When Barbara first started thinking about signing up for the OU Israel Adventure to India and was more than hinting that she’d like me to join her, I figured that I at least ought to take a gander at the itinerary. If nothing else, I would have an idea what it was I wasn’t interested in seeing and where it was I wasn’t interested in going. So I started making comments in the margins of the pages she gave me: very interested, somewhat interested, or not at all interested. The activity that got my lowest interest rating was going to a village to meet a congregation of men and women who had collectively abandoned Christianity and were attempting as best they could to live as Jews. All well and good, but the thought of interacting with them in small groups interested me not a whit. What was I to say to them beyond, “What, are you nuts?” Converting to Judaism is difficult enough under normal circumstances, but sooner or later they would most likely have to deal with the Israeli Rabbinate, and that is a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Proverbial spoiler alert: By unanimous consent (that means including me), our visit to Erode was the absolute highlight of our trip. Here’s what went on.
Samuel Devasahayam – along with is wife, Anne – had been the lay minister of a congregation of 3,000 Christians (the Zion Gospel Church was started by his father, William, in 1972). Over a period of time, he noticed what he considered inconsistencies in his belief system, causing him to adopt Jewish practices as he understood them – like keeping Shabbat on Saturday instead of Sunday. What he and his wife did was kept within the family until a day of reckoning came. Their son, Moshe Daniel, came home from school and informed his parents that he was expected to participate in a baptismal ceremony the next day. Samuel had no choice but to come out of the closet. He assembled his flock and informed them of his personal decision to become a Jew. He gave them a choice: either come with him or remain as they were. The congregation split down the middle; half of them remained Christians (some of them quite angry), and the other half began taking baby steps on the arduous path of conversion. Presto-chango, the Zion Gospel Church became the Zion Torah Centre, and folks began to take off work on Saturday instead of Sunday. Somewhere along the way, Samuel met up with the peripatetic Ari G. and the ever-helpful Michael Freund, who sent a young Israeli rabbi and family to work with Samuel and Anne’s group, teaching them Hebrew and basic Jewish practices.
Now the Devasahayam’s are eminently practical folks (He runs a successful printing business in the town). If the group was to accomplish its goal, “Bezart (sic)Hashem we want to come and settle in the Negev and to be part in fulfillment of words of prophet Isaiah ‘That the desert shall bloom & rejoice,’” and if they didn’t want to arrive in The Land and be a burden on the government (Imagine not wanting to be a burden on the government!!!), then they would need an infusion of cash and some demonstrable skills. What to do? Buy some land in the area and, among other things, grow coconuts.
So that would be our first stop, the Zion Torah Centre’s coconut orchard, a large plot of land, away from the hustle and bustle of urban India, away even from the relatively small town of Erode. While most of our group stood and chit-chatted near the entrance of the orchard, I took the opportunity to wander around. I came upon a flock of sheep huddled in a small pen and then an elderly woman, the shepherdess, who came to let them out, free to wander about and graze to their little hearts’ content.
When I rejoined the group, I found out that I was just in time to watch Ari and Ari shecht twenty-nine chickens. Mind if I pass on that one? A number of us whispered to each other that if we were required to kill our own animals, we would promptly become vegetarians! However, all was not lost. At the same time, it seemed, there would be another activity. The women would be celebrating the harvesting of a new crop of rice. They had already lit a bonfire and were boiling coconut milk in earthenware jugs, into which they were adding small quantities of rice, stirring the mixture with wooden spoons and creating something quite tasty. I could not begin to imagine how many generations of local women had done exactly the same – only that we had come thousands of miles to watch a ritual that would have gone on, even if we hadn’t been there to observe.
The twenty-nine chickens had now been duly dispatched, and all that had to be done to turn them into the product we would see at the kosher butcher was to de-feather them. There were lots of locals, men and women, busy plucking away, for nobody wants to eat chicken feathers.
Then it was time to go. Back on the bus. We were expected at the actual Zion Torah Centre, where we would experience a reception that none of us – except maybe for the two Ari’s – could have possibly imagined.