Papeete, Tahiti: A Surprise Synagogue in the South Pacific

As I studied the city map, trying to orient myself in Papeete Tahiti, one of the glorious South Pacific Islands, I was stunned to notice the word ‘synagoga’. Since it wasn’t far from where I was having my morning coffee at a sidewalk café on Boulevard Pomare, I decided to take an energetic walk and check out this unlikely place in this far off azure blue haven.

Hoping that someone would be available to give me a tour and some history of this unexpected congregation, I should not have been disappointed when I couldn’t find anyone in or outside the unembellished white building in this residential area on rue Morenhut.

The wrought iron gate was unlocked. This was a bit of a surprise since whenever I go to synagogues around the world, there is so much security with guards presiding at front doors, that my conclusion was this lack of safety measures was due to the small Jewish population and no great need for protection.

As I entered the stucco building’s walkway, I was left to my own devices so I went up to the second floor, the staircase being outdoors, and looked into the windows to try to see the facilities. With just glimpses of rooms, I came away with the feeling that the synagogue was very well kept but other than that I had not idea about its operation.

Even the tourist board’s guide couldn’t help me. However, before leaving the synagogue, I had scrawled a few notes with questions and mentioning where I was staying, then pushed the memo under a few doorways.

Since I was leaving the next day for Manihi, a small South Pacific motu, I wasn’t too optimistic. And I was right, no phone call.

So when I returned home from this trip, I sent a fax with several questions. Not too long after, there was an answer. It came from the Associations Culturelle des Israelites et Sympathisants de Polynesie. Francaise (Cultural Association of Israelites and Sympathizers of French Polynesia). The members on the letterhead of the stationary gave me some clues. The names were mainly Moroccan and Algerian-Assaael, Amouyal, Abhissira, Alezrah, Benhamou. This was indeed a Sephardic synagogue. The Association Culturelle des Israelites et Sympathisants de Polynesie was opened in 1982. The synagogue was constructed in 1993 and has a party room, studio apartment for the visiting rabbi and a mikvah. The l’Aron Hakadech faces east and there are three torahs, one given by the Egyptian Jewish community living in Paris.

The 60 seat synagogue called HaaVa veHaHava (Love and Friendship) has services Saturday, Monday and Thursday at 6.30 PM and on Shabbat at 8AM with Talmud Torah on Sunday morning at 9 AM. And yes, there is a minyan on most days. The High Holidays services are conducted by a rabbi who comes from Sydney, Australia and usually on these holidays, the congregation hall is full.

The history of the Jews in Papeete goes back to 1796 with the first Jewish people coming from Europe and North Africa. This immigration started with the arrival of Captain James Cook who, so the legend goes, had on board his ship, a certain Monsieur Jew. When he saw this beautiful part of the world, ‘Monsieur Jew’ decided to stay. Certainly, not too hard to understand after seeing this lush, beautiful part of the world. One of my questions was about food. It seems that keeping kosher isn’t a problem. Food is shipped from France as is the matzo for Passover. These products are sold through the synagogue and at the market in Papeete. The 30 Jewish families aren’t all devout, I’m told in answer to my queries. This certainly didn’t surprise me. How difficult it would be to be observant in this far off land. Unfortunately, one wonders how much longer there will be a community since there isn’t a Hebrew school but there are some religious classes. Occasionally, there is Bar Mitzvah and even a wedding. To date, Papeete doesn’t have a Jewish cemetery and six of the original Jewish settlers who are buried in the city, are always mentioned at Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. As for occupations, most of the Jewish population is involved with commerce, medicine, law and accountancy. Names like Levy and Salmon are descendants of some of the original settlers of an old English banking family. There is even a reference that a Jewish girl had married into an old royal Pomare family. This unexpected episode turned out to be one of the very interesting experiences in a part of the world where one expects beauty.