and as musicians. “We’ve always been involved in Jewish music,” Dan Kohane said. “I grew up around it.” In fact, that involvement is what took him to Bali, and it’s a large part — not all, but a large part — of what’s keeping him there.
After he graduated from college, Mr. Kohane earned a master’s degree in composition at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. While he was there, he fell in love with gamelan music, and most specifically with its Balinese variant. When he graduated, he decided to take some time to decide what his next step should be. So, when he heard about a program in which the Indonesian government offered a year-long fellowship to study gamelan, he jumped at it.
In September 2016, Dan Kohane found himself on Bali.
Bali is part of Indonesia, an archipelago nation that is the “fourth most populous on earth,” Mr. Kohane said. It’s mainly Muslim. Bali, on the other hand, as paradisiacal and stunningly beautiful and overwhelmingly tourist-magnetic as it is, also is very small. “It’s the size of Delaware,” he added. “It’s got an outsized reputation; its culture is unique and amazing.” Unlike the rest of Indonesia, it’s overwhelmingly Hindu.
“That’s how I ended up in Bali the first time,” he said.
Remember that it was September. “The High Holy Days were around the corner,” Mr. Kohane said. “I had been told that there were no Jews on Bali, but I thought that I might as well see what I could find.
“A quick Google search found that in fact there are Jews on Bali.”
He had found a story “written by a rabbi from Cape Town, South Africa, in 2013,” he said. But there was a problem. The story included no names, much less contact information.
That was not an oversight, he added. “In Indonesia, you have to be careful about being Jewish. It is not illegal.” But it’s not strictly speaking legal either. “Indonesia recognizes five religions,” he said. “Judaism is not one of them.”
It’s okay to be Jewish, and it’s okay to practice Judaism, “but we can’t advertise it publicly,” he said. “That is neither safe nor legal.”
So Mr. Kohane had to figure out what to do. It wasn’t so hard, he said. He googled the rabbi, and found him. “He responded almost immediately, and he connected me with Liat Solomon, who is like the hostess of the Jewish community on Bali.”
That community is called Kehillat Bnei Chof — translated, charmingly if loosely, as “The Beach Boys.”
Ms. Solomon, an expat Israeli who has lived on Bali for about 22 years — “Israeli passports usually cannot get you into Indonesia, but she has a French one,” Mr. Kohane explained — is a vegan chef, restaurateur, and impresario who has opened restaurants and other businesses. “She hosts Friday night dinners whenever she is home on Friday nights, and she caters it too. She also hosts on the main holidays, and on Chanukah.”
Their meeting was bashert, Mr. Kohane said. The year before, he’d played the music for High Holy Day services at a shul in Marlboro, so he knew the music. Ms. Solomon hadn’t gotten any musicians yet. “I thought that she had everything covered, but I asked her if she needed anything, and she said, ‘We will find something for you to do.’
“So I walk into her house for the first time, three hours before Rosh Hashanah, and the rabbi — there is no one in residence, we bring someone in — said that it was a Bali ness — a miracle on Bali, or maybe because of Bali — that I was there, because, he said, he’s tone deaf.
“That was a bit of a shock.”
But it all worked out. There were somewhere between 50 and 60 people at services — all there through various kinds of word-of-mouth serendipity. “They are mainly tourists and expats,” Mr. Kohane said. “The only Indonesian participants, I think, are the spouses of the expats.
“But there are other Jewish communities in Bali, and I think that in other parts of the country there are ethnically Indonesian Jews,” he said.
After that first High Holy Day cycle, Mr. Kohane and Ms. Solomon hit it off. “It was kind of a job interview,” Mr. Kohane said. “Liat also has a cultural and community center in one of the island’s more tourist and expat cities. It’s called Ubud, it’s a city designed around visitors and foreigners, and that’s where I live now.”
That cultural and community center in Ubud is called Paradiso, which includes a movie theater and performance spaces. When Mr. Kohane realized that he wanted to stay on Bali once his yearlong fellowship was over, Ms. Solomon was able to use his musical talents to create a job for him. That’s where he works now, and that makes him unusual because the company sponsors him and pays for his visa. Most expats work either digitally, where location doesn’t really matter, or they freelance as yoga teachers or business owners, he said.
Now, Mr. Kohane said, “I am temporarily permanently on Bali. I know I won’t be there forever, but I love the job I have right now.”
Right now, he added, “is an amazing time to be a Jew in Asia. I am very fortunate to have come at this moment, because just in the last few years, rabbis in the area have been working to make stronger connections between the progressive Jews in Asia.
“Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo all have fairly well-established progressive Jewish communities,” he said; he defined the term “progressive” to mean “not Chabad.” There is a wide range of local variations in how Judaism is practiced across the area, he said. “This is big-tent progressivism.” The rabbis of these three communities — none of whom is native to the places where they now work — began to link them.
