The History of the Jewish Community in Indonesia

The number of the Jews in Indonesia had reached the biggest number around 3,000 people.

It was more than a half century, Shoshana Lehrer left Indonesia. But, she still remember on the country which thousand kilometers away from her current home in the suburb of Haifa, Israel.

She and her family lived in Indonesia as refugee after fleeing from Nazi in Austria in 1938. “Although we had very hard times, I loved to live there. Indonesia is a beautiful place. I really felt like it is my own country,” said the 77 year-old woman to the Jerusalem Post in December last year.

It’s not only Lehrer felt the atmosphere of Indonesia. There are at least 50 Jews in Israel who had such experience. To share their each memories on Indonesia, the established an association called the Tempo Dulu in 1995. It has the youngest member who is 65 year-old.

According to Lehrer, they gather at least once or twice a year. Besides sharing their own stories, they also cooked Indonesian food, like rendang and nasi rawon. Many members of the Tempo Dulu headed by Lehrer can spell a few words in Bahasa Indonesia.

Lehrer and her colleagues has become historical witnesses and evidence of the existence of the Jewish community in Indonesia. Proffessor Rotem Kowner from the University of Haifa, Israel, explained that the first Jews arrived in Indonesia was a merchant from Fustat, Egypt. “He died in the port of Barus, northern Sumatera in 1290,” he said. Kowner has researched about the history of the Jewish community in Indonesia since 2003.

He even convinced that the Jews has converted to Christian took part in the Portuguese mission which arrived in Indonesia in the early sixteenth century. They settled around the Strait of Malacca, northern coast of Sumatera, dan Java.

The Jews continues expanded as well as the arrival of two Ducth companies the Dutch East India Company (VOC) dan the Dutch West Indian Company (WIC) in 1602. One of them a Dutch soldier born in Ukraine, Leendert Miero (1755-1834) who arrived in 1775. He was the wealthy owner of a large state in Pondok Gede (currently the border area between East Jakarta and Bekasi).

And then Jacob Saphir (1822-1886) traveled for seven weeks on his way to Australia in 1861. The Romanian descent Jews reported there were about a number of Jews who lived in Batavia, Surabaya, and Semarang. But, he noted that there was no the signal of the Jewish communal at that time.

Saphir also noted that at least 20 Jewish households lived in Batavia who were form Netherland and Germany. They comprised wealthy merchants, government officials, and soldiers in the service of the colonial regime. They had no synagogue and no cemetery.

In 1921, a Zionist fundraiser, Israel Cohen, arrived in Java in his five-day visit. He predicted at that time there were around 2,000 Jews who lived in Java only.

The Jewish community began emerge in 1920s with the establishment of Association for Jewish Interests in the Dutch East Indies dan the World Zionist Conferemce (WZC) that had branches in Batavia, Bandung, Malang, Medan, Padang, Semarang, and Yogyakarta. WZC which based in London was founded in 1920. It was a fundraising for the Zionist movement.  A monthly magazine called Erets Israel was issued in Padang from 1926 until its closure by the Japanese in 1942.

The Ducth East Indies administration conducted official census in 1930 that reported the presence of 1.095 Jews. The majority of Jews lived in Java (more than 85 per cent), Sumatera (11 per cent), and several islands (less than 4 per cent). On the eve of the Pacific War (1941-1945), the number of Jews Indonesia reached the biggest number around 3,000 people.

The Jews who lived in Indonesia comprised three groups. The first and the majority was Ducth Jews. Many of them were employed by the colonial administration as clerks, soldiers, teachers, and medical doctors. A second group was of so-called Baghdadi origin which meant they were from Iraq, Yemen, and other parts of the Middle East. Mostly lived in Surabaya and had export and import businesses, shopkeepers, peddlers, and artisans. The third group was refugees from Nazi persecution, largely from Germany, Austria, and Eastern Europe.

The Baghdadi Jews live in religious, some of them fully orthodox. Meanwhile Dutch Jews tend to assimilate although they kept the Jewish traditions. More than a few hide their Jews identity and some men married Christian Europeans or native women.

Economically speaking, the Jews in Indonesia lived in prosperous. They employed native maids, cooks, and chauffeurs. Their per capita income was 4,017 guilders, higher than a native Indonesian was 78 guilders. “We had a sports car,” said Dr Eli Dwek who had lived in Surabaya when he was a kid.

After the independence of Indonesia, the number of Jews decreased. According to a report by the World Jewish Congress was issued a few days after the expulsion of the Ducth, there were approximately 450 Jews in November 1957. Six years later their numbers became 50 and currently only about 20 Jews.

But, at the present, the Jewish community reemerging  by the establishment of a giant menorah in Manado and two synagogues in Manado and Tondano. This group led by Rabbi Yaakov Baruch. “We’re just trying to be good Jews,” he said.

The menorah is also the symbol of Mossad.

Bait Hatfusot/Insode Indonesia/Jerusalem Post/New York Times/Faisal Assegaf

2 thoughts on “The History of the Jewish Community in Indonesia

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