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In Indonesia's only synagogue, Jewish worshippers hide their faith fearing persecution, but change is afoot

Channel News Asia - August 19, 2023

Nivell Rayda, Tondano, Indonesia – It is the Sabbath, and the parking lot of an otherwise desolate compound on the edge of the Indonesian town of Tondano in North Sulawesi is filled with cars hailing from areas dozens of kilometres away.

Inside one of the limestone cloaked structures, three families have gathered – the men in brimless caps while the women in headscarves folded into a variety of styles – to recite verses from the Torah and listen to the sermons delivered by Rabbi Yaakov Baruch, caretaker of Indonesia's only synagogue.

The Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue is the only place where Jews can practise their religion freely in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority nation where anti-Jewish sentiment is rampant.

Indonesia's oldest and only other synagogue – Beth Hashem – in Surabaya city was ordered to close in 2013 after conservative Muslim groups successfully lobbied the local government to tear it down.

The destruction came after the synagogue was for years abandoned and left to decay with the few remaining Jews in Surabaya preferring to practise their faith in secret due to constant and widespread harassment.

Meanwhile, the handful of Jews living in the country's capital Jakarta, where the burning of the Israeli-flag is a common feature in virtually all pro-Palestine demonstrations, also mostly choose to keep their religious identities under wraps out of fear of persecution.

"Indonesians view the Jews in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Thus, there is a strong anti-Jewish sentiment because of their stance against Israel," Rabbi Baruch, 40, tells CNA.

Even in the predominantly Christian province of North Sulawesi, where Tondano is located, members of the Shaar Hashamayim synagogue prefer to keep their religious identities a closely guarded secret beyond the confines of the compound.

"Only my immediate family and a few friends know that I am Jewish. The rest just assume that I'm still a Christian," a worshiper who wishes to be identified only by his Hebrew name, Ezra ben Abraham, tells CNA.

"Not everyone is welcoming towards Jews, including the Christians. Who knows what might happen if people find out I am Jewish."

Even Rabbi Baruch, who has been very open about his Jewish identity, is careful about revealing too much about his personal background to spare his family from any potential backlash.

But he believes that things are getting better for the some 200 Jews across Indonesia and remains optimistic that one day, they can practise their faith freely in the country.

Uneasy relationship

Indonesia's stance toward Israel and Jews has come under the spotlight recently when two governors – Ganjar Pranowo of Central Java and Wayan Koster of Bali – stated that the Israeli football squad was not welcome to play in their respective provinces during this year's Under-20 World Cup.

The statements forced the world's football governing body FIFA to strip Indonesia of its host status and move the tournament to Argentina.

Opposition by the governors stem from Indonesia's long-running opposition against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories while efforts to establish formal diplomatic ties between Indonesia and the Jewish nation have always drawn immediate backlash from the Indonesian public.

Over time, this enmity towards Israel has grown into anti-Jewish sentiment among many in the population.

A 2022 study by research firm Saiful Mujani shows 51 per cent of Indonesians prefer not to have Jews as their neighbours while 61 per cent say they do not want to see Jews as public officials.

The research shows that rejection towards the Jews are stronger in Muslim-majority areas. However, the respondents' education and economic backgrounds do not appear to matter at all. It is the only time such a survey was conducted by the firm.

"In Indonesia, Israel and Jews are like two sides of the same coin. Those who are anti-Israel are most likely anti-Jew," says Rabbi Baruch.

So strong is this animosity towards Israel and the Jews that any attempt to bridge the divide is viewed negatively.

In 2018, Islamic scholar Yahya Cholil Staquf was lambasted by fellow clerics for visiting Israel and meeting the country's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yahya, the older brother of Indonesia's current religious minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, told local media then that he had been invited to speak at an interfaith forum in Israel, adding that the meeting with Netanyahu was unplanned.

Rabbi Baruch had a similar experience last year, garnering public backlash for simply trying to promote tolerance and understanding when he opened a tiny museum of just a handful of objects next to the synagogue dedicated to victims of the Holocaust.

"They said that (the museum) was an Israeli propaganda. I was simply trying to educate people about this dark period in history and the dangers of racism," he recounts.

Finding root

Another reason why many Jews in Indonesia practise their religion in secret or renounce their faith entirely is the fact that Indonesia officially recognises just six religions and beliefs – Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Given that religious beliefs are personal details needed in civic administrative matters like obtaining identity cards and marriage certificates, some Jews tell CNA that they would simply identify themselves as Christians to avoid bureaucratic complications.

