Sun, 25 May 2003

Story behind RI's sole synagogue

Wahyuni Kamah, Contributor, Surabaya

The white Dutch-style building's architecture is simple and classical. Except for the mezuzah at its entrance and two Star of David carvings on the teakwood door, nobody would know that it is a synagogue. In fact, it is the only synagogue in the country.

Located on Jl. Kayun 6, Surabaya, it covers a 2,000-square- meter lot and is located near the Kali Mas river. This small synagogue also serves as the residence of Rivka Sayers, a Jewish woman who has lived in the city since 1970.

Unlike any other synagogue, this one does not have Torah, rabbi or teacher. There are also not enough people to make a minyan (a quorum to conduct a Jewish public worship). Therefore, real rituals are rarely performed here.

"Only three families are regular visitors to this synagogue," Sayers said softly and politely.

"They are people who are half Indonesian half European or half Chinese half European. They usually come on Jewish holidays like the Sabbath, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah or Passover. Sometimes we also have dinner here."

Sayers is only one of 20 known Jews living in Indonesia. Some of them live in Jakarta and the others in Surabaya.

The small community of Jews in Surabaya bought the house from a Dutch doctor. In 1948, the house was turned into a synagogue.

The synagogue's interior is plain with no decorations on the walls. Only a few rows of benches are available. On the right, inside the synagogue is a large room where a dining table for 20 can be used for dinner.

Though Sayers takes care of the synagogue by herself, she often pays people to clean the house.

Being a Jewish person in a Muslim-dominated country does not make Sayers feel alienated from the neighborhood, which is dominated by people of Arabic descent.

"They are good friends," she said of her relationship with her Muslim neighbors.

Sayers does not have any problems remaining kosher (clean and legitimate according to Jewish law) since many products in the market are halal (permitted under Muslim law). They are made in accordance to Muslim law that bans pork or pork-derived products.

Being an Iraqi-Jew, the 59-year-old woman gives private lessons in Hebrew language and sometimes she gets donations from synagogue visitors. She, however, does not get regular financial support from Western Jews. Nonetheless, she is proud of being a Jew.

During the New Order regime, the government of Indonesia only recognized five religions and Judaism was not one of them.

The history of the Jewish community in Indonesia cannot be separated from the Dutch colonial government.

In the 1850s, there were at least 20 Jewish families of Dutch and German origin living in Jakarta and other parts of the country. In the 1930s, Jews fleeing the rise of Nazism across Europe also found sanctuary in Indonesia.

According to a database of Jewish Communities, in 1939 there were 2,000 Dutch-Jewish inhabitants and a number of stateless Jews who underwent trials during the Japanese occupation. The Dutch Jews suffered greatly during the Japanese occupation. After World War II, and later upon Indonesia's independence, nearly all Jews left the country.

Sayers' husband, just like other Jews, also had to spend the war years in a Japanese prison camp. Later, he left for Israel upon his release. He returned to Indonesia to rejoin his father who had stayed to run the family's lumber business.

Although there is only one synagogue in the country, there are a few Jewish cemeteries scattered around the country; in Semarang, in Pangkalpinang, Bangka Island, South Sumatra and in Surabaya.