Being back in Australia for Chanukah has been a strange experience. Imagine that the earliest time for candle-lighting is nearly 9:00pm and that at least one night of Chanukah might involve coming home from the beach to light candles.
Chanukah as a winter holiday gives particular meaning to lighting candles. Their light makes the long nights less frightening. Here, the lights only penetrate the darkness long after most of the children are asleep. In the long winter nights, the glow of candles may not actually produce warmth but it does give a feeling of warmth. Extra warmth is the last thing Australians want at the end of the year!
Because Chanukah occurs at the beginning of summer, schools and businesses are closing down. Organisations are holding their end-of-year events. I was invited to the end-of-year dinner of the Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews, of which I was a founding member. While the group congratulated itself on their activities in the past year, I reflected on the achievements in interreligious cooperation and dialogue in this country, which has such great diversity of religious practice.
Australia is not without its religious extremists but the vast majority of practitioners of all faiths have respect for and feel bonds with those whose religion is different from their own. Australia has attempted to spread its model of mutual respect to other countries in the region. I was privileged to be part of that story and I consider my experience representing Australia a small miracle.
On the first night of Chanukah 5765 (2004), Jews around the world lit a candle to celebrate the miracle of our survival. In Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Rabbi Michael Weisser of New Zealand and I did the same. In the presence of about 100 of the 140 delegates to the first South-East Asian – Oceania Regional Dialogue on Interfaith Cooperation, Rabbi Weisser sang out the Hebrew blessings, praising G-d for His miracles and marvelling at the fact that we have survived to experience the joy of arriving at this moment in time.
The very presence of a Jewish representative on each of the Australian and New Zealand delegations to the Conference represented an enormous achievement in the history of Jewish life in the region. Jews are only half of one percent of the population. To be included in a delegation of ten was a sign of the high regard towards our communities.
When my invitation to participate arrived, I was both flattered and concerned. I immediately made contact with the responsible person at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to forewarn him of the difficulties of including an observant, Orthodox Jew in such a delegation. The issue of travel, scheduled for Shabbat, was simple – I would miss the Sunday activities but arrive in time for the formal proceedings of the conference. The issue of food was of greater concern. I was sensitive to the diplomatic scandal that could ensue if I brought my own “doggie bag” to the Sultan’s palace for the closing dinner.
After providing the Department with information about the laws of kashrut and explaining that I had a high level of adherence to these laws, I was pleasantly surprised to be contacted directly by the Australian ambassador in Jakarta. He phoned me to assure me that the arrangements for my separate cooking and eating utensils and my vegan diet were in place. As it transpired, I had my own cook and waiter, allocated exclusively to ensure that my religious dietary needs were met.
On the first day of the Dialogue , delegates were required to be in their allocated places by 8:30 am. Ten made their way to the front of the hall; I was among them. Each of us had been asked to represent our faith community in the Interfaith Prayer ceremony which was to proceed the official welcome by the President of Indonesia, HE Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Catholicism was represented by a Bruneian delegate; Confucianism by Indonesia; the Baha’i faith was represented by Paul Lupai from Papua- New Guinea; Buddhism had a spokesperson from Myamar; Hinduism was represented by Thailand; Australia provided both the Muslim and Jewish representatives; the Protestant faith (“Christian” as opposed to “Catholic” for most in our region) was represented by as Cambodian; Singapore delegates spoke for Sikhism and for Taoism.
I selected the following for the prayer on behalf of Judaism:
Ashira Lashem b’chayai, azamra lelokai b’hodi
Yerav elav sichi, anochi esmach bashem
Yitamu chataim min ha’aretz urishaim od einam
Barchi nafshi et Hashem
I will sing to the Lord with all my life
I will make music to my G-d with all my might
My speech will be dedicated to glorifying the Creator
And thus I will find joy.
Let us banish evil from the earth and that which is wicked shall be no more.
