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Changing the Perceptions of Jews in Indonesia

Changing the Perceptions of Jews in Indonesia

The way that Reform Judaism has taken the texts of our tradition, combined with the traumas of our past, to create a transformative responsibility to pursue social justice is a point of pride for me in my Jewish identity. That’s why, when I was asked not to mention my Jewishness while serving as a Fulbright Scholar in Indonesia, I was both disappointed and frustrated.

I chose to serve my Fulbright in Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, because I had read about but never truly experienced Islam. I soon learned, though, that identifying as Jewish could get in the way of that experience, and so I heeded the advice I was given and instead identified as a Christian. 

But somewhere between one of my many talks about religion with my friends, co-teachers, and headmaster, and going home to light a hanukiyah that I kept hidden from them under a cardboard box, there came a point when I decided was done concealing my religious identity. As my program came to an end, I gathered everyone in my headmaster’s living room and I told them that I am Jewish.

My announcement was met with the sadness of being deceived and the hurt of being mistrusted – both of which I expected. What I did not expect was the considerable confusion and curiosity about Judaism from my friends and colleagues. Was Moses my prophet? What did I believe about the afterlife?

Deep down, I’d suspected I would receive a warm reception from the magnanimous and open-minded people in my boarding school and village. I was more worried, though, about what I saw outside of it – swastikas on T-shirts by teenagers and spray-painted on buildings in major cities. Yet I came to understand that these were not informed acts of anti-Semitism. There only exposure most Indonesians have had to Jews has been via the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a general lack of awareness of Jewish history outside of that conflict has a great deal to do with Indonesians’ exposure to actual Jews. 

During college, I spend a summer participating in the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Machon Kaplan work/study program. There, I learned that if an issue that upsets you, you ought to do something about it. That summer, this lesson manifested itself in fellow participants working toward gender equality, affordable housing, food security, and other critical issues that might not be considered inherently Jewish. But we also learned that because our work on those issues was grounded in Jewish learning and values – especially tikkun olam, repair of the world – it was, in fact, profoundly Jewish.

My experience in Indonesia provided a very unique opportunity: to find a vehicle that allows the largest Muslim country in the world to learn about Jews, while exposing Americans to Indonesians, to add dimension to an often flat perception of Islam.

For its brevity and power, I, along with a team of religious freedom advocates in Indonesia, have chosen Night by Elie Wiesel as the vehicle for this interfaith, cross-cultural dialogue. Having translated the text into Indonesian, we are now fundraising to publish copies of the book so that university classrooms in America and Indonesia can read the text side by side.

This is the beginning not only of changing perceptions of Jews in Indonesia, but also of simultaneously working toward a greater acceptance of Islam in America. This task – of advocating for those who are discriminated against on the basis of religious identity, in the hopes that we may live and learn together – is no more important and timely than today.

Max Bevilacqua is the president of In Good Faith, an initiative to connect American Jews and Indonesian Muslims. He graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in religious studies and will begin his Master's degree in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School in the fall.

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