Yaacov Baruch is his name and he lives in Manado, Indonesia. With a Jewish name like that in a far-flung corner of Southeast Asia, I assumed he was a fifty-something missionary for Chabad-Lubavitch with a thick beard and a black hat.
Beth Hashem Synagogue, exterior view
I just couldn’t imagine why else a Jew would be living on a remote corner of Sulawesi Island. My impression could not have been more wrong. Yaacov is a handsome 24-year-old with dark eyes and a devilish smile.
Like his father, he lectures in law at a local university. Unlike his dad, he has a hyperactive social calendar and carries multiple mobile phones. We laughed about my misguided vision as soon as he greeted me at the airport.
“Perhaps I should have asked a few questions about you,” I said in the car on the way back to town. “I was saving them all up for when I got here.”
I first encountered Yaacov like all of my local contacts: in a random email sent, this time, to the Philippines Jewish community. I was seeking permission to photograph within the community there. I also asked if they happened to have information about Jews in Indonesia.
“I also want to alert you to another person I’ve copied in on this (email) - Yaakov Baruch - is Indonesian and living in Manado,” responded Barry Halpern, the final link in a chain of emails.
“He was responsible for the construction and dedication of a synagogue there about two years ago. This is a “real” Jewish community. If you can fly out there, I’m sure it would be of great interest.”
I was intrigued and immediately sent Yaacov a message. His first email to me two months prior to my visit was all the incentive I needed to incorporate Manado into my one-month southeast Asian Jewish photo tour:
Beth Hashem Synagogue, interior view
“In my town there is not a Jewish Community like in Brooklyn or Mea Sharim,” Yaacov wrote. “We just have one synagogue that we made the dedication 2 years ago, it was recorded by Israeli TV Journalist from Israeli TV Channel 10, the Jewish Family in my town was converted to Christianity and Islam about 50 years ago, now we only have a few Jewish descendent with Jewish soul, but we have one Jewish grave from 1933, it belongs to Mr. Sadka Ezikel a Bagdadi Jew, I just can said that, my town located in North Celebes [Sulawesi] Islands, its takes 3 hours from Jakarta (sic).”
Yaacov’s own journey started abruptly in 1999. He was discussing the bible with his maternal great aunt when she blurted out she was Jewish.
“I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I just said to her, no, no, you’re kidding. It was a big shock. I didn’t sleep that night.”
No one in the family had ever spoken about their Jewish heritage because Jacob, Yaacov’s great-grandfather (from whom he adopted his Hebrew name), had long since warned the family of the dangers of openly practicing Judaism in Indonesia.
“Indonesia is a very religious country,” Yaacov explained. “You cannot not be something or people will think you are weird. So my family assimilated and converted to Catholicism.”
Seating at Beth Hashem Synagogue
Yaacov Baruch alone in his shul
Religion has an immense influence on political, cultural, and economical life in this vast nation. Some 90% of the population practice Islam but Manado is a Christian stronghold. Churches stand on nearly every corner and 80% of the city’s 500,000 souls pray there.
“Many Jewish mix family in my town,” Yaacov told me by email. “They are family Ezekiel, Bollegraaf, van Beugen, Schraam, Joseph, Elias but now only their descendant, their parent went back to Netherlands, but the descendant already being a Christian, Catholic, Moslem, only 2 people practise Judaism (sic).”
In a land where Jews are potential targets of violence and where laws fail to protect their beliefs and practices, it’s no wonder there are only a handful of Jews left in the entire country. Everyone, it seems, wants to keep a low profile. Yaacov is an exception.
“Most definitely it is easier for me here than Surabaya or Jakarta,” Yaacov acknowledged. “I’ve even been out a few times with a kippah. On Shabbat, I dress Chasid.”
Most of his friends and colleagues also know he is Jewish. “I haven’t had any troubles,” he said in response to questions about his personal safety.
Yaacov’s family lineage is complex. His paternal great-grandmother was of mixed Dutch-German parentage. His maternal great-great-grandfather, Elias Van Beugen, was from Den Haag, Netherlands.
“He was a convert before he came to Indonesia, before 1900,” Yaacov explained, “because, based on what my great aunt said, every Dutch man who was working for the Dutch Government must become a Catholic or Christian. He had been working as a controller in the Dutch government at that time.”
Elias later married an Indonesian from Manado. His son, Jacob, married an Indonesian too. They had six children: Leo, Sylvia, Louise, Johan, Fredrica, and Johny. Sylvia is Yaacov’s grandmother. Yaacov’s mother is Muslim. But Yaacov was raised a Christian, like his father.
“When I found out I was a Jew, I didn’t know anything,” Yaacov explained over coffees in a US-style shopping mall. “I didn’t know what is Shabbat or kosher. I learned everything from the internet. I googled everything Jewish for one year. My uncle gave me my first kippah. He used to live in the US and Israel. But I made tefillin and tallit myself.”
