Once the Indonesia Islands’ raw materials and resources were discovered by Dutch colonialism, Dutch Jews played a key role in the development of the Spice Islands. While its date of establishment is unknown, an early Jewish settlement existed in the Sunda Islands. During the 1850s, most Jewish families were of German and Dutch descent and lived predominately in Jakarta. In 1850, after visiting Indonesia, the Jerusalem emissary Jacob Saphir requested that the Jewish community of Amsterdam send a rabbi to try and organize the Jews of Indonesia. At that time, approximately 20 Jewish families lived on the islands. Most Jews in the 1800s, however, were not very religious and no Jewish community center was consecrated.
By the 1920s, Jews were arriving from the Netherlands, Baghdad, and Aden and Jewish community centers were organized in numerous cities. The Baghdadi Jews were the most observant of all Jewish Indonesians and settled in Surabaya. Israel Cohen, the Zionist emissary, estimated in 1921 that almost 2,000 Jews were living in Java, Indonesia. Most Jews worked as traders, with a few holding government appointments.
Many European Jews in Indonesia fleeing the Nazis arrived in the late 1930’s. In 1939, nearly 2,000 Jewish Dutch residents, and several other Jews from various European nations, were placed in internment camps after Japan’s invasion of the islands.
After World War II, many Jews left Indonesia because they had lost their homes and possessions during the war, but several families remained. By the 1950s, the Jewish communities were beginning to thrive again, especially in Surabaya. In the early 1960s, with the rise of nationalist and anti-Dutch sentiments among the people of Indonesia, many Jews immigrated to the United States, Australia, and the newly established State of Israel. By 1970, most of the thriving Jewish communities of Indonesia had almost vanished, leaving a scattered Jews behind.
Today, “descendants of Iraqi Jews who came to Indonesia more than a century ago to trade spices still live and practice in Surabaya in the eastern half of the densely populated (and almost exclusively Muslim) island of Java. Their Jewish traditions are primarily ancient in origin (the Sabbath before Yom Kippur, for example, the community leader slaughters a chicken and swings it around the synagogue courtyard to dispel the community’s sins), though Dutch Jewish traders from the 18th and 19th centuries introduced them to some European Rabbinical teachings” (The Jews of Africa).
In 2008, only two synagogues were still in use in the entire country of Indonesia - the more prominent one in Surabaya and a much smaller, lesser known one in the small town of Manado.
The Surabaya synagogue was purchased in the 1950s, and was fashioned in a traditional Orthodox, Sephardic style; men and women were separated by a mechiza and the pulpit and congregation face the simple, plain wood ark. The ark had been empty since its two Torah scrolls were relocated to the Jewish congregation in Singapore. During Israel's Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Muslims extremists in Indonesia protested Israel's actions and forced the government to shut down the Surabaya synagogue.
As of 2011, therefore, the only remaining synagogue in use in Indonesia was that in the small, mostly Christian stronghold of Manado. Though there are only a few Jews in the city, the government has dedicated a good amount of monetary resources to bolstering the community and attracting Jewish tourism. In Novermber 2010, the government paid nearly $150,000 to build a 62-foot-tall Menorah on a hill overlooking the city which is now possibly the largest permanent menorah in the entire world. The non-Jewish residents of the city have also adopted the Jewish community. Flags of Israel can be spotted on motorcycle taxi stands, one near a six-year-old synagogue that has received a face-lift, including a ceiling with a large Star of David, paid for by local officials. “We’re just trying to be good Jews,” said Toar Palilingan, 27, who, wearing a black coat and a broad-brimmed hat in the ultra-Orthodox style, led a Sabbath dinner at his family home recently with two regulars.
There are a small number of individual Jews living in Jakarta, but most are not very religious. Essentially, the Jewish community in Indonesia is continuing to decline because of immigration sparked by a recent rise in anti-Semitism. Today, only about 20 Jews livie in Indonesia.