A Jewish Moment in Jakarta

Map of Indonesia

All b’nei mitzvot are unique, but this past December, Harold Kleine’s bar mitzvah was different than most, as it may have been the first such ceremony in Indonesia in nearly 80 years. Thanks to Covid, everyone at Washington Hebrew was comfortable working via Zoom, so following Shabbat services in D.C. (early morning in Indonesia), clergy, family, and friends gathered either in-person or online to make some history. Journal Editor Ori Hoffer spoke with Harold and his father Michael in an email interview. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

First off, what brought you to Jakarta? How long have you been there?

[MICHAEL KLEINE] We came to Jakarta for work and have been here since August 2021. It’s been an amazing experience. Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest country (behind China, India and the U.S.) and the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. It’s a dynamic place rich in culture and history, and is comprised of 17,000 tropical islands, so there’s no shortage of beautiful places to explore.

What were some of the challenges in preparing for the bar mitzvah?

We had two main challenges. The biggest was the absence of any organized Jewish community in Jakarta. The closest synagogue is in Singapore, about an hour-and-a-half flight away. That’s generally where Jewish expats would go for b’nei mitzvah, weddings, etc. The second challenge was travel. When we began planning Harold’s bar mitzvah, travel was mostly shut down because of Covid and we couldn’t count on being able to get to Singapore or anywhere else. That’s when we reached out to WHC. Cantor Hamstra, Paul Nass, and other members of the WHC team were incredibly supportive in working with us and helping Harold prepare. There’s a 12-hour-time difference, so lessons were generally early morning in D.C., early evening in Jakarta. And everything flowed beautifully from there.

We set up a makeshift shul in our house, created Siddurim for the guests, and ordered kippot and a tallis for Harold on Amazon. The only thing missing was a Torah. We expected the technicalities of linking in friends and family from throughout the U.S. and Japan would be a challenge, but WHC orchestrated the online format seamlessly. Thus, Rabbi Miller in Washington was able to call my 102-year-old father in Connecticut to the “bimah” in Jakarta for an Aliyah, as Harold’s Japanese grandparents watched from Osaka. It was incredible.

Harold said in his d’var torah that this may have been Jakarta’s first b’nei mitzvah — why is that?

That probably wasn’t quite right. There were a number of Jews here during the Dutch colonial period who practiced Judaism relatively freely. That ended in 1942, when Imperial Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies (now, Indonesia) and resettled all Westerners in internment camps. The Jews who survived generally emigrated to Australia, Israel or the United States. Currently, Indonesia’s Constitution provides for freedom of religion, but for only six religions: Islam, Hindu, Baha’i, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Protestantism. So while there probably were b’nei mitzvah in Jakarta before 1942, Harold’s may have been the first in the past 80 years.

What does it mean to you to have made this happen?

We are extremely proud of Harold. He was determined from the start to figure out a way to have a bar mitzvah, despite the challenges outlined above. And Harold’s Jewish-American-Japanese heritage makes this occasion even more poignant. While Imperial Japan was responsible for ending the pre-1942 Jewish community in Indonesia, it’s now somebody who is half-Japanese who has brought Jewish traditions back to life here.

Harold, how have you explained what this was all about to your friends over there?

[HAROLD KLEINE] I really didn’t talk too much about it. Most people in Indonesia have never met a Jewish person before, and since Judaism’s not an “approved” religion, it’s hard to know how they would react. I did invite a few friends, though, who thought the service was really cool.

How does it feel to be a “first”?

It’s exciting! I was nervous at first, but now I feel a real sense of accomplishment and new connection with my Jewish roots.