Saturday, October 29, 2011

From Indonesia to Israel by Way of L.A.

Orit Arfa

Last October, when Muslim extremists threatened to burn down the only synagogue still standing in the Republic of Indonesia, Saul Abraham, 69, the synagogue’s caretaker, and his younger brother, Alfred, 66, fled the country.

“We left the same night,” Saul said, in the LAX lounge with his Los Angeles-based relatives, waiting for the flight that will carry the brothers off to what they believe is their only real haven: Israel. Fearing for their lives, the brothers, both retired technicians, booked the first flight to the West Coast via Singapore without any time to pack or say goodbye to friends in their native Surabaya. They were welcomed in Los Angeles by their eldest brother, Jacob (real name withheld upon request), an L.A. resident since 1976, and sister Lily, 67, an L.A. resident since 1990. Lily decided to move to Israel, too.

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“The Islam is very bad there,” Alfred said of Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.

Saul and Alfred are fluent in Dutch and Indonesian and proficient in Arabic. They speak some English and no Hebrew. Jacob, a retired lawyer, served as the family’s unofficial spokesman and translator.

The Muslims never torched the 60-year-old synagogue and the million-dollar property on which it is situated, Jacob said. Indigent Indonesian Jews who are housed on the property protested. The Muslims are expected to leave the synagogue alone in part because it is now under the care of an assimilated Jewish couple whose children are intermarried. An estimated 25 to 30 Jews live in Surabaya today.

The patriarch of the Abrahams migrated from Baghdad to Indonesia in the 1920s, almost by accident. He originally wanted to go to India, but shipping officials misunderstood his destination as “Dutch East Indies.” He settled in the Dutch colony with his pregnant wife anyway, pleased with Jewish presence and opportunities for his import-export business.

During World War II, the Abraham family was placed in a Japanese internment camp, where the father died. While thousands of Jews left Indonesia after World War II, the Abraham brothers remained — until now.

“They came to ask for asylum [in the United States] because they ran away, but they were denied because they could go to Holland,” Jacob said.

The cold Dutch weather and Muslim threats deterred the brothers from finding refuge in Holland. According to Jacob, the Muslims who had threatened the synagogue issued a fatwa (often interpreted as a death warrant) against the brothers that reached Holland.

“They didn’t want to take the chance,” he said.

Because Holland doesn’t accept dual Israeli and Dutch citizenship, the Abraham siblings opted not to be naturalized as Israeli citizens so they wouldn’t lose their Dutch pension. As permanent residents in Israel, they will still receive benefits afforded new olim, including the free flight to Israel. Upon arrival, they’ll stay with two sisters who live near Tel Aviv.

“I like Israel the best,” Alfred said, struggling for the right words in English. “It’s more religious.”
A version of this article appeared in print.

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