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
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.
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.
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
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).
As of 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. Unfortunately, however, both synagogues were closed or destroyed by 2013.
In Manado, a mostly Christian stronghold town in which few Jews live, the government dedicated a good amount of monetary resources to bolster the community and attract Jewish tourism. In Novermber 2010, the government paid nearly $150,000 to build a 62-foot-tall Menorah on a hill overlooking the city, now possibly the largest permanent menorah in the entire world. This synagogue seems to no longer be in use.
The largest of Indonesia's synagogues, the Beith Shalom Synagogue in Surabaya on the Island of Java, was built in the 19th century by Dutch Jews and grew in stature during the 1950's when the Jewish community was at its largest following the Holocaust.. The synagogue had a Star of David painted on the front door 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 the winter of 2008, Muslims extremists in Indonesia protested Israel's actions and forced the government to shut down the Surabaya synagogue. In October 2013, a Dutch news site reported that the synagogue had been completely destroyed sometime during the past year. “It is not clear by whom and when exactly the building was demolished,” Freddy Instanto told the paper.
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
Today, only about 20 Jews
livie in Indonesia.
Jews of Africa: other dispersed Jewish Communities
of the Jewish People; "The
Jews of Surabaya"
"Indonesia" The Jewish Travelers' Resource Guide.
Feldheim Publishers. 2001.
Norimitsu Onishi, "In Sliver of Indonesia, Public Embrace of Judaism," New York Times, (November 22, 2010);
Jerusalem Post (October 5, 2013).