How ancient Jewish communities are reviving in Indonesia

Indonesia has the largest Muslim community in the world, but now, ancient Jewish communities wiped out in the Second World War are coming back to life.

John Duckham
23 March 2016

Indonesia: home to what is believed to be the world's largest menorah. Credit:

Waiting in the canteen at my granddaughter’s primary school, I often pass the time in the company of a friend, a young Chinese Indonesian father. We relax together as our children play, discussing Indonesian affairs, children, local business prospects.

It is quite normal in Indonesia to ask what religion a person follows. I had always assumed this young father was probably a Protestant Christian. Something he said must have put my assessment in doubt, so I asked him:

‘What religion are you?’

He looked downwards, as if disclosing something he feared might be slightly embarrassing. His look suggested self-deprecation mixed with caution, the caution, perhaps, that comes from belonging to a minority that has in the past been badly victimised.

I didn’t hear his reply: ‘You are Christian aren’t you?’

He shook his head, still smiling shyly. ‘No,’ my friend replied, ‘Jewish religion, my religion is Judaism.’

Indonesia has the largest Muslim community in the world, standing at roughly 220 million of the total 254 million population. Every conceivable form of Islam is represented, from the very conservative Arabian Islam of North Sumatra to the Abangan Islam of the majority which is mixed with Hinduism, Buddhism and the pre-existing mystical traditions and shamanism in Kebatinan. This rich religious culture defies categorisation but is more typical of Islam worldwide than many people realise.

Islam did not develop in areas outside the Arabian Peninsular by the use of force. Throughout Asia it spread mostly by trade. As trade grew so did the religion, mixing with the cultures it met naturally, a part of the tools needed by developing societies. Islam was a uniting set of values and traditions, and most importantly beliefs.

However not all traders were Muslim. In Indonesia Jews from Europe, and some from Iraq, found refuge in the islands when forced to move. These communities acted as facilitators between incoming traders and the local society. The Jews performed this function before colonisation and during the period of Dutch rule.

The Japanese invasion of Indonesia during the Second World War destroyed the Jewish community. In Indonesia it is said that the Japanese were worse than the Nazis. Jews were sought, captured and beheaded. Those that could changed religion to Catholicism or escaped overseas. By the end of the war Judaism had disappeared. All that remained were Jewish graves.

Israel and Indonesia came into being (separately) between 1945 and 1948. They are both new republics whose history since the end of the war has been bloody. They have quite a lot in common in terms of struggling to develop independent national identities and dealing with powerful outside forces. This is reflected by the reality of trade between them. Although there are no diplomatic ties, trade missions work quietly: nobody denies that Indonesia buys Israeli weapons and weapon systems. All this is widely known but seldom mentioned.

What is not so publicly known is that the ancient Jewish community is reviving, people are discovering they have Jewish ancestors and are returning to Judaism; some have other reasons. My friend explained:

‘I am not of a Jewish family. Some are, but not me. I had found that pastors in my religion could not answer my questions. I stumbled across a rabbi online and connected. I began to hear things that made sense.’

The rabbi mentioned is Tovia Singer, who has based himself in Jakarta running an organisation he started in Israel and America called 'Outreach Judaism'. Rabbi Tovia had, until quite recently, a radio show in Israel and is a well known lecturer on his religion, he has also expressed his views on the relationship of Jesus and Evangelical Christian belief with Judaism in debates all around the world. Rabbi Tovia takes the view that proselytising Evangelicals are the greatest danger Jews face in maintaining the purity of their religious observance.

But it is not the details of the theology that he espouses that interests me so much as the fact that his organisation is committed to the locating and regeneration of Jewish communities and that the rabbi has chosen to concentrate on one such, apparently extinct, community here.

In Jakarta Tovia Singer has created a Jewish Centre with Eits Chaim Indonesia Foundation. A post on a website closely connected to Singer announces the official recognition of the Centre in mid-2015, and a synagogue in Jakarta, with more planned throughout the islands:

We just received information that the Indonesian Minister of Religious Affairs has issued a National Decree to allow the Jewish Kehilah Torat Chaim to exist within Indonesian borders, giving Jewish descendants and Bnei Noah's the religious freedom to worship in a Synagoge, under the leadership of Rabbi Tovia Singer, and to build Jewish life infrastructure. Torat Chaim is a program under Outreach Judaism for Indonesia to find many lost Jewish descendants in churches and bring them back to the G-d of Israel. Rabbi Tovia Singer with the help of his Indonesian team has worked hard to make this happen.

After the Second World War the general belief has been that any Jews left in Indonesia went to America or Holland, or had changed to Catholicism and forgotten their original religious heritage. This is not quite accurate. One synagogue remained in Surabaya, attended by a handful of Jews, and one became active for a few years in North Sulawesi, in the Christian area around Manado.

Both however suffered after the Israeli actions during Operation Cast Lead in 2009. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) forced the closure of the synagogue in Surabaya and in 2013 the building was demolished. In Manado the tiny Jewish community made up of people with Jewish ancestry who were learning their religion anew, plus one or two converts, continued, but disappeared in 2013 also. Significantly, the apparent eradication of these last traces of active Judaism took place one year before the end of the administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the elections of 2014.

I ask my friend if there is overt opposition to his conversion. He wrinkles his nose doubtfully, then says,

‘No, Jokowi has stopped the FPI, they are nothing now, nothing.’

My friend tells me there are ten only in his community, all Chinese. He knows of other groups, but it seems in our city in central Java, without a synagogue or a resident rabbi, communication between groups is not yet working effectively. Now that Jakarta has a temporary synagogue operating and permission from the Ministry of Religion for a permanent structure, networking should improve.

Judaism is still not officially recognised and the freedom of Jews to worship as all other religions is presently guaranteed by the Christian desk at the Ministry for Religion. In Jakarta, the Minister for Religious Affairs has inaugurated the Jewish Centre Torat Chaim.

For me the revival of any minority religion is significant; when the religion is Judaism the significance is increased enormously. For now, it is wonderful to see my friend so enthralled by his new belief and to know that here, as in so many other places, Judaism refused to die. Whatever one’s own beliefs it is impossible not to be impressed.

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