Tuesday, 28th November 2023

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

“Lost” Indonesia Jews Recruited to Fulfil Biblical Prophecy

Posted on 16. Nov, 2021 by in Curious Travel

A version of this article appeared in News Decoder, September 4, 2018

Small clan taken to Israel to hasten Second Coming


KISAR, Maluku Islands, Indonesia


This is a story of serendipity, of remarkable zeal born of a lifetime religious quest.  It is a tale of unasked for fame (in a very small pond) for simple people, and of journeys they had never imagined.  All because a determined woman from a distant tribe received a sign from god and suddenly appeared in the orbit of a few unassuming villagers.

The main players in this faraway adventure:

  • Herlewen Hermanus Mauky, the elder of a clan living on the tiny and isolated Indonesian island of Kisar.  Mr. Hermanus, who died in 2012 at the age of 93, was referred to on this predominantly Christian island as “Hermanus the Jew.” Mr. Hermanus, curiously, never claimed to be Jewish.
  • Paulus Mauky, Mr. Hermanus’s nephew, a humble man upon whom the mantle of “the Kisar Jew” has been bestowed.
  • Rumondang M. Sitompul, a woman on a mission.  She is an evangelical Christian from the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a distance from Kisar similar to that of Los Angeles to Miami.  She has made it her life’s work to fulfil Biblical prophecy by gathering the world’s “lost” Jews in Israel and thereby hastening the Second Coming of Christ.

* * *

This seemed like a straightforward reporting challenge.  Go to an obscure, distant Indonesian island. Find the lost Jews.  Get the story. Another quest wrapped up.

* * *

My search for the Lost Jews of Kisar started when I read a passage in Elizabeth Pisani’s book Indonesia, Etc., in which she recounted her several-hour visit to the out-of-the-way Indonesian island of Kisar.  During her whirlwind tour of the small island (about twice the area of Manhattan), Pisani was introduced to Hermanus, who, she wrote, “is said to belong to one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.” That by itself was intriguing enough to warrant a visit, but her following sentence clinched the deal: “A busybody Christian from Jakarta had whisked Hermanus off to the Holy Land the year before in the hope of hastening the Second Coming of Christ.”

Elizabeth Pisani didn’t know the woman’s name, but she was referring to Rumondang M. Sitompul, whom everyone calls Ibu (mother/Mrs.) Ondang. Ibu Ondang’s missionary zeal is based on the Biblical prophecy that the Second Coming of Jesus (and the subsequent Rapture) can take place only after all Jews have gathered in Israel. Her mission is to search the world for “lost” Jews and bring them to the Holy Land.

Rumondang M. Sitompul, center with turban, is a woman on a Biblical mission to hasten the Second Coming. Paul Sochaczewski is on the right.

* * *

I got interested in the Jews of Kisar from a couple of paragraphs in a book.  My life has been like that – I might hear of a curious situation from a casual conversation or see a tantalizing “gee-whiz” filler paragraph in a second-rate newspaper.  These bursts of curiosity are providential, and, like malarial mosquito bites, stay with me for long periods.  Such bits of refracted light have provided the incentives for my search for tiger magicians in Sumatra, the location of Hanuman’s mountain in India, the presence of the Mermaid Queen in Java, the existence of small people, both legendary and real, in Flores.  I’ve searched for “Waltzing Banana Island” in eastern Indonesia and sought white elephants in Myanmar.  Many of these journeys have little social import. They keep me amused. They give me a chance to voyage to unexpected locations and meet remarkable men and women. The ideas generally come quickly, but the realization of the quests need time to gestate, as they compete with other ideas for time, energy, opportunity, and resources; for instance, it took me much of my adult life to find the origin of the mythical Hanuman’s Mountain in northern India. And after several decades I’m still searching for the descendants of Ali, Wallace’s “faithful companion” who accompanied him in Southeast Asia. I’ve got enough unfulfilled quests to last me another two lifetimes.  And who knows what surprises tomorrow’s lunch conversation might bring?