My whole soul will be dedicated to G-d’s praise.
Od yavo shalom aleinu.
Together we can achieve peace.
How wonderful it was to hear all the Christians in the audience respond with a rousing “Halleluyah.” From that moment onwards, I was identified as “the Jewish delegate.”
I experienced no outward hostility towards Jews or Judaism. The Head of the Bishops’ Conference of Indonesia addressed me as his “Daughter of Zion”. The Anglican Bishop from Papua-New Guinea sought me out to express his keen interest in Judaism, and his Muslim compatriot presented me with a list of questions that had been perplexing him. Many delegates were confused: was I really a Jewish person? It was clear that, for many, Jews were mythical figures from an ancient tribe. Their live presence at such a gathering was a shock. For Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese and others, issues of the Middle-East have not dominated the flow of information in their less-than-free media and so biases against Jews or Israel had not penetrated their psyches. Indeed, the word “Jew” carries overtones of a mysterious past in distant lands.
My reception by delegates had something of the miraculous about it. For the first time in my experience in the interfaith arena, there was no need to be defensive about Israel or about Jewish beliefs.
One of my religious requirements that I outlined to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade before leaving Australia was Chanukah candle-lighting. I explained that not only was I required to light the first night’s candle on the Tuesday evening but that the “mitzvah” was that it should be in public. Initially the Australian representatives had thought it would be a pleasant addition to the program for the final dinner at the Palace but it transpired that the Sultan was less keen on the idea. The compromise reached was that the candle would be lit, with Hebrew blessings, at the hotel and that I could say the blessings in English at the Palace preceding the dinner.
Despite the skill of the Chair and a positive outcome, the process of preparing the final statement of the Dialogue did require significant compromise and effort, so that when, at the end of the arduous final session, it was announced that in less than one hour’s time, before the buses departed for the Sultan’s Palace for our final dinner, there would be a candle-lighting ceremony in honour of Chanukah in the foyer of the hotel, I was not hopeful that many would turn up.
More than two-thirds of participants rushed to join us and Rabbi Weisser uplifted them with his cantorial renditions of the brachot before we departed. Delegates from across the region wished the two of us “Happy Chanukah” as we were ushered onto buses. When the official welcome to the Palace had been conveyed by both the Australian Embassy representative and the Sultan of Yogyakarta , His Highness Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, I was invited to offer Chanukah blessings. I expressed my awe and appreciation of the moment in the following words:
We offer thanks, O Lord Our G-d, for the miracles that You have performed for us – in the past, in the present, in every generation.
We thank You for allowing small minorities to flourish – even in the face of large, powerful forces.
We thank You for allowing us to celebrate our faiths, in our own ways.
On this first night of Chanukah, our candle burns symbolically for the miracle of survival and for the joy of reaching this season.
Blessed are You, O Lord our G-d, Who has enabled us to reach this season of joy, Who has extended us favours and granted us life.
These were the last formal words of the Dialogue, a heartfelt prayer of gratitude. After the dinner, as we were leaving the Palace, a number of delegates thanked me for the moving words, with many Christians explicitly thanking me for the “Grace”.
My final act as Jewish delegate to the Dialogue came at Jakarta airport. It was second night Chanukah and the obligation to light candles was no less than the previous night. A bemused barman and customer in the airport lounge looked on as I lit the candles, with brachot, in the presence of my fellow Australian delegates, all of whom were happy to support me. Our delegation consisted of strong, committed advocates of their faiths who personified the principles of dialogue: mutual respect, from a position of security in one’s beliefs and in the freedom to express them.
There is a post-script to this experience. Former Indonesian President, Abdurrahman Wahid, a great friend of Israel, travelled to Australia on our return flight and I had the honour of speaking to him briefly. Earlier this year, Elijah Interfaith had the privilege of hosting an Indonesian (Muslim) delegation visiting Israel in the footsteps of this great leader. Their visit was another small miracle.