The history of the Jews in Indonesia began with the arrival of early European explorers and settlers, and the first Jews arrived in the 17th century. Most Indonesian Jews arrived from Southern Europe, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, the Middle East, North Africa, India, China, and Latin America. Jews in Indonesia presently form a very small Jewish community of about 100-550, of mostly Sephardi Jews. Judaism is not recognized as one of the country's six official religions, and members of the local Jewish community have to register as Christian or another recognized religion on their official identity cards.
In the 1850s, Jewish traveler Jacob Saphir was the first to write about the Jewish community in the Dutch East Indies after visiting Batavia, Dutch East Indies. He had spoken with a local Jew who told him of about 20 Jewish families in the city and several more in Surabaya and Semarang. Most of the Jews living in the Dutch East Indies in the 19th century were Dutch Jews who worked as merchants or were affiliated with the colonial regime. Other members of the Jewish community were immigrants from Iraq or Aden.
Between the two World Wars the number of Jews in the Dutch East Indies was estimated at 2,000 by Israel Cohen. Indonesian Jews suffered greatly under the Japanese Occupation of Indonesia, were interned and forced to work in labor camps. After the war, the released Jews found themselves without their previous property and many emigrated to the United States, Australia or Israel.
The social and cultural characteristics of Indonesia contributed to assimilation. Most Indonesian Jews changed their names to Indonesian names. Jews were obliged to change their names and beliefs. Later Chinese Indonesians were forced to change their names as well, but they are still allowed to practice Buddhism in Indonesia.
Religion in Indonesia is regulated by the government. Indonesian Jews face the challenge of declaring a religion on their government ID cards called KTP (Kartu Tanda Penduduk). Every citizen over the age of 17 must carry a KTP, which includes the holder's religion and Indonesia only recognizes six religions, none of which is Judaism. Reportedly, many Jews who have registered a religion have registered as Christians.
An estimated 20,000 descendants of Jews still live in Indonesia, though many are losing their historical identity. Since most Indonesian Jews are actually Jews from Southern Europe and Middle East Area, the languages spoken by them include Indonesian, Malay, Arabic, Hebrew, Portuguese and Spanish.
The Indonesian Jewish community is very tiny, with most members living in the capital of Jakarta and the rest in Surabaya. Many Jewish cemeteries still exist around the country in Semarang (center of Java), in Pangkalpinang in Bangka Island, in Palembang south of Sumatra, and in Surabaya.
A small congregation led by Rabbi Tovia Singer, previously the only rabbi in present-day Indonesia. It operates in conjunction with the Eits Chaim Indonesia Foundation, the only Jewish organization in Indonesia to have official sanction, under the auspices of the Christian Desk, from the Religious Affairs Department of Indonesia.
There was a synagogue in Surabaya, provincial capital of East Java in Indonesia. For many years it was the only synagogue in the country. The synagogue became inactive beginning 2009 and had no Torah scrolls or rabbi. It was located in Jalan Kayun 6 on a 2.000 m² lot near the Kali Mas river in house built in 1939 during Dutch rule.
The home was bought by the local Jewish community from a Dutch doctor in 1948 and transformed into a synagogue. Only the mezuzah and 2 Stars of David in the entrance showed the presence of the synagogue. The community in Surabaya is no longer big enough to support a minyan, a gathering of ten men needed in order to conduct public worship. The synagogue was demolished, to its foundation, in 2013.
Since 2003, Shaar Hashamayim synagogue has been serving the local Jewish community of some 20 people in Tondano city, Minahasa Regency, North Sulawesi. Currently it is the only synagogue in Indonesia that provides services. A tiny local Jewish community remains in the area, composed mostly of those who rediscovered their ancestral roots and converted back to Judaism.