* * *

Kisar island was previously accessible only by boat. Now Susi Air (a private airline owned by Susi Pudjiastuti, the popular Indonesian minister of maritime affairs and fisheries) flies from larger airports to Kisar several times a week, an example of the dramatic improvement in domestic transportation options making life easier for people living on many of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.

Kisar Island is a Manhattan-size speck of land in a largely over-looked corner of eastern Indonesia.

With the assistance of my friend Boetje Balthazar, a native of Kisar who lives in Jakarta and works in the natural gas and oil industry, we took motorcycle taxis to the simple home of Paulus Mauky.

Paulus, 52, was open and welcoming.  His home is simple – cement floor, undecorated cement walls with a few family photos hanging on nails, and faded curtains in doorways. He has curly gray-black hair and smiles easily. The grave of his uncle Hermanus, who died in 2012, sits prominently in his front yard, next to a stone and concrete platform. The stones represent the tribes of Israel, he says. It used to have a menorah sitting on top, but “the kids broke it.”

Paulus Mauky at his uncle Hermanus Mauky’s grave. The tombstone, donated by Rumondang M. Sitompul, includes a Christian cross, but no Jewish symbols. The English version of the Indonesian inscription, from Deuteronomy 32:10: “In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye.”


We talk about Paulus’s trip to Israel, his excitement and trepidation about flying, the buzz of visiting strange countries, and the biggest apprehension of all – what have I gotten myself into? He returned with a few souvenirs.  Ibu Ondang sent him a CD with 3,000 photos of the trip, but it’s misplaced somewhere in the house. No matter, he doesn’t own a computer and has no way to view the pictures.  He has Ibu Ondang’s phone number somewhere, but again it doesn’t matter since he has no cellphone.

I sense Paulus is a bit overwhelmed by the attention, perhaps unsure of my motives.  For a start, I’m a foreigner, and foreigners are rare visitors.  I am accompanied by Boetje, a respected elder of Kisar, which means that I have symbiotic stature. I take copious notes, scribbling in a school exercise book with Batman on the cover, certainly curious behavior.

A few hundred meters away he shows us the construction that locals call the synagogue.

It’s a spotless new bamboo structure, paid for by Ibu Ondang, who has furnished it with a shofar (a traditional Jewish ram’s horn bugle) and colorful banners featuring Old Testament quotations.  A bright golden menorah stands in front.  Ibu Ondang later told me she has purchased a much larger menorah for the site, some seven-meters-tall, which is languishing in the shipping company’s warehouse in Kupang, hundreds of kilometers distant, awaiting delivery instructions.

The “synagogue” has never hosted a Jewish religious service.  A local evangelical preacher uses it for weekly services of the Bethel evangelical congregation, which Paulus sometimes attends.

* * *

I admire Ibu Ondang’s boundless energy to scour the Earth for “lost” Jews. I admire people like her who have quests that consume them and impact every aspect of their lives.  Most people have a series of modest and clear hero’s journeys that generally take a finite amount of time with a clear end point.  Learn to ski. Visit Rome. Lose weight. Watch your daughter graduate from university. Get a job in film production.  Become a doctor.  Climb a mountain. Earn a PhD. Get elected president. Ibu Ondang, however, is on life-long, all-consuming journey.  I don’t agree with her philosophy or her ultimate goal, but I respect her determination.

* * *

In downtown Jakarta I met Ibu Ondang at a modern café next to a movie theatre in an upscale shopping mall. She wore an elegant, black, folk-patterned dress with a stylish grey turban that could have reflected Islamic, Christian, Jewish, or even Hollywood antecedents. She wore a gold necklace featuring the propitious Hebrew word chai (חי), which means “alive” or “living.” She was accompanied by her daughter, son, and a family friend.

Some people go through their entire lives without a higher calling. Ibu Ondang, however, seems to have a regular stream of visions that shape her life and have guided her in developing her evangelical church – the Bethesda House of Prayer.

