Traveling through the mountain roads of Indonesia, just outside the town of Manado on the island of Sulawesi, you will come across some incongruous sites.
The wrought-iron gate surrounding a home is as likely to have a sculpted Magen David in its design as it is to have a cross. A taxi might have a photo of the Virgin Mary on the front dashboard and an Israeli flag in the back window.
Though Indonesia is almost 90 percent Muslem, this enclave, about an hour’s flight from Jakarta, is 90 percent Christian, and the residents have embraced Jews as family.
It’s this community characteristic that has enabled the one lone rabbi in Indonesia — Yaakov Baruch — to practice his religion and even maintain a synagogue in the heart of an Islamic population.
Yaakov Baruch on the bimah of Shaar Hashamayim synagogue in Minahasa, Indonesia.
Baruch found out about his Judaism about 12 years ago, when he was 18, after his great aunt let slip the fact in a casual conversation. He became interested in his heritage, finding out that his background was from a line of Dutch Jews. The Dutch presence in the area can be traced to the 17th century when the Dutch East India Company built a fortress in Manado in the 1650s.
Baruch, an instructor of law at Sam Ratulangi University in Manado, began to research his background and decided he wanted to reconnect with his Judaism.
“When I found out I was Jewish, it made me excited,” he said in broken English. “I contacted a few rabbis on the Internet and told them my story. They helped me with what I needed to practice Shabbat and so on and they even said I can open a shul. I had no idea how to do that.”
With records in hand and a strong curiosity, Baruch set out to study with the closest rabbi to Indonesia — in Singapore — to learn how to properly carry out daily prayers, Shabbat and holidays.
“He was step by step guiding me,” Baruch said. “He led me back to my roots.”
After a few years he decided to have a Shabbat service in Jakarta and received support from Chabad, who sent a rabbi down to help with the service. They would hold services in Jakarta or Bali, wherever they could get a minyan together.
It wasn’t that easy to “come out” as a Jew in Indonesia, however. Though the constitution officially allows practice of all religions, animosity toward Jews exists outside Christian enclaves like Manado. Baruch was once chased while walking through a mall in Jakarta because he was wearing his kippah. When the pursuers caught him, they told him to take it off.
“Thankfully, there was security in the mall that helped me,” he explained. “Baruch Hashem, I’m fine.”
That was the only time he had ever had a bad experience wearing identifiably Jewish clothing.
“My father even told me to keep silent about our identity,” Baruch admitted. Many members of his grandfather’s family had died in Europe in the Holocaust and his father was worried about repercussions. But Baruch was determined to explore his background and questioned any relatives he could find. He discovered grandparents and great uncles who had mementos such as prayer books from family members who had been lost in the Holocaust.
Shaar Hashamayim synagogue in Minahasa, Indonesia.
In 2004, a benevolent resident of Jakarta heard about Baruch and decided to buy a small house to transform into a synagogue, which is now the Shaar Hashamayim in Minahasa, Indonesia.
Over the years, Baruch has been able to visit Israel several times and eventually would like to make aliyah and join the handful of other Indonesian Jews living there.
“For me, Indonesia is still safe, but I would like another place to keep my faith,” said Baruch, who is married to a non-Jewish Indonesian and has a 19-month-old son, Levi Yitzhak, who was circumcised in a hospital in Indonesia. On one of his trips to Israel, a friend of his at the Israel Museum said they might be interested in dismantling the synagogue and rebuilding it in the museum, when he is ready.
Baruch celebrates as many Jewish holidays as he can. He makes his own challah and hamantashen and hosted a dinner last Passover for Jewish travelers in Bali. With the help of YouTube, he has been able to access Jewish recipes.
Rosh Hashanah will be spent in the small synagogue in his hometown, his father and son by his side and those locals that have also discovered their own connection to the Jewish faith.
“You can’t compare us with a Jewish synagogue in Mea Shearim,” he said, “but we’re trying.”