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Indonesia's only synagogue struggles to find wider acceptance

Called Shaar Hashamayim (above), it has been up and running for the past 10 years, serving a Jewish community of some 20 people. (ST PHOTO: ZAKIR HUSSAIN)

Publication Date : 18-02-2013

 

Tiny Jewish community in Sulawesi rediscovered its roots only recently

 

In the hill towns and villages an hour out of Manado, it is not uncommon for churches and mosques to be within 50m of each other, the ringing of church bells mingling with the call to prayer.

But in Tondano, Minahasa Regency, Indonesia's only synagogue joins their ranks.

Shaar Hashamayim - Hebrew for "Gate of Heaven" - has been up and running for the past 10 years, serving a Jewish community of some 20 people.

On holy days, the small synagogue even gets Christian and Muslim visitors, including Minahasa regent Stefanus Vreeke Runtu.

"It is like our own Temple Mount," its caretaker, community leader and default rabbi, law lecturer Yaakov Baruch, 30, told The Straits Times. "I feel like I'm in Jerusalem."

Yaakov, who is married with a young son, is part of a tiny Jewish community that only recently rediscovered its roots. But like many other minority faiths in Indonesia, it is still struggling to be accepted alongside followers of the major religions.

There are an estimated several hundred Jews in Indonesia, mainly expatriates in the Jakarta area who conduct religious services at home.

In North Sulawesi, where two-thirds of the population is Christian, Yaakov wears the traditional black-and-white garb of orthodox Jews, with sideburns and a skullcap.

When travelling elsewhere in Indonesia, he keeps a fairly low profile. But once, walking past radical Muslim protesters in Surabaya, he was mistaken for an Iranian and given the traditional Muslim greeting. "Peace be upon you too," he replied.

He is, however, mindful that many an extremist website in the world's largest Muslim-majority country has attacked his efforts to reconnect with his roots and linked it to a global conspiracy.

Still, it has not been easy near home. Yaakov's father is Protestant, his late mother was Muslim. While they were supportive of his efforts, he said the greatest challenge faced when he first decided to practise Judaism came from his Christian friends. "They said I had gone astray," he recalled.

Yaakov found out about his Jewish roots from his maternal grandmother's aunt, whose Dutch ancestors were Jewish, at a family get-together some 14 years ago.

Then a devout Christian, he reeled from the revelation, but soon decided to find out more about his forefathers by talking to relatives and turning to the Web.

Like many Jews in the then Netherlands East Indies, some of whose forebears had moved there as early as the 17th century, they suppressed their faith. Some even converted to Christianity or Islam during the Japanese Occupation, when Jews were sent to internment camps, and the War of Independence, when Eurasians were targeted.

Still, some secretly hung on to symbols of their ancestral faith, even if they no longer practised it.

Yaakov's granduncle, who died two years ago, had hung on to his kippah, a cap worn by orthodox Jews, and ceremonial items, and handed them down to him.

Jewish graves throughout Indonesia also remain preserved, including in Aceh and Jakarta.

Around 10 years ago, Yaakov made a conscious decision to practise Judaism. In 2006, he made contact with Rabbi Mordechai Abergel of Singapore's Jewish community, and took lessons from him for several weeks at a time, during university holidays. He has also visited Israel to study Judaism.

At the time, the only other synagogue in Indonesia was in Surabaya, where many Jews from the Middle East made their homes in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But its congregation was dwindling, and it closed in 2009 during protests by radical groups protesting against Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip that year. This makes Yaakov's synagogue the only open synagogue in Indonesia.

In 2011, terrorists also sent book bombs to two prominent figures of Jewish descent, musician Ahmad Dhani and the leader of youth group Pemuda Pancasila, Yapto Soerjosoemarno.

Professor Anthony Reid of the Australian National University told The Straits Times anti- semitism in Indonesia was marginal until the 1970s and 1980s, when opposing Israel became a rallying issue for Muslims amid the Arab-Israeli conflict, and saw antiJewish sentiment "picking up the fascist idea that everything wrong with the world was the result of a Jewish conspiracy".

Indonesia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, but they have had low-key trade relations for several years now, and a number of Indonesian Christians and Muslims also visit holy sites in Israel.

One such visit prompted local assemblymen in North Minahasa Regency to erect a 20m-tall menorah, the world's largest, in the area. Completed in 2009, it aims to be a tourist attraction. Another tourist attraction closer to downtown Manado, an hour away by road, is a 50m-tall statue of Jesus.

"Conflicts in neighbouring Poso and Ambon between Christians and Muslims have not had repercussions here. People want to live in peace, we don't want to fight each other," said Mr Yaakov. "But sometimes we hate the other group because we just don't know each other as persons."

He recounts how a devout Muslim cousin was infuriated at hearing a respected Muslim leader insult Jews, and asked the leader: "Have you met a Jew?"

His cousin added: "I lived with one for many years. They are just like us, and in fact more religious about prayer and keeping dietary rules."

 

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