Yaacov seated beside the grave of Elias Van Beugen
He also rewrote his family history -- in stone. Yaacov wanted Hebrew inscribed on Elias’ grave. “My family showed me the grave before 1999 without his name on it,” he said. “There was only a big cross in the middle. I was told the name on the stone was stolen in 1960 because the stone is very expensive, with Star of David. So after 1999, I removed the cross and put Elias Van Beugen with Star of David. Of course, I did this with the permission of my Van Beugen family.”
After a solid year of Judaic study and genealogical research, Yaacov was all dressed up but had no where to pray. Then, one day in 2004, he received a call on his cell phone from a Mr. J. P. Van der Stoop.
“He is a gentile,” Yaacov explained. “His wife is Indonesian, from Sumatra, and he heard about my Dutch Jewish group from their family in Jakarta. They said they wanted to help me build a synagogue. They said it was a sign from God.”
The timing could not have been better. Leo Van Beugen, Yaacov’s great uncle, had a house in a village outside Tondano City, about an hour’s drive from Manado, and he had been looking for a buyer.
“My uncle was very happy to sell the house and let me build a synagogue,” Yaacov said. “The Van der Stoops came here to buy the house in July 2004 and we opened Synagogue Beth Hashem on September 2nd, on the second day of Rosh HaShanah. At that time, I was working 24 hours a day. No sleep.”
The road to the synagogue is a twisting, up and down ride through lush tropical green. Close to Yaacov’s home, in one of those hairpin bends, is Elias’ grave (the only other Jewish grave here is that of Sadka Ezikel, an Iraqi who married a local woman). It’s a busy route that threads numerous villages together. After all the emails and anticipation, I was excited to be on my way to visit this homemade synagogue.
“I built the house in 1996,” explained Leo Van Beugen, Yaacov’s great uncle, over lunch. “I built it in the style of a home in Israel.” The sprightly 67-year-old spent several years in the US, Holland, and Israel working mainly in tourism. “I lived in Jerusalem. It was wonderful.”
Leo Van Beugen with his great-nephew Yaacov
An hour later, Yaacov pulled onto the shoulder and switched off the engine. “This is it,” he said. From the outside, with its sloping roof-to-ground red shingles, the house appeared more like a barn than a synagogue. A gardener was tending to some weeds in the ample yard.
There are no markings at all that it’s a synagogue.
“The government is crazy here,” Yaacov explained. “I cannot write that I am Jewish on my official papers but I can have a synagogue. I want to put a sign or Star of David but I haven’t yet.”
Yaacov kissed the mezuzah as we entered the foyer/office from a side door. I realized later that the Aron Hakodesh is placed behind what are really the front doors. The sanctuary is spacious, airy, and bright.
“There were two floors,” Yaacov explained. “But to make the synagogue, we took out the second floor.”
Plaque honouring the Van der Stoops
While I spent some time just admiring the synagogue and preparing my camera gear, Yaacov wrapped himself up in a tallit and started to pray. As he did, I considered how easy it is for me to be a Jew. By dint of my pure Jewish bloodline, I don’t have to work at it. Yet, before my eyes, I was watching a man who has had to work very hard at being a Jew.
In September 2006, Yaacov went to Singapore for the first time. It was, in fact, his first trip outside Indonesia. It was perhaps his biggest ‘Jewish test’.
“I went for Rosh Hashanah,” he told me. “They were very kind and humble to me. They totally received me as a Jew. They even counted me in the minyan. I davened in Magen Aboth Synagogue and Chesed-El Synagogue. But I have a connection with Chabad Lubavitch because I feel that Chabad is very welcome and open to help me to learn and practice Judaism.”
Yaacov’s indefatigable spirit is inspiring. His rebirth and his self-discovery are heartwarming. Clearly, he is a young man on a mission.
“I want to build a place for Jews and Israelis to pray and feel comfortable,” Yaacov said.
To date, some two dozen people, including Israelis, Americans, and Europeans, have made the pilgrimage to Beth Hashem. But Yaacov’s biggest dream remains elusive.
“Of course,” he told me, “I want to go to Israel. It’s my dream. But I need to win the lottery.”
Yaacov’s dreams are big. I think resurrecting the family’s Judaism and building a synagogue are huge. A trip to Israel just seems like the cherry on the cake. And he has inspired, or at very least, stirred, the Jewish connection in his relatives.
“I am very proud of Yaacov,” boasted his Uncle Leo. “And I am happy that he is accepted in Singapore.”
Leo then leaned in closer to me and confided, ”I’m still a Jew deep in my heart.”
Supplied by: photojournalist Jono David, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library email: