Jewish roots stir revival in world’s largest Muslim nation

Yaakov Baruch, a ‘born-again’ Indonesian Jew, visits the world’s largest permanent menorah in Manado, Indonesia. (Photo courtesy Yaakov Baruch)

Editor’s note: AJP Assistant Editor Debe Campbell lived and worked in Indonesia for more than 20 years. Returning in July on holiday with her husband, Gilbert Alvidrez, she visited Sulawesi island, where she conducted research and interviews for this story.

The world’s largest permanent menorah looms over Manado, the provincial capital of North Sulawesi, Indonesia. This incongruous symbol reigns over the fourth-largest Christian enclave in the world’s largest Islamic country, with 225 million Muslims.

The local government in 2009 spent $150,000 to erect the 62-foot-tall monument. A local Pentecostal Christian legislator called for the menorah, modeled after the one in front of Israel’s Knesset. He hoped to attract tourists and business from Europe by emphasizing that Christians and Muslims lived peacefully in the province here. There was no mention of its Jewish iconography.

The heterogeneous people of Manado appreciate tolerance. The city is known as one of the safest in Indonesia. In the area, 67% are Christian, 31% Muslim, and 2% other — including about 20 Jews. In the town center, churches from a multitude of denominations sit side by side. Here and there is a mosque.

About 20 miles south of Manado, the city of Tondano is home to Shaar Hashamayim, the only synagogue in a nation that spans more than 5,000 miles across the equator with more than 18,307 islands.

Indonesia, however, does not recognize Judaism among its six officially sanctioned religions. Of Indonesia’s population of 267 million, 87.2% are Muslim, 7% Protestant, 3% Catholic, and 1.7% other, including 0.000000075% Jewish.

The handful of Jews in Indonesia typically declare Christian or another recognized religion on their official identity cards. To have a national ID card that lists an unrecognized religion or leaves religion blank causes administrative problems, making it challenging to register marriages or births, find jobs, or enroll children in schools.

In this region, families of Dutch Jewish ancestry once practiced their faith openly, before Indonesia gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949. After that, they converted to Christianity or Islam for safety. But these old Dutch Jewish roots are part of a religious revival.

Jews first arrived in the Dutch East Indies with European explorers and settlers during the 17th century, mostly coming from the Netherlands, the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe. Indonesia was under Dutch rule from the 1700s until 1942. The first written report on Jews in Indonesia was by Jacob Halevy Saphir, who was sent as a rabbinical emissary from Jerusalem in 1861. Jewish communities popped up in major trading cities where Jews often dealt in real estate, mediating between colonial rulers and locals. Given Indonesia’s traditionally moderate Islam, anti-Jewish sentiments were never strong.

At the peak, there were an estimated 2,000 Jews across the country. There are an estimated 20,000 descendants of Jews in Indonesia today, although most have lost their historical identity with ancestors assimilating by speaking the local Indonesian language, converting to Christianity, and adopting Indonesian names.

During World War II, most Dutch and Jews in Indonesia were interned in camps from 1942 to 1945, under Japanese occupation. Jews of Middle Eastern descent or from countries allied with Japan were left free until 1943. After the war, most of the Jewish people emigrated to more welcoming environs.

During a bloody, revolutionary separation from Holland from 1945 to 1949, many Chinese and Dutch, including Jews, again were detained or “disappeared.” The heavily-Christian-populated area around Manado was one of the last Dutch strongholds.

Twenty years ago, Yaakov Baruch (he asks that his secular name not be used for fear of retribution), a Christian, was in a biblical discussion with his grandmother when she said, “Don’t argue with me, I’m Jewish.” Baruch told the AJP that he had no clue about this ancestry until that day when she revealed documents including the 1878 birth certificate of his great-grandfather. Baruch says that because his great-grandfather was born on Shabbat, the record wasn’t signed. “He was an Orthodox Jew, as were my grand-uncle and my grandmother’s sister.”

