An evangelical Christian whisks four men from a remote Indonesian island to Israel, part of a life-long effort to gather the world’s “lost” Jews.
(All photos taken on Kisar island in March 2018 by Paul Spencer Sochaczewski)
By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
This is a story of serendipity and of remarkable zeal born of a life-long 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. Hermanus, who died in 2012 at the age of 93, was referred to on this predominantly Christian island as “Hermanus the Jew.” Hermanus, curiously, never claimed to be Jewish.
- Paulus Mauky, 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 fulfill Biblical prophecy by gathering the world’s “lost” Jews in Israel and thereby hastening the Second Coming of Christ.
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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 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 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.
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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 travel 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 Hanuman’s Mountain. 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. Who knows what surprises tomorrow’s lunch conversation might bring?
* * *
Kisar island was previously accessible only by boat. Now Susi Air 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.
With the assistance of my friend Boetje Balthazar, a native of Kisar who lives in Jakarta, 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. In his front yard is the grave of his uncle Hermanus. Nearby is a stone and concrete platform. The stones represent the tribes of Israel, he says.
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. But I am accompanied by Boetje, a respected elder of Kisar, which means that I have symbiotic stature.
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.
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, that affect 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 a 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 theater 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, which means “alive” or “living.”
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.
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 80 countries and made the pilgrimage to Israel 80 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. 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 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. 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 in the air-conditioned comfort of Jakarta. “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.”
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. 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 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 90 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 have been a spiritual man, he never identified as a Jew.
There was a serious mundane problem. Neither Hermanus nor his relatives had Indonesian identity cards, and without identify cards they couldn’t get passports. Ibu Ondang managed to weave her way through Indonesian bureaucracy and get the men passports in one month, 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.
* * *
Although the population of Indonesia is 87 percent Muslim, Indonesia is a secular country with no state religion. According to the 2000 census, some 10 percent of the population identifies 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 in the form of an organized group tour.
Ibu Ondang took her Kisar pilgrims on a long and tiring journey. Grasping their shiny new, dark green passports, 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.
* * *
Consider the cultural dimension. For this story, I spoke 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, 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 reporting 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 had 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.”
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer who has lived and worked in more than 80 countries, including long stints in Southeast Asia. He has written 13 books; the latest, Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia, was published by Explorer’s Eye Press in late 2017. Paul’s next book will focus on his experiences with mediums, psychics and spirits, which seers predict will be published in early 2019. He can be contacted at www.sochaczewski.com.