Western tourists who make their way to the remote Minhasa Regency in Indonesia attracted by the beautiful scuba diving sites might happen to stumble upon something unexpected: a 20-meter tall menorah near the capital of Tondano.
What is this conspicuously Jewish symbol doing in a country that is the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world and many times has turned out to be a hotbed of antisemitism?
The story of the menorah is intertwined with the only Jewish community left in the country, whose synagogue was officially inaugurated by the local authorities at the end of December.
The Shaar HaShamayim Synagogue has been functioning since 2004. However, it recently had major renovations. When the process was completed, Yaakov Baruch, a lecturer in international law at the local university and the leader and acting rabbi of the community, thought it would be an excellent opportunity to invite the authorities for a formal ceremony.
“It happened during Hanukkah, the Regent Ir Roy O Roring M.Si came and we lit the menorah,” Baruch told The Jerusalem Post.
He highlighted that the moment is not only symbolic, but allows rituals performed in the synagogue, including weddings, to be formally recognized and valid without the need of an additional ceremony: In a country where Judaism is not even included in the six options for religion that citizens must choose from for their identity cards, the development is not a small one.
In 2014, a survey by the Anti-Defamation League, found that about 75 million Indonesians harbored antisemitic sentiments.
Indonesia does not have formal diplomatic ties with Israel, even though unofficial relations exist, as it was acknowledged for instance by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely in 2016. The two countries also maintain important commercial and touristic interchange. For example, in 2017, 36,000 Indonesians visited Israel.
The tourism that quietly goes on between the two countries is a key to understanding both the possibility for a Jewish community to live and grow and the mystery of the giant menorah. As Baruch explained to the Post, in Tondano, 80% of the population is Christian.
“They tend to be very pro-Israel, and many of them, especially government representatives, go to spend Christmas in Israel every year. They decided to build the menorah after coming back from one of these trips, following a visit to the Knesset, where they understood that the menorah is a symbol of Israel,” he revealed.
Because of this reason, antisemitism in Tondano is not an issue as it is in the vast majority of the country. Baruch himself was once assaulted at a mall in the capital Jakarta after someone spotted his knitted kippah featuring a blue Star of David.
“I was with my wife who was pregnant at the time. Had a security agent not intervened, I don’t know how it would have ended,” he said. Since then, he avoids wearing his kippah openly outside his hometown.
Baruch found out about his Jewish origin during high-school, when his grandmother revealed to him that she was Jewish.
“I always knew that she was Dutch, and I always noticed that she would never do anything religious. Suddenly everything made sense,” he recalled. Since then, he has embarked on a journey that has led him not only to fully re-embracing Judaism, studying in several countries including Singapore, the United States and Israel, but also to pursue a rabbinical ordination and to become the leading force behind Indonesia’s only synagogue.
The sad pre-eminence was achieved by Shaar HaShamayim after another synagogue in the major city of Surabaya, built in 1939, closed in 2009 and was demolished four years later.
Today the community in Tondano, in the north of Indonesia’s vast archipelago, numbers a few dozen people, including Jews who like Baruch are descendants of Jewish Dutch and Iraqi merchants who made their way to the area for their trades, ex-pats and locals who have converted.
“We hold services every Shabbat,” Baruch explained. While it is not easy to get a minyan (a quorum of 10 men, according to rabbinic tradition), he said that sometimes tourists help, especially Israelis attracted to backpack in the remote junglec.
The community also organizes events to celebrate Jewish holidays, such as a Pessah seder and a Hanukkah candle-lighting. On those occasions, Baruch said that usually about 30 people show up.
Moreover, there are some classes and other social gatherings. As for kosher meat, someone in the community knows how to perform the shechita, the Jewish ritual slaughter, to prepare chicken and sometimes even a goat, but he explained that fish is an easier option for many.
He said that his number one priority is to continue building a sustainable and rigorous Jewish life for the members of the community, including those who are converting, and he expressed hope that they will be able to welcome more visitors in the future.
“I know that for many Jews and Israelis Indonesia is just a dangerous and very anti-Israel country but, as it is happening with many Middle Eastern countries, things have been changing, and there is hope for the future. It is important to me to reveal this less-known aspect of Indonesia,” he said.