History of the Jews in Indonesia

The history of the Jews in Indonesia began with the arrival of early European explorers and settlers. Most of Indonesian Jews arrived from the Netherlands, Middle East, Northern Africa and Southern Europe. Jews in Indonesia presently form a very small Jewish community of about 100-500,[1] of mostly Sephardi Jews.


In the 1850s, Jewish traveler Jacob Saphir was the first to write about the Jewish community in the Dutch East Indies after visiting Batavia, Dutch East Indies. He had spoken with a local Jew who told him of about 20 Jewish families in the city and several more in Surabaya and Semarang. Most of the Jews living in the Dutch East Indies in the 19th century were Dutch Jews who worked as merchants or were affiliated with the colonial regime. Other members of the Jewish community were immigrants from Iraq or Aden.

Between the two World Wars the number of Jews in the Dutch East Indies was estimated at 2,000 by Israel Cohen. Indonesian Jews suffered greatly under the Japanese Occupation of Indonesia, were interned and forced to work in labor camps. After the war, the released Jews found themselves without their previous property and many emigrated to the United States, Australia or Israel.

By the late 1960s, it was estimated that there were 20 Jews living in Jakarta, 25 in Surabaya and others living in Manado.


Assimilation and population changes

The social and cultural characteristics of Indonesia that facilitated the extraordinary economic, political, and social success of the Indonesian Jewish community also contributed to assimilation. Most of Indonesian Jews changed their names to Indonesian names. Jews were obligated to change their names and beliefs. Later Chinese Indonesians were forced to change their names as well, but they are still allowed to practice Buddhism in Indonesia.

Indonesian Jews face the challenge of declaring a religion on their government ID cards called KTP (Kartu Tanda Penduduk). Every citizen over the age of 17 must carry a KTP, which includes the holder's religion and Indonesia only recognizes six religions: Islam, (non-Catholic) Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. It does not officially recognize Judaism and other religions.

An estimated 20,000 descendants of Jews still live in Indonesia, though many are losing their historical identity. Since most of Indonesian Jews are actually Jews from Southern Europe and Middle East Area, languages which are spoken by Indonesian Jews are Indonesian, Malay, Arabic, Hebrew, Portuguese and Spanish.


Surabaya synagogue

There was a synagogue in Surabaya, provincial capital of East Java in Indonesia. For many years it was the only synagogue in the country. The synagogue became inactive beginning 2009 and had no Torah scrolls or rabbi. It was located in Jalan Kayun 6 on a 2.000 m² lot near the Kali Mas river in house built in 1939 during the Dutch rule.

The home was bought by the local Jewish community from a Dutch doctor in 1948 and transformed into a synagogue. Only the mezuzah and 2 Stars of David in the entrance showed the presence of the synagogue. The community in Surabaya is no longer big enough to support a minyan, a gathering of 10 men needed in order to conduct public worship. The synagogue was totally demolished in 2013.[2][3] No sign of it was left over.

The Indonesian Jewish community is very tiny, with most of living in the capital of Jakarta and the rest in Surabaya. Many Jewish cemeteries still exist around the country in Semarang (center of Java), in Pangkalpinang in Bangka Island, in Palembang south of Sumatra and in Surabaya.

Tondano synagogue

Since 2003, Shaar Hashamayim synagogue has been serving local Jewish community of some 20 people in Tondano city, Minahasa Regency, North Sulawesi. Currently it is the only synagogue in Indonesia that provides services.[4] Some tiny local Jewish community exist in the area, mostly those who rediscovered their ancestral roots and converted back to Judaism.

See also


  1. The Jewish Virtual Library - Indonesia
  2. Sinaya,James.(May 30, 2013).Jawa pos newspaper,26 May 2013,30 May 2013
  3. http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/Report-Indonesias-last-synagogue-destroyed-327907
  4. Hussain, Zakir (February 18, 2013). "Indonesia's Only Synagogue Struggles to Find Wider Acceptance". Straits Times. Jakarta Globe. Retrieved 19 February 2013.

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