75 Indonesians Convert to Judaism, Embracing Their Past

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This January, 75 Indonesians officially converted to Judaism, and I was one of them, joining the 2 families that converted 2 years before. That makes us a total of 83 Indonesian Jews, in a country in South-East Asia with the greatest Muslim population in the world,  with 205 million Muslims. Indonesia is a chain of islands, and the 3 cities where we affirmed our faith are separated from another by the sea. Some of us are Jewish descendants from Dutch colonization.

For the past 5 years, without support from Jewish outreach programs, or their leaders willing to stay and teach, we 75 new Jewish souls committed ourselves to study the Torah, Hebrew and the traditions of our ancestors. We were limited in resources but boundless in passion. Our awakening, yearning to return to the faith, was heard by Rabbis abroad, mostly through the internet. They started to send Judaica items and prayer books. A cantor in Jerusalem flew to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, to teach us how to chant and sing prayers. Rabbis in New York and Jerusalem, a couple in Nazaret Illit, and many Jewish people elsewhere helped, giving Hebrew or Torah lessons through Skype for free.

Sumatra: Benjamin Verbrugge (left) teaches his sons how to read a torah scroll, in 2012. Written in Hebrew, the Torah is the foundational text of the Jewish faith.  (Benjamin Verbrugge/PoliCu)

Sumatra: Benjamin Verbrugge (left) teaches his sons how to read a torah scroll, in 2012. Written in Hebrew, the Torah is the foundational text of the Jewish faith.  (Benjamin Verbrugge/PoliCu)

When Rabbi Moshe Gutnik, the head of the Organization of Rabbis of Australasia, met 3 of the 83 us in Jakarta (one of them myself) and asked us the question, ‘Why?’ Our answer was simple and straightforward, “Because of God!” There was no other reason.

Here for Centuries

Although few know it, Indonesia has a buried Jewish heritage, dating back 400 years. One of the legacies is the town where I grew up, Pondok Gede. The name is an Indonesian term, which means “big house” – it refers to a mansion that belonged to a Polish Jew, Iehoede Igel (1755-1835), a low-ranking security guard turned wealthy goldsmith; he later changed his name to Leendert Miero. The area is named after Miero’s estate.

Here in Indonesia, evidence of Jewish life is overwhelming. Historic sites of synagogues, the last torn down in May 2013, a Jewish cemetery, tombs and remaining copies of the newspaper, Eretz Israel, from Jews in Padang and Bandung. Even in Aceh, the only Islamic district, where Sharia Law is applied, Jewish burials can be found.

Within the past few years, the country’s history of Judaism has become more open. In 2013, Indonesia’s nation-wide News Channel, MetroTV, aired a 30-minute documentary regarding the lives of Jewish descendants. The documentary also covered the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in Jakarta in 2012, when my family was part of a 100 Jewish descendants from across Indonesia to gather and celebrate. Interviews with the elders of the community revealed many hid their ancestry from younger generations, and only recently passed it on.

Since last year, the Jewish History Museum of Amsterdam sent a team to Indonesia to collect data for an exhibition; and the national magazine, TEMPO, and The Jakarta Post also covered stories on Indonesian Jews.

The author at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, this February. The site of Judaism's Temple, it was destroyed millennia ago, but believers hold the Jews' will gather here once more. (Abigail Wiriaatmadja/PoliCu)

The author at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, this February. The site of Judaism’s Temple, it was destroyed millennia ago, but believers hold the Jews’ will gather here once more. (Abigail Wiriaatmadja/PoliCu)

The Jews of Java

In December, a masters student of history, from Indonesia’s Andalas University, named Romi Zarman, published his research on the Jewish community in Java; Yudaisme di Jawa, Abad 19-20 (Judaism in Java, in the 19-20th century). It is common in Indonesia for MA candidates to write books; and Zarman uses notes, letters, chronicles, activity reports, as well as minutes of meetings of 2 organizations: the Association for Jewish Interests in the Dutch East Indies, and the Dutch East Indies Zionist Federation.

