“The Sabbath is on Saturday not Sunday” – the incredible story of the Zion Torah Center in India’s “Turmeric City”

by Brian Blum on October 4, 2015

in Israel,Travel

Magazine coverThis article was the cover story in The Jerusalem Post Magazine on Friday, September 25, 2015.

Indian Pastor Samuel Devasahayam of the Zion Gospel Church was devastated: his elder sister Sheela, a Mother Theresa-like figure who had devoted her life to serving those in need – had passed away at the age of 60 and the entire city of Erode – close to 7,000 people – had had come out for the funeral. All 3,000 of Samuel’s own community were in attendance as well and the pastor knew he had to deliver the sermon of his life.

Standing before them, on an already hot and humid Indian day in April 2011, tears welling up in his eyes, he held the microphone tightly in his hands and shared stories of sister Sheela’s devotion; how she never married or had children but cared for the community’s widows and orphans and secretly delivered rice to 100 needy families every day. Sheela represented everything that was good about this close-knit Christian community, Samuel said. And then, as a seeming non sequitur to the assembled mourners, he dropped an unexpected bombshell, one that had been welling up inside him for nearly ten years.

“My friends, I have to tell you something very important,” he said, facing forward. “Sunday is not the correct day of the Sabbath. The Sabbath should be kept according to the custom of the Jews, beginning on Friday night at sunset and ending Saturday when the sun goes down again.”

Samuel’s congregants from the Zion Gospel Church were stunned. What was their pastor implying? Was it just that their day of rest was wrong? Or was he suggesting something bigger about God and their religious faith as a whole? No, he must be speaking out of his sorrow, the people concluded.

But Samuel, 51, knew exactly what he was saying. Since 2001, Samuel, his wife Anne, Samuel’s two sisters and the Devasahayam’s children had all been living a secret Jewish life, keeping the laws of the Torah to the best of their limited knowledge at the time. Samuel had come to the conclusion that Judaism was the true path to God and the family had begun keeping Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, and kashrut secretly. But he was too fearful to reveal his inner truth, concerned about the fallout, both personally and for his community.

And indeed, there was fallout. After the funeral was over and in the months to come, congregants approached Samuel to ask more questions. “’What do you mean by that, Pastor,’ the people would ask,” Samuel’s wife Anne recalls. “’Do you mean that Jesus is not God, Pastor?’ And he would answer yes. ‘And do you mean we should keep the Sabbath on Saturday too?’ Yes, he would say.

Eventually the people agreed. Well half did; 1,500 congregants left the church. Those who remained said, “We have known you for many years, we know your character, we see how you are with the people. So whatever you say, it must be true,” Anna continues.

Jewish star in Zion neighborhoodThe church was renamed the Zion Torah Center, mezuzot were affixed to members’ doorposts, a Torah scroll was imported, and Stars of David appeared throughout the new “Zion” neighborhood which Samuel and Anne set up after some Christians in Erode – which is known locally as “Turmeric City” – refused to continue renting to members of the Zion Torah Center.

Today the community comes together every Shabbat where Samuel leads them in a full prayer service that would be familiar to Jews anywhere else in the world. The men wear white shirts and kippot, the women sit on the floor in long white dresses and saris with their hair covered. There is Kiddush (with Samuel’s own “kosher” wine) afterward, and the community is well versed in traditional Shabbat zemirot (songs).

The adult men even took it upon themselves to get circumcised. (Their children have it easier, with a version of a brit mila at eight months. “The doctors are afraid to do it on the eighth day,” Anne explains.) Samuel and Anne send out a weekly SMS with the times for Shabbat candle lighting and havdalah at the day’s conclusion. At least one community member – Samuel and Anne’s son – wears Tefillin during weekday prayers. A giant sukka is built on the roof to celebrate the fall holiday.

The community’s long-term goal: to convert to Judaism fully and perhaps even make aliyah to Israel.

How did this remarkable community, located far inland, an eight hour twisting turning ride from Cochin deep in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, turn to a Jewish lifestyle? The story begins with Samuel’s father, a pastor himself, who in 1972 founded the church along with a club called Friends of Israel. The church was fervently Zionist from the start, with daily prayers on behalf of the State of Israel and fasting whenever Jews were in danger (for example, during the Entebbe hostage crisis or the trials of Prisoners of Zion in the USSR). The church focused almost exclusively on the Hebrew Bible rather than the New Testament.

Samuel describes his father as a “strict disciplinarian. He’d tell me if I don’t memorize the Ten Commandments, he wouldn’t give me any food. He wouldn’t let me watch TV or read the newspaper – he said it would ‘spoil me’ – but he’d cut out clippings about Israel and put them in my lunchbox.” When Samuel’s mother wanted to send him to a Christian bible school at age 12, his father said no. “If you want to understand the bible, you have to wear ‘Jewish spectacles,’ my father would insist,” Samuel says.

(There is actually a Jewish connection in the family. Samuel’s great, great grandfather was an Iraqi Jewish man who came to India to work for the British government and married a local woman. “He had a big kippa with fur,” Anne recalls. “We kept it for a long time until the fur fell off. It was more than 100 years old, but we cherished it.”)

Samuel’s father died when Samuel was just 14-years-old. Samuel’s mother and his sisters Sheela and Wilma ran the church and the Friends of Israel club for several years. The young Samuel was not interested in following in his father’s path. “I was more interested in physics and science, or maybe becoming a musician,” Samuel says. But an accident left Samuel with a bum leg. “I thought, maybe God doesn’t want me to be a secular fellow and so he punished me. And from that day, I didn’t have any conflict in my mind. I gave all my decisions to God.”

Samuel took over the church and, a number of years later, was courting Anne. “I didn’t know much about Israel back then,” Anne says, “so he tested me with songs. He would play Ofra Haza and Shoshana Damari, to see if I enjoyed them, if the language spoke to me. I loved the music. From that day he understood that I loved Israel too.”

The Devasahayam’s see miracles everywhere. Once in a second hand bookstore, Samuel found a High Holy Days machzor (prayer book). “How can this be?” he thought to himself. A book in Hebrew in the back roads of India! The same thing happened a few years later when he found another book called The Illuminated Manuscripts of the Jewish World in a different second hand shop. “It cost ten rupees, not even a shekel,” Samuel marvels. “This was a present from God for me.”

Zion Torah CenterThe Zion Torah Center community’s connection with the Jewish world often expresses itself in surprising ways. There is a tradition that the community’s leader names newborn children. Samuel has taken to giving them names from a book he acquired of children who died during the Holocaust – names like Bella, Miriam, Hanna and Mendel. “Their teachers can’t always pronounce the names and they can’t even write it in Tamil,” Samuel says. “But we just gave them the exact names. To keep the memory alive.”

Samuel and Anne were quick to take on the custom for themselves. Their children are named Moshe, Jerusha (from Jerusalem) and Rivka, who was born on November 26, the same day that Chabad emissary to Mumbai Rivka Holzberg was murdered in that city’s horrific 2008 terror attