Larry Polansky



There has long been a rumour, among Americans who are interested in Indonesia, that there is in this predominantly Islamic country, only one synagogue, reportedly in he city of Surabaya. Surabaya is the third largest city in the country, a major port located in the eastern part of the island of Java, the most densely populated island in the world. From July, 1988 to July, 1989, my wife and I have been living in Indonesia doing musical research. We had decided, before we arrived, to try to locate this synagogue and meet the Jewish community there.

Indonesia has only five official religions, and Judaism is not one of them. When we arrived here, we became interested in visiting the synagogue, if it actually existed. With the help of another Fulbright scholar here in Solo, we located it and made plans to show up there the day before Yom Kippur. We had no idea what to expect.

We took the train from our home in Surakarta, about 8 hours away, and went directly to the address we had for the synagogue. We found there an interesting, extraordinarily diverse, polyglot group of Jews who welcomed us graciously, and were very interested in contact with Jews from other countries. We fasted and said Yom Kippur with them, and got to know several of them well.

The synagogue and the Jewish comunity there have had little contact with Jews from outside Indonesia. It seems to be the only such community in this country. They are badly in need of books, particularly for the synagogue (they have no Torah at present), Jewish cultural materials (for instance, they have no Passover wine), and more importantly, visitors. Surabaya is a short distance from Bali, which is a popular and fashionable vacation spot for many Northern Californians. The Jews in Surabaya would more than welcome visitors..

The comunity is a state of rapid intermarriage and assimilation, and many expressed the need for their own members to be educated in Judiasism and Jewish culture, but they are without the means to do this. There is no teacher at present in the synagogue. Astonishingly, they are committed to keeping the building and community intact even though services have not been held there (with the exception of the one we said this year) for many years.

Each member of the comunity had a unique and extraordinary life story. Some of these people had been all over the world as a result of political and social upheavals, but had somehow wound up returning to this isolated and fascinating enclave of Judiaism in an unlikely place. Their stories, to my knowledge, have not been documented. This community would, I think, be a fertile source for Jewish oral historians, documentary filmmakers, or anyone interested in preserving a record of the diversity of world Jewish culture. Many of the people there are quite old, and it seemed to us important that their stories be recorded as soon as possible. We are hoping that among the readers of this article there will be someone qualified and interested enough to undertake this task.

The address of the synagougue and the best contact there is:

Mrs. Rivka Sayers, Jalan Kayoon #6, Surabaya, Jawa Timur, Indonesia (Mrs. Sayers speaks Hebrew, Indonesian, and English, among other languages).

Larry Polansky. Box 9911. Oakland, California. 94613 (until July 1989: Turisari V/10, Solo, 57139, Jawa Tengah, Indonesia, phone: 011-62-271-2153).

[photos enclosed: Rivka Sayers and grandaughter; other members of the Surabayan Jewish comunity. Photos by Jody Diamond]

[Note to editor: unfortunately we do not have the full names of the two men in the other two pictures. If those pictures are used, and you think it necessary, contact Rivka Sayers at the above address by mail to supply their names.]

[a more recent article, not by me, about this same community]