Even in North Sulawesi, which consistently ranks among Indonesia's most tolerant provinces in yearly studies conducted by the country's religious ministry, discussing ones' Jewish heritage has become somewhat taboo among families of mixed Indonesian and Dutch ancestries of whom there are many in the province.

Rabbi Baruch says no one in his family had ever mentioned the fact that his maternal grandmother was born Jewish and had come from a long line of Jews living in the Netherlands until he was 15 years of age when he discovered it by chance.

"That moment changed my life and I chose to embrace my heritage, the Jewish faith," he recalls.

The rabbi adds that his family had been very supportive of his decision to practise Judaism, particularly his grandmother who encouraged him to one day become a rabbi and lead his own synagogue even though she herself no longer practises the religion.

"Sadly, my grandmother passed away before I fulfilled her wishes," he says, revealing that she died in 2001, just three years before he set up the Shaar Hashamayim synagogue out of a dilapidated Dutch colonial-era house in his hometown Tondano.

Unofficial public face

Rabbi Baruch says he has never been shy about revealing his Jewish identity, particularly in Tondano, a small town of 67,000 inhabitants surrounded by lush green hills rolling down to a nearby lake of the same name.

The local government, he adds, has been very supportive of the synagogue as well as the holocaust museum from day one. Both buildings were officially opened by the local regent as shown by the granite placards bearing his signatures plastered onto their respective walls.

"Those criticising our presence are people far away from here," he says.

As caretaker of Indonesia's only synagogue, Rabbi Baruch often receives invitations to attend interfaith forums and seminars in Jakarta and other cities. He has also given interviews to national and international media outlets as well as podcasts hosted by Indonesian celebrities.

As the rabbi became more visible in the public eye, many Indonesians have reached out to him expressing their interest to learn more about the religion.

"I became interested in Judaism after learning Hebrew in a theological school. For years, I wanted to learn more about Judaism and I finally got the chance to do so when I started coming here (to the synagogue) two years ago," Mr Mordecai ben Abraham, a member of the Tondano synagogue, tells CNA.

But Baruch's openness and his decision to openly wear the Jewish skullcap kippah and other religious attributes in public come at a price.

A few years back, as he and his wife were walking at a shopping mall in Jakarta, they were confronted by five men. "They said: 'get rid of that hat, that's the hat of a murderer'," Rabbi Baruch recounts.

Had the circumstances been different he would try to reason with the men, he adds, but he decided not to get into an argument and comply because his wife was pregnant at the time.

Hoping for a more tolerant future

Still, Rabbi Baruch believes Indonesia has come a long way from when he first opened the synagogue at the age of 22.

Back then, books containing provocative conspiracy theories such as how the Jews were supposedly bent on taking over Indonesia were very popular and proliferated all across the country, he says.

"Nowadays, I no longer see such books. People are getting smarter because they can find the right information online," adds the rabbi.

This may explain why the two governors voicing publicly against the Israeli football squad playing in their respective provinces appeared to have suffered a public backlash.

For instance, Mr Pranowo, who has been nominated by his party to run in next year's presidential election, was initially the front-runner in the polls, which showed him enjoying a comfortable lead over other hopefuls.

But his remarks had caused his popularity to slip with recent polls, putting him in second place behind his biggest rival, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto.

When the FIFA decision was announced on Mar 29, the Central Java governor's social media accounts were inundated by condemnations from Indonesians disappointed that their country would not host its first ever World Cup.

Tondano synagogue member Mordecai says Ganjar has let down many football fans, himself included. "It is good to see that many Indonesians feel that the government should not mix sports with politics and religion," he adds.

To Rabbi Baruch, the reaction from today's Indonesians is night and day compared to when the country's first president Sukarno refused to provide visas for Israeli athletes competing at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. Sukarno's move was lauded then by the majority of Indonesians.

"Today, thankfully many Indonesians are better informed about (Judaism). They can separate Israeli's politics and its Zionist principle apart from the Jewish faith observed by Indonesians who have nothing to do with the conflict happening there," the rabbi says.

More work needs to be done before Indonesia can shed away its anti-Jewish sentiment and Jews in the country can practise their religion freely, he notes.

"We are not there yet but I feel we're slowly moving towards that future," adds Rabbi Baruch. (CNA/ni)

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/indonesias-only-synagogue-jewish-worshippers-hide-their-faith-fearing-persecution-change-afoot-370780