According to Yudaisme di Jawa, after the Dutch colonized Indonesia in 1602, European Jews came, fleeing persecutions in Europe. But when Europe’s churches, Catholics and Protestants, established themselves in Java, persecutions against Jews began anew. This left a traumatic dampening on Jewish life, which did not cease until the end of the 19th century. Consequently, although Dutch colonization was open to Jewish settlers on the island, observance was only in secret, in the homes of devout Jews. The establishment of a Dutch Jewish organization, the Association for Jewish Interests in the Dutch East Indies, in 1927, marked the revival of Jewish life– until the Japanese conquered Indonesia in 1942, when it died once more.

A Destiny Fulfilled

Today, a Jewish revival is once again heard, as 83 souls of the descendants from the Dutch Jews in Indonesia cry out to the God of their forefathers and start their journey back to him.

When word of our small community spread, several rabbis came to visit, some to teach for a weekend. I was privileged enough to talk about Jewish life in Indonesia with a well-known Rabbi, Tovia Singer, the Director of Outreach Judaism Inc. and a radio host for Arutz Sheva, (the Israel National Radio). I convinced him to visit our community in Jakarta and he generously agreed to come teach us. From him, we learned most people who convert with the help of his holy work, eventually discovered they have Jewish ancestry, of which they never knew before. Both Rabbis Singer and Gutnik believe the Jewish prophecy, regarding the return of the lost tribes, Israelites who disappeared millennia ago, may come to pass in the form of converts like us. Who knows; maybe our recent conversions is really its fulfillment!

Elisheva Wiriaatmadja is an editor for the Indonesian magazine, PT Magwei, and a co-host of Eitz Haim, a Jewish radio program in Jakarta.

Top Photo:  A child of converts, gawps, as his parents celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim at Port Klang, Indonesia, in 2012. The boy, Ben Meyer, wears a yarmulke, a traditional head-covering used during prayer. (Benjamin Meijer Verbrugge/PoliCu)
Jewish Indo converts Feb 5

Manado, Indonesia: A man reemerges from the waters of Malalayang Beach to complete his conversion ceremony, on Jan. 28, 2014. Jewish law requires a convert be fully submerged in a natural body of water. (Benjamin Verbrugge/PoliCu)

 

8 thoughts on “75 Indonesians Convert to Judaism, Embracing Their Past

  1. I am fascinated by this article, especially as my maternal grandparents were of Dutch Indonesian and Dutch Jewish ancestry, respectively. I had never heard of an Indonesian Jewish community before, nor do I know whether my grandfather, who came to the Indies with 2 brothers as employees of the Batavian Petroleum company in the late 1890s, was a practicing member of his faith. I do know that several members of his family in the Netherlands were horrified that he married out, so possibly not. There was also anti-Semitic feeling among the Dutch community in the Dutch East Indies.

  2. What a wonderful story! I would love to contact the author and learn more about this amazing branch of our family tree. As an American Jew of partial Dutch-Portuguese heritage, I enjoy seeing more stories and articles about, and more representation of, non-Ashkenazic Jews in the popular press. If someone can help me connect with Elisheva Wiriaatmadja, I’d be grateful.
    Shalom,
    David Feder
    Greater Chicago

  3. I am a jews and i have been living in west java but i don’t know the indonesian jews community and how to contact with the other.

  4. Welcome home. ברוכים הבאים!!!
    If you are ever in Florida, please contact me: I would LOVE to chat. In fact, if you would be willing to SKYPE, I would love to have you talk with some of my Hebrew School students.
    שלום וברכה,
    לאה

  5. My Oma was nifter this past Friday, her name was Eline Stein, and she, as well as my mother were born in Jakarta. During WWII, Oma and Opa (who has been nifter over 20 years,) like almost all the Dutch, regardless of religion, were put in the Japanese Camps in 1942, and were able to survive until liberation in 1945. They survived, but the rest of their families perished in the camps. Afterwards, my mother was born (also in Jakarta,) but they fled Sukarno in the 50′s, making their way to the Netherlands. A fascinating history, and overjoyed to hear there are still Jews in Indonesia!

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