“I don’t know who planted the first seed, but I know that Rabbi Nathan Alfred of the Singapore community has made a big effort to connect,” Mr. Kohane said. There were two siblings on Bali who became bar mitzvah — “We don’t have many kids there, and I think this was the first bar mitzvah in Bali,” he said — and Rabbi Alfred came to preside over the services. The Bali community has Friday night dinners frequently, but it holds services far less often.
The first pan-Asian conference, in January 2018, didn’t draw many participants, but this year’s event was different. “There were maybe 60 participants,” Mr. Kohane said. “It was huge.” It also was expensive, but the organizers allowed him free admission in return for music. It was well worth it, he said. “There were probably at least 15 or 16 different communities represented,” he said. “It was incredible.”
Many of the delegates at the conference told their origin stories and gave an up-to-date status report, Mr. Kohane said. Each is different, both in its circumstances and in the culture it which it exists. “The Tokyo community has been around for a long time, and it has its own synagogue. Shanghai also is fairly well established. The community in Singapore is well established but it does not have its own building.
“At the other end of the spectrum, there is Seoul, which is a very young movement. It’s not at all a congregation, but more of a social group. And then there was somebody from Mumbai, and a video from Dubai.”
There was talk about the ancient Jewish community in Kaifeng, in China, which was made up of ethnically Chinese Jews.
“Each congregation has its own relationship with its country’s laws,” he said. “China has a very funny situation.” Not so funny, that is, because Chinese expat Jews do not feel it is safe to talk about the Kaifeng community, whose status they are more comfortable leaving as mythic.
“The person who spoke from the Beijing community is British,” Mr. Kohane said. “He said the community practices Judaism very openly. When they have high holy day services, they coordinate with the police to make sure that they are protected properly.
“The police will come and check passports to make sure that everyone who comes in is a foreigner or the spouse of a foreigner.” It’s entirely fine for those people to go to Jewish services, but it is forbidden to anyone else under Chinese law, he said.
“Whereas in Indonesia, no one will check your passport, but the practice of Judaism is something you do only in your own home.
“In Singapore, they can be totally open, but there is some feeling that they don’t want to be public about it because of the fear of terrorism — but on the other hand, the congregation is working on funding its own building,” he said. “There are old Jewish synagogues in Singapore. It is an incredibly diverse place, and relative to a lot of these other places, it is open.” In Vietnam, on the other hand, any practice of Judaism, should there be any, would have to be “done completely in secret.”
There were themes that drew these small, far-flung Jewish communities together. One, “I think the biggest one, was to develop more connections,” Mr. Kohane said. “I had no idea there were so many communities. That was the biggest revelation.”
A second issue was “transience. Bali has the most intense version of that. Many of our participants are tourists, who are there for about three weeks. We don’t even talk about membership. But even in the most involved communities, there is a sense of dealing with people who will not be there forever — and that even includes the clergy.”
Another theme common to many of these communities, Mr. Kohane said, “is that they are created by expats who don’t feel comfortable going to Chabad.” Bali is a notable exception, he said, “because Liat was hosting the Jewish community there before Chabad got there.” But in general, despite the strong support Chabad gives communities around the world, these Jews wanted to practice Judaism in ways that Chabad does not provide or even allow.
To some extent, Mr. Kohane said, the participants see themselves as forming what one of the speakers called “a second diaspora.
“We think of the diaspora as being one step removed from Israel, but then the vast majority of us in Asia are again removed from the countries of our parents and our families. We have no parents there, no grandparents, no genealogy, no roots.
“It is an interesting concept, and I’m not sure what to make of it.”
Meanwhile, he has learned that the chai he wears around his neck most of the time — there are some conservative Muslim sections of Indonesia where he fears it would not be safe to do so, he said — acts as a signal to other Jews. That’s particularly useful in a place like Bali, where Jews come to visit, but it would not be legal to tell them publically about the community’s existence. They spot the chai, and they ask.
Liat Solomon uses her menus as a similar signal device, Mr. Kohane said. “She puts hummus or shakshuka on her menu.” If people don’t know, they don’t know, he said; if they know, they know.
That chai? “People sometimes ask me why I’m wearing a dog around my neck,” Mr. Kohane said. “Once, someone asked me if it was an elephant.” But the ones who do recognize it can follow him to meet the other Jews on Bali.
Who: Dan Kohane
What: Will ask “There are Jews in Jakarta? A Report from the Second Annual Asia Progressive Judaism Summit”
When: At services on Friday, August 16, at 8 p.m.
Where: Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck
For more information: Call at (201) 833-1322 or go to www.emeth.org.