Indonesia revisited: Synagogue welcomes Shabbat visitors

The Shaar Hashamayim congregation in Tondano, Indonesia, on July 20 with Yaakov Baruch, center, AJP's Debe Campbell to his left, and Campbell’s husband, Gil Alvidrez, third from right. (Courtesy Debe Campbell)

Having lived in Indonesia, an Islamic nation, for two decades, I never imagined the opportunity to visit a synagogue there. My first visit to Manado in the early ’90s was as a journalist covering Indonesia’s then-president Soeharto as he opened a new tourism center in North Sulawesi. Almost 30 years later, my visit to Manado, the provincial capital, had quite a different intent: visiting an up and coming religious leader building a new religious center.

Both trips included a dip into some of the world’s most beautiful coral garden reefs off Bunaken Island, stunning sunsets, and the freshest seafood. The social and political landscape have changed. I was uncertain of what to expect.

After initial research, my husband, Gil, and I had planned our summer holiday to include a side-trip to see this synagogue for ourselves. Encouraging contact from the synagogue’s principal led us to take a leap of faith and fly two hours from our holiday hub on Bali island to Manado on Friday, July 19.

Shabbat lunch at a roadside restaurant included beautiful, turquoise tropical fish. (Debe Campbell/AJP)

Our host, Yaakov Baruch, collected us from the Manado hotel at 9 a.m. on Shabbat for a 20-mile trip. The one-hour scenic drive wound through verdant nutmeg and coffee plantation-laced mountains to the lakeside city of Tondano.

Just off the main road, down the block from a Christian church, behind a simple gate with a blue star, sits an unassuming building. Formerly planked in red-painted wood, the synagogue had some recent exterior cosmetic work with a stone façade upgrade. Shaar Hashamayim is marked with a plain Hebrew-lettered sign.

Inside, the small, vaulted sanctuary was painted white, reflecting ambient light through skylights and window shutters flung open to catch the breeze. When sporadic rain showers came, the shutters were closed, capturing the heavy humidity inside.

The expected synagogue accouterments were in place: a bimah adorned with a Magen David, the aron kodesh (ark) housing a Torah that was purchased in Jerusalem, and the prerequisite yad (Torah pointer) and tefillin.

With all wearing black and white, headscarves were tied, tallits were adjusted and black kippahs came out of nowhere. The three women, three children and I were sequestered behind the mechitzah (partition), and the five men and the young boys were beside the bimah. Gil brought his colorful Israeli kippah, which impressed the men wearing their unadorned black ones.

The service began with the hazzan in tefillin reading the siddur in Hebrew while, from my perspective, the women followed along. Devorah, who knows Hebrew, followed along in a Chumash with Hebrew script. Ruth followed English text juxtaposed with Hebrew script, while the third woman fussed with entertaining her 3-year-old on a computer tablet. All three are former Christians. Devorah said Judaism resonated with her, so she converted. Gil saw the fathers mentoring and guiding their young sons to absorb the essence of the spiritual intention. One of the men offered Gil the text in Hebrew and English. As a cradle Catholic, Gil identified with the narrative. It reinforced the bridge to his Sephardic roots.  The Torah was paraded and unfurled on the bimah for a quick reading. After two hours of services, Baruch delivered a brief sermon in English and Indonesian about following a spiritual calling. 

The service closed with fruit and home-cooked sweets. As we left the synagogue gates, a Christian wedding procession was parading through the street. The bride and groom had giddy grins, followed by the joyous wedding party dressed in bright blue, and band members who waved as I leaned out the window snapping photos. The call familiar to tourists across the archipelago rang out, “Hello Mister!”

We headed as a group to a nearby restaurant for a Shabbat meal of fish, rice, and water spinach. The fresh tuna had sold out, so the group opted for a dozen foot-long, turquoise tropical fish that were charcoal grilled and served on banana leaves to be eaten with fingers. Baruch read the lengthy Birkat Hamazon, the Hebrew blessing after a meal.

Our takeaway was that this group is sincere and dedicated about Judaism and following its traditions within an Indonesian context. Whether Jewish by genetic roots or by choice, there is no question that their commitment puts them in God’s hands.