Her initial vision was to “search for lost Jewish tribes and ask them to come out.” This quest, which started two decades ago, has taken her to China, Japan, South Africa, India, Madagascar, Myanmar, the United States, Poland, Russia, the Ukraine, and to the far corners of her native country of Indonesia. Ibu Ondang, 54, is independently wealthy and uses her own funds for this “special calling.” In pursuit of her goal she estimates she has visited some eighty countries and made the pilgrimage to Israel eighty times.

The Kisar Vision, as I’ll call it, began one night as Ibu Ondang was flying in a chartered plane between the Indonesian part of the island of New Guinea and her distant home in Jakarta.  “I looked out the window and saw a huge flame, like a searchlight, coming from a tiny island far below,” she said. On her return to Jakarta she asked her son to try to identify the source of the light.  “Timor,” he said, referring to a huge island about the size of Sicily.  “No, it was a tiny island,” she said. Finally, based on input from Ibu Ondang and the pilot, her son triangulated the location as Kisar island, which sits to the north of the eastern tip of Timor Leste. It is four times closer to Australia than to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.

Not one to hesitate, Ibu Ondang flew to Kisar.  She arrived at Kisar’s airstrip (the clean and functional airport building is about as big as a suburban living room) with no advance planning other than a dream that she was destined to visit a sacred site and meet spiritual people.  She looked around for transportation.  The arrival of a small aircraft at Kisar usually results in a couple of motorcycle taxis and maybe a public van to carry passengers to their destinations. In this instance, a lone car, one of the few on the island, was waiting.

“The driver asked me where I wanted to go,” Ibu Ondang recalled, as we enjoyed espresso and pastries. “I told him I had no idea, only that I had a vision that a holy man would be waiting for me.”

“Oh, that would be Hermanus the Jew,” the man replied.

The driver was Yohanis Tahinlaru, also a member of the Jewish clan.

And, like in a Hollywood movie, when they arrived at his village Hermanus was waiting in front of his house to receive Ibu Ondang. “He hugged me and cried. He was very emotional,” she told me, “like he had been waiting a long time for my arrival.”

Herlewen Hermanus Mauky, who died in 2012 at the age of 93, was referred to on this predominantly Christian island as “Hermanus the Jew.”

One potential stumbling block was that Hermanus didn’t identify as a Jew.  “He didn’t have a religion but told me he believed in a higher power,” Ibu Ondang said.  “We didn’t have a common language but communicated through a spiritual language.”

Hermanus took Ibu Ondang to sacred places that few people are allowed to visit. On one holy hill she blew the shofar she had brought with her.  “This is a confirmation from the Bible, this is someone sent by our heavenly father,” Ibu Ondang recalls Hermanus saying.

Ibu Ondang said she wanted to take Hermanus and three other members of his family to Israel. Besides Hermanus the group included Paulus Mauky, Yohanis Tahinlaru – the serendipitous driver, and another family member, Jery Mauky.

Imagine.  Hermanus at the time was around ninety-years-old. He had never been further than the provincial capital of Ambon. He had never been on a plane.  He spoke a local dialect and only had a few words of Bahasa Indonesia, the national language.  And while he might indeed have been a spiritual man, he never identified as a Jew.

And there was a serious mundane problem.  Neither Hermanus nor his relatives had Indonesian identity cards, and without identify cards they couldn’t get passports.  Yet Ibu Ondang managed to weave her way through Indonesian bureaucracy and got the men passports in one month, surely a record, which she accomplished, she says, “with god’s help”.

There was a final hurdle.  The local government official refused to let them go.  According to Ibu Ondang the local authority said “Hermanus belongs in Kisar, and we’re afraid he won’t come back.” While indeed that might have been her intention, Ibu Ondang promised that she would bring him, and the other three Kisar residents, back to the island; she established a bank guarantee for that vow.


* * *

I’ve been doing writing this kind of piece most of my adult life.  However, after I left Kisar I had doubts. Did I do enough preparatory homework?  Should I have gone through the laborious process of digging through old Dutch and Portuguese historical accounts for clues? Should I have tried harder to meet possible informant Mr. X or Mrs. Y? Did I ask the right questions?  I got most of the facts, but I don’t think I got the emotion. Why didn’t I ask that question? Did I too easily accept the answers I was given?  Did I step back and try to see the bigger picture?

