Tahiti’s Jews Make Do
Bright morning sunlight illuminates the synagogue floor as Francois Yonah Poul sits alone in a dark corner wrapped in a tallit and tefillin. Praying in the Quarter Fariipiti of the bustling port city of Papeete, the 48-year-old Poul is among those trying to keep the Jewish community alive on this exotic, 400-square-mile island in the South Pacific with no rabbi or cantor and thousands of miles from its nearest Jewish neighbors. Tahiti’s community of some 200 Jews is among the farthest flung in the world.
Before the High Holy Days the community talked about hiring a rabbi from Israel to lead services, but the $5,000 fee, plus airfare and hotel, made the costs prohibitive for the small congregation. Instead, synagogue members Mordechai Amsellem and Messaoud Pinto guided the community in prayer.
The volunteer effort was typical for Tahitian Jews, who make do with what they can when it comes to preserving Judaism on this French Polynesian island archipelago of 120,000. More than half of Tahiti’s married Jews wed outside the faith, but many have remained members of the synagogue.
Usually only about 20 worshippers attend Friday night or Saturday morning services. Of those, two are married to non-Jewish women. Poul says the intermarried Jews rarely come to services and are “not very interested in religion,” but he adds that nearly everyone attends services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The tri-color of France flies over Tahiti, one of the 14 Society Islands in the Pacific. Like many things in the South Pacific, the history of the Jewish community is shrouded in native mystique.
The first Jew probably arrived in 1769 with Capt. James Cook. According to Virtual Jewish History, Alexander Salmon, a Jew, moved to Tahiti, and later entered the Tahitian royal family when he married Arrioehau, a Polynesian princess. With the arrival of Catholic priests, most Jews assimilated or converted to Catholicism. In the 1960s, Algerian Jews established a functioning community and with those Jews who came afterward made the synagogue more Orthodox, according to Martine Amouyal, formerly of Tahiti and now of Los Angeles.
Synagogue members say there is no anti-Semitism on the island. “Polynesians believe in God and understand that everyone has his or own religion,” says Joseph Sebbag, a former president of the community.There are no police or guards at the front door. A shamash lives on premises.
The synagogue was built in 1993 amid palm, pomegranate, date and mango trees, all of which grow in this “earthly island paradise.” Two of the community’s Torahs were provided by the Egyptian Jewish expatriate community in Paris and a third by a Los Angeles community. The synagogue contains a mikveh and social hall.
Ahava V’Achva, translated as “love and friendship,” is an apt name for a congregation on an island made famous by the French artist Paul Gauguin’s paintings of beautiful Tahitian women and luxuriant island scenery, as well as by authors Herman Melville and James Michener.
Most Tahitian Jews say they are French, Sephardic and Orthodox and originate from North Africa. Like Poul, a doctor, many settled here after French military service. Many congregants are businessmen, among them Tahitian pearl dealers. As in France, the synagogue is governed by Orthodox tradition. A so-called Committee of Ten organizes holidays, memorial services, circumcision rites, bar mitzvahs and the Sunday school. The committee also orders kosher food, which is flown in from the United States, France and Australia, and meets often to settle disputes among congregants.
A department store on the island, Carrefour, stocks kosher products. Several times a year, those who gather for the General Assembly of Tahitian Jews contribute to the synagogue’s upkeep. In the synagogue, the congregation does not waver from Orthodoxy in custom and observance. Like many congregations that are tourist attractions — Tahiti and nearby islands are popular honeymoon destinations — members complain about visitors who arrive on Shabbat from the cruise ships dressed in shorts and outfitted with cameras. Poul recalls a female Reform rabbi from the United States staying away from services because she was politely refused an aliyah and asked to sit in the women’s section when she inquired ahead of time about synagogue practice.
Two classes — one for children under 7 years old and another for bar mitzvah age — are held on Sunday mornings. They are taught by Abraham Bouadannah, a retired Hebrew teacher from Strasbourg University in France. Until recently, children from mixed marriages had been admitted to the Sunday school, but the Committee of Ten decided no longer to accept those born of a non-Jewish mother. “There were a lot of problems between the Orthodox and more traditionalists,” Poul said, adding that Bouadannah teaches a few of those children at home. Sebbag said, “It is not a problem; everyone knows everyone else. We are all friends. We’re not so many, we are a family. Just that everyone knows we have an Orthdox synagogue.”
In the past 12 years, the synagogue has played host to six bar mitzvahs. Another bar mitzvah was held at the Meridien Hotel here with a Reform rabbi from Los Angeles who brought his own Torah, according to Poul. Most of the synagogue community was on hand, including the more religiously observant who often attend services.
During the year, several rabbis from yeshivas in Israel come to teach and raise funds. Like many Jews who lived in France but settled on French islands such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, Tahitian Jews wanted a somewhat French lifestyle bereft of noisy metropolises. Sebbag’s wife, Isabelle, an Ashkenazi from Belgium, told JTA that these islands are “a wonderful place to raise children. We have a good way of life.”
She adds, however, that for the educated, cosmopolitan French, there is “no theater, no ballet, no culture, no music. Nothing. “ Though Poul is quick to point out that “Jews have been here for at least two centuries,” he says he doesn’t know if the Jewish community here can survive another 20 years.