This summer, my brother Amir Afsai and I spent three weeks in Guam, the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).
The idea of traveling to this region began with one of our cousins who lives in Israel. Years ago, when this cousin and his fiancé were planning their honeymoon, they decided to vacation only in a country supportive of Israel. My cousin jokes that when he and his fiancé looked over a map of the world, entire continents immediately vanished as options. But he had heard that countries in the Micronesian region were steadfast allies of Israel at the United Nations, and he and his wife eventually honeymooned in Palau. They described an island country of friendly people and beautiful nature, and I hoped I too might be able to go to this part of the world one day.
At last, my brother—who teaches Hebrew at Sts. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School in Jerusalem and at the city’s Armenian Theological Seminary—and I determined to meet up in Guam in August and to go from there to Palau and to the FSM, exploring opinions about and policies toward Israel in the region. Journeying from Rhode Island and back again, I ended up taking 12 separate flights over the course of three weeks to accomplish this.
The residents of Palau (population 18,000) and the FSM (population 115,000) are mostly Christians of various denominations (including Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists), and their governments are distinctly supportive of Israel. Both countries have Compacts of Free Association with the U.S. that include financial and military arrangements.
I had read about Pacific island hospitality, but nothing prepared Amir and me for the open-hearted reception we received from the many people we encountered in Palau and in Pohnpei State (population 36,000). While it is not possible, of course, to convey all our experiences in this short article, I will mention a few.
In Koror, we were warmly welcomed by Alan R. Seid, the Honorary Consul of the State of Israel in the Republic of Palau, who invited us to a vegetarian breakfast at the Palasia Hotel. Seid—the son of Sid Seid, an American Jew who had been a pilot and had fought the Nazis during World War II—also asked us to be his guests at the homecoming ceremony for Alingano Maisu, a traditional sailing canoe whose crew had returned to Palau after a several-month voyage between the region’s islands using traditional navigation methods. Seid was the event’s Master of Ceremonies, and Surangel Whipps Jr., the President of Palau, was one of the featured speakers.
When I met President Whipps, he emphasized to me his country’s strong support for Israel, noting with satisfaction that Palau had recently appointed its current Permanent Representative of the Republic of Palau to the United Nations, Ilana Seid (daughter of Alan Seid), to also be its first Ambassador to Israel.
From Palau, Amir and I flew back to Guam and then to the FSM.
In Kolonia, we were warmly welcomed by the Governor of Pohnpei State, Reed B. Oliver, who is also the Honorary Consul of the State of Israel in the Federated States of Micronesia. He gave us a tour of the state’s capital city and brought us to the Sokehs Mass Grave Site, where local fighters killed in the 1910–1911 insurgency against German rule are buried.
Governor Oliver also invited us to his home for Friday night dinner with his kind family and state officials, which was a highlight of our time in Pohnpei State. Three Jewish scientists from Rutgers University—one of whom was Israeli—who were in the FSM to assist with food sustainability were also at the gathering.
Governor Oliver’s 17-year-old granddaughter was Master of Ceremonies for the evening. A Christian grace was said before eating, and then the Christian Lord’s Prayer. With encouragement from Governor Oliver, I informed his family and guests that it was the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath and told them about Kiddush. In Babylonian-accented Hebrew, my brother chanted Psalm 23, made the blessing for drinking wine and recited Friday night Kiddush. This was a moving experience not only for the several Jews assembled at the dinner, but for all 50 or so people in attendance.
Kiddush was followed by the passing around of a coconut shell filled with freshly pounded and hibiscus-strained sakau, Pohnpei State’s traditional social beverage made from the kava plant. Sakau is so much a part of the island’s heritage that the coconut shell it is drunk from features prominently on the state flag. The sakau-filled coconut shell continued to circulate throughout dinner, which included many tasty vegetarian dishes.
“My family was very much impressed with the wine ceremony ritual you presented,” Governor Oliver later told Amir and me about the Friday night Kiddush. In turn, I expressed to him that it was remarkable to see such a harmonious concurrence of religious and cultural traditions that evening, and that I hoped Jews and Christians, and Israelis and Pohnpeians, might always enjoy such fellowship.
Before I left the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, Alan Seid and Governor Oliver each asked me to convey their best wishes to the members of my synagogue in Providence, Congregation Beth Sholom, and to the Rhode Island Jewish community, which I am now taking this opportunity to do.
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