Baruch’s grandmother produced an antique kippah and a Dutch-Israeli style tallit (prayer shawl). The family name of Begin was changed to Van Beugen, he says. His grandmother instructed him to collect everything and create a synagogue.

Thus began his journey from devout Christian to what he calls a “born again Jew.” He identified families of Dutch-Jewish descent but located only five remaining in Manado, including the Van Hessens, Rosenbergs, and Schramms.

A young congregant awaits services at Shaar Hashamayim in Tondano, Indonesia, Saturday, July 20, 2019. (Debe Campbell/AJP)

While learning to “be Jewish,” he says, he began to build a congregation in Manado. He estimates there are another 20-30 halachic Jews in Surabaya, Jakarta, and Manado. About a quarter of his congregants are of Dutch-Jewish ancestry; the others are converts from Christianity. There rarely is a minion for Shabbat, but services are still conducted either by Baruch or by Yehuda Ben Abraham, whom he has trained to be a hazzan (cantor). There are other ancestral and converted Jews in Manado not affiliated with Shaar Hashamayim’s congregation.

The building housing Shaar Hashamayim was a gift from a devout Dutch-Christian couple with a heart for Jewish people. Baruch says 75% of Tondano’s residents are Christian. There’s a church on the same block as the synagogue. “The neighbors said, ‘We will protect your synagogue with our blood,’” because they are anti-Hamas, says Baruch, referring to the militant Islamist Palestinian organization.

Baruch is an international law professor at Sam Ratulangi University in Manado. He augments his civil service salary as a professional wedding photographer. He says in 2006 he went to the Jewish community in Singapore to study, supplementing this education with trips to Israel and New York. A lot of his Jewish learning came from “Rabbi Google” — printing Torah pages from the Internet and watching YouTube videos. He says he accessed data in Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum and Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, finding proof of his Jewish ancestry. Since his mother’s mother was Jewish, he felt he didn’t need to convert. He considers himself a “traditional Jew, not Orthodox or Reform.” While he has yet to receive semichah (rabbinic ordination) he goes by the defacto title of rabbi.

Another small congregation operated as Torat Chaim in Indonesia’s national capital, Jakarta. Founded by American Orthodox Rabbi Tovia Singer, it is now defunct. Its offshoot operates as Eits Chaim Indonesia Foundation, Indonesia’s only Jewish organization reportedly sanctioned by the Religious Affairs Department, under the Christian desk.

Rabbi Benjamin Meier Verbrugge leads the United Indonesian Jewish Community. He received ordination in 2014 from a New York yeshivah as a para-rabbi. His 106 congregants include Dutch and Sephardic descendants and converts located in six areas of the country.

Leonard Chrysostomos Epafras of Indonesia’s esteemed Gadja Mada University, the lead researcher in the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, told the AJP the religious revival is more like a new religious movement, particularly among older millennials.

Invited by Epafras on an interfaith speaking tour across Indonesia in July, Rabbi Dr. Allan Brill from Seton Hall University in New Jersey assessed the wave of conversions and born-again Jews with ancestral roots.

Brill told the AJP that Australian liberal Conservatives who held a very short training in Jakarta “converted those who wanted to convert.” He said they had little training on how to be a Jew and that “the garb and practice don’t necessarily match.” Brill also attended a Shabbat service in Manado. Epafras is planning to attend this Shabbat.

Surabaya, the provincial capital of East Java, for many years, housed the country’s only synagogue. Built under Dutch rule in 1939, Beth Shalom synagogue was renovated in 1948. Abandoned by 2009, it fell into disrepair and was demolished by 2013.

There is a Chabad House in Bali, the nation’s primary tourism island destination with a large resident expatriate population. In response to a request for an interview, a spokesperson declined, saying, “As you know, Judaism is not happily welcome in Indonesia, and we prefer to stay under the radar.” Baruch estimates that there are up to 300 Jews, mostly expatriate, in Bali.

“I found no anti-Semitism,” Brill said of his time in Indonesia. He found Manado, in particular, to be very tolerant. “Indonesia is tolerant in general.”