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Jewish Revival in Indonesia's Christian Stronghold

A 19 meter tall Chanukah menorah stands bright on a mountain overlooking Manado, a Christian stronghold in the Muslim country of Indonesia.
By Chana Ya'ar
First Publish: 11/25/2010, 7:06 PM / Last Update: 11/25/2010, 9:18 PM

A 19-meter tall Chanukah menorah stands bright on a mountain overlooking Manado, a Christian stronghold in northern Indonesia -- the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

A Jewish revival of sorts is taking place in the area.

Home to descendants of Dutch Jews who immigrated to the country generations ago, the city and some of its residents are now beginning to explore those ancient roots -- even as Islamist harassment of other groups begins to grow.

Manado's government funded the creation of a sparkling new 62-foot (19 meters) menorah, built atop a mountain from which one can view the entire city.

Some taxi stands fly the flag of the State of Israel.

Local officials also paid for the large Magen David (Jewish star) that adorns the new ceiling in the six-year-old local synagogue that was recently refurbished. Only 10 people attend services at the synagogue so far; the community is that tiny.

Jewish Roots Run Deep
Jews came to Indonesia more than a century ago from Iraq and the Netherlands. Over the years, some moved to Singapore, and many others assimilated. Although most of Indonesia is Muslim, Manado and the surrounding areas are mainly Christian.

One does not have to dig so deep to find the history of those roots; it was only in 1949, when Indonesia gained its independence from Netherlands, that Jews began hiding their religious status “for safety,” according to an article published this week in the New York Times.

“We told our children never to talk about our Jewish origins,” 70-year-old Leo van Beugen told the NYT reporter. “So our grandchildren do not even know.” Van Beugen was raised as a Roman Catholic.

Only 10 years ago did a family member finally let the secret slip to a young relative, Toar Palilingan (now Yaakov Baruch) who immediately began to seek his heritage on the Internet and by reaching out to Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Singapore.

Only 1 Synagogue Left
Last November the country's venerable 100-year-old synagogue in Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, was shut down by angry Muslims, supposedly in retaliation for Israel's Operation Cast Lead campaign.

The IDF counter terrorism war against the Hamas terrorist rulers of Gaza, was, intended to end the constant barrage of missile and mortar fire that made life miserable for the civilian residents of Israel's southland for nearly a decade. It lasted barely three weeks and ended on the day U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama was sworn into office.