* * *

Although the population of Indonesia is eighty-seven percent Muslim, Indonesia is a secular country with no state religion.  According to the 2000 census, some ten percent of the country identify as Christian; Kisar itself is largely Protestant. Although Indonesia has no diplomatic relations with Israel many Indonesian pilgrims enter the country legally through Jordan, almost always with an organized group tour.

Ibu Ondang took her Kisar pilgrims on a long and tiring journey.  Grasping their shiny new dark green passports (embossed on the front with the Garuda, the mythical Hindu golden eagle that is the coat of arms of Indonesia) they flew to the city of Kupang. Then to Jakarta. Then to Singapore. And on to Jordan.

And the miracles and visions continued. According to Mrs. Ondang:

  • The first time Hermanus set foot in Jerusalem the earth shook.
  • At the grave of Abraham and Sarah in Hebron, Hermanus wept uncontrollably. When he touched the wall of the tomb the vibration was so strong that Ibu Ondang felt it from several meters away.
  • Holy men made a special effort to meet him.
  • Local officials said he must stay in Israel.
  • Hermanus confessed his sins and asked to be baptized – in the “real” Jordan river, “not the tourist place.”  When he was baptized they noticed three beautiful birds that had not been seen before.

* * *

And then there’s the cultural dimension.  For this story I was speaking with people with different cultural backgrounds, of varying educational levels, a foreigner bursting into their world with a notebook and an intensity that sometimes disturbs even my friends.  Ask anyone a question and the respondent will filter the answer.  Ask a provocative follow-up question and the interviewee will consider various ways to respond. I lived more than a decade in Indonesia and speak reasonable Indonesian, but that’s not the first language of many of my respondents, so our conversations often have to be filtered through one or more layers of interpreters. There is no absolute truth except perhaps for the basic denominators – how do you spell your name (and that’s not a sure thing for a guy who can’t read), how old are you, and how many children do you have. But once I get into the realm of emotions – how did you feel when this energetic woman from Jakarta said she wanted to bring you to Israel? – then the reportage ground gets particularly sticky. Sure, I could, and do, speculate, but that’s not fair to the person with whom I’m speaking.  But perhaps I’m beating myself up too much.

* * *

So, are Hermanus and Paulus and the others of their clans Jews?  And if so, how did their ancestors wind up in Indonesia?

Ibu Ondang says they are remnants of the Tribe of Gad, one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Hermanus is said to have speculated that a large fleet of ships from either India or China sailed through Indonesian waters centuries ago and deposited a Jewish man and woman at each place they stopped.

Another, more likely theory, is that during various visits in centuries past a few Portuguese and Dutch merchants and soldiers of Jewish descent settled in Kisar (and other parts of Indonesia), married local women, and started a now-barely visible lineage of Jews, a fraction of the estimated 20,000 descendants of Jews still living in Indonesia. Ayala Klemperer-Markman, author of The Jewish Community of Indonesia, notes that “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 of Indonesian Jews arrived from the Netherlands, Middle East, Northern Africa and Southern Europe.  [Practicing] Jews in Indonesia presently form a very small Jewish community of about 100-500, of mostly Sephardi Jews.”

Paulus doesn’t know whether he is Jewish.  He has no idea about his family’s history.  Other people I spoke with on Kisar are similarly vague about the origin of these Lost Jews.

Perhaps they are simply another example of Kisar’s magic, with no easily discernible reason for existing. Crypto-Jews, one might call them – Jews who are in the wrong time or place, much like dinosaurs in the Congo or abominable snowmen in Nepal.

In a way it doesn’t matter to Ibu Ondang.  “This is not about the religion of Judaism but about the descendants of Israel.”




Kisar’s effort to achieve global fame

In 2009, Jacob “Jopy” Patty, the regent of Kisar, made an ambitious announcement: Kisar would become a World Spiritual Tourism City.  “The island is like Israel,” he explained, noting that both territories are green and seasonably lush while their neighboring territories are brown and barren. Both Kisar and Israel have sites sacred to major religions. Both Kisar and Israel have a reputation for magic and miracles.  The people of both nations drink wine in festivals, and have strong cultures. People of both lands believe that regardless of where you die your body has to be buried in the place of your birth. And both Kisar and Israel have sheep and goats.

He concluded: Build the appropriate monuments and they will come.

Like many big ideas, this concept was based on a vision, one which was remarkably similar to that of Ibu Ondang’s.

One night in his home in Jakarta, Boetje Balthazar dreamt that he was on a ship sailing from Timor to Kisar. He saw a large cross on a hill and asked the ship’s crew for the name of that place. When he awoke, Boetje called his friend, the mayor of Kisar, and both agreed it was an important confirmation that Kisar is a sacred site of global importance and that the righteous of the world should be invited to visit.

But what would these global pilgrims actually come to see?  What would be a suitable object to attract religious tourists?

The answer, Jopy Patty decided, was a cross. A prominent cross.

I visited the first of Mr. Patty’s constructions. On a scenic hill looking across to Timor Leste, civic authorities, aided by local church volunteers, erected a three-meter-tall wooden cross.  That cross has since been neglected and has crumbled into pieces.  Even in its heyday I doubt it had the crowd appeal of, say, the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.

A few hundred meters away, on an adjacent hill, a second, more ambitious, memorial was built.  Called Taman Meditasi (Meditation Garden), three three-meter-tall white-painted crosses perch near the summit.  The view is magnificent, the space is reasonably well-maintained (a few garbage receptacles would be useful) but it is rarely visited and determinedly mono-religious, hardly the ecumenical pilgrimage destination envisaged by Jacob “Jopy” Patty.

Boetje Balthazar, at the Meditation Garden on Kisar, created by a former regent who wanted to promote the island as a global pilgrimage destination.



Christian Zionism and American politics

So-called Christian Zionism has infiltrated modern geopolitics.

“There’s a segment of Christianity that believes the creation of the state of Israel was the fulfillment of prophecy,” says Christopher Rollston of George Washington University, “and was predicted in both the Old and New Testaments.”

And when U.S. President Donald Trump announced the 2018 move of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv (at the urging of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, an orthodox Jew), he was not only appeasing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but also his evangelical Christian voter base in the United States.  Some eighty percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, according to exit polls, and many believe that an intact, Jewish-dominated Jerusalem is an essential prerequisite for Jesus’s Second Coming. Or, as Ibu Ondang put it, “Salvation comes from the Jewish people.” Pastor John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, delivered the benediction at the ceremony opening the embassy in Jerusalem, and said that he told Trump he would win “political immortality” for the decision to move the embassy.



Indonesia-Israel Relations – up and down, off the radar, quiet cooperation but recently testy

The number of Indonesians visiting Israel, mostly religious tourists, reached 30,000 people in 2013, most of whom added a visit to Israel as part of package tours that focused on Jordan and Egypt.  However, in June 2018 Israel banned entry of visitors from Indonesia in a tit-for-tat retaliation for Jakarta’s move to suspend visas for Israelis following the May 2018 killing by Israel of sixty Palestinian protesters in Gaza.

Indonesia and Israel maintain no formal diplomatic ties.

In 2012, Indonesia agreed to informally upgrade its relations with Israel and to open a consulate in Ramallah, headed by a diplomat with the rank of ambassador.  However, due to political sensitivities this agreement was never implemented.  There currently is no Indonesian representation in either Israel or the Palestinian Authority.

Nevertheless, quiet trade, tourism and security contacts between the two countries have taken place for decades and are ongoing.

In 2015, Israel’s economy ministry reported a significant increase in trade between the two countries, which then stood at about $500 million annually. Indonesia’s main exports to Israel included raw materials such as plastic, wood, coal, textiles and palm oil, according to Middle East Monitor. Indonesia has purchased military equipment from Israel and has sent Navy and Air Force officers to Israel to study covert operations.

According to a 2014 BBC World Service Poll, seventy-five percent of Indonesians view Israel’s influence negatively, with only seven percent expressing a positive view.

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