Consortium of:

Jews at the Frontier

  August 14th 2020

A Sabbath Observation. Virtual minyan was established employing social media to create virtual Jewish community

connecting other members across the country (Photo by: Leonard Chrysostomos Epafras)


July 9, 2020 was the last day of the workshop on Judaism. The first three days of the workshop including presentations by Rabbi David Rosen, discussing many issues within Judaism from the perspective of an adherent. However, for the fourth and final day, the speaker was Dr. Leonard C. Epafras, a member of the core doctoral faculty of ICRS, whose dissertation research focused on the issue of Jews in Indonesia. The title of his presentation was ‘Jews at the Frontier’. The title draws from the reality that the Jewish community in Indonesia is quite geographically distant from the land of Israel. In his presentation, Epafras discussed the history of the Jewish community in Indonesia and the present state of this community. Furthermore, Epafras also shared his experience in teaching Judaism in Indonesian universities and other areas of research about Judaism in Indonesia.

Epafras noted that, based on historical data, there were Jews in Sriwijaya in the 10th century. In the same era, Jews also actively traded in Barus. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were Jews in Indonesia working as translators in Aceh, Banten, and Ambon. By the early 19th century, there were many European Jews from the Netherlands and Germany, known as Ashkenazi Jews, as well as Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal. One famous Jew at that time was Abandanon, who corresponded with Kartini by letter. Still, in the 19th century, there was also a Jewish magazine published in Jakarta, Padang, and Bandung named ‘Erets Israel’. The existence of European Jews in Indonesia was due to Indonesia being considered a safe haven for Jews who were persecuted in Europe. Epafras categorized these as Jews present in pre-independence Indonesia. 

In the independent era of Indonesia, there were several Jews active in the struggle for Indonesian independence. In 1949, David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, acknowledged Indonesia’s independence. Though, President Soekarno did not respond on account of his anti-imperialist attitudes and his perception that Israel was imperialist. However, in 1965, a Presidential Decree allowed Judaism to exist in Indonesia as long as its adherents did not violate the laws of Indonesia. In the present, the emergence of a Jewish community in Indonesia is strongly related to certain evangelical Christians who have a theological leaning toward Judaism. According to Epafras, there are quite many Indonesians who embrace Messianic Judaism. Further, there is a Papuan Jewish community who claim they originate from Peru. In Minahasa also, there is a Jewish community and synagogue. The Jewish communities’ existence in Indonesia is related to a theological idea from Isaiah 45:22 (“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!    For I am God, and there is no other”). In this line of thinking, Indonesia is conceived to be the ends of the earth.

Epafras also shared his experience teaching Judaism from a Christian perspective for Christian student in the Faculty of Theology (UKDW). The framework utilized by Epafras in teaching Judaism is a critical assessment of supersessionism (replacement theology) and an awareness of allosemitism (encompassing both anti-Semitism and Philo-Semitism, treating Jews as other). In the classroom, both paradigms are problematic because Jews are positioned as the ultimate other. Related to the concept of chosen nation, in teaching Judaism, it should be realized that this idea is historical.  Epafras related the teaching methods he used in the class. There are many methods of teaching, like using ‘Sefaria’ an online library of Jewish texts or using Jewish humor to make the learning fun and engaging. Epafras also used academic books and novels available in Indonesian including Agama Yahudi written by Olaf Schuman, Yerusalem written by Karen Armstrong, Malam Fajar by Elie Wiese,  and Namaku Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Lastly, about the potential area of mutual research projects about Judaism, Epafras mentioned some topics: Cairo Geniza (including 4000,000 Jewish fragments/manuscripts discovered in a Cairo synagogue); related to Christianity are the concepts of Binitarianism and Trinitarianism in the Second Temple, and comparative mysticism and Israeli-Palestinian from the three Abrahamic religions’ perspectives.