Java’s Last Synagogue Torn Down
The last vestige of one Indonesia’s oldest and largest Jewish communities is now just a pile of rubble.
Beth Shalom in Surabaya — Java’s one and only synagogue — was demolished in May after being sealed off by Islamic hard-liners in 2009.
“It’s not clear when exactly it was demolished and who did it,” Freddy Istanto, the director of the Surabaya Heritage Society (SHS), told the Jakarta Globe.
“In mid-May, I was informed by a member of the SHS that the synagogue was destroyed. In disbelief, I went over there and it had been flattened.”
Freddy reported the case to the Surabaya Legislative Council and prompted the commission to summon the Surabaya Tourism Agency, which was responsible for the heritage building.
“It was designated a heritage site by the agency on April 16, 2009. It should’ve been protected,” Freddy said.
A small, Dutch-style building located on a 2,000 square meter plot of land in the middle of Surabaya’s business district, Beth Shalom looked like an ordinary house in the neighborhood. The only features that distinguished it as a synagogue were its mezuzah (Torah scrolls fastened to an entrance way) and the two Star of David carvings on its door.
“There were many artifacts inside the building which can’t be found in other heritage sites,” Freddy said.
Sachiroel Alim, one of the heads of the Surabaya Legislative Council, told the Jakarta Globe on Saturday that the council summoned the Surabaya Tourism Agency at the end of May and gave them seven days to officially report the case to the police since the demolition was in direct violation of the Law on Cultural Heritage.
“There was an indication that the owner of the synagogue had sold the building,” Sachiroel said. “It’s not clear whether the buyer — allegedly a real estate company — destroyed the building, or if the original owner knocked it down themselves,”
Sachiroel said that he did not know if Muslim hard-liners had anything to with razing the synagogue.
“We don’t want to get into the conflict, but a heritage building should be protected by the government,” Sachiroel said.
In January 2009, Muslim demonstrators sealed off Beth Shalom and burned an Israeli flag to protest the country’s attacks on the Gaza Strip at the time.
Soemarsono, the head of the National Unity and Society Protection Agency of Surabaya, claimed that the synagogue was an illegal structure because it did not possess proper building permits.
“It was used as a residence,” Rakyat Merdeka Online quoted him as saying recently.
Sachiroel noted, though, that most of Indonesia’s oldest buildings don’t have building permits since such a requirement was only introduced during the Suharto era.
“The synagogue was built before Indonesia declared its independence,” he said. “How could it have a building permit?”
Rivka Sayers, a Jewish woman of Iraqi descent, reportedly lived in the synagogue’s compound since 1970.
She said that only three families regularly visited the synagogue to celebrate the Sabbath and holidays such as Passover and Rosh Hashanah.
Indonesia’s last surviving synagogue is located in Manado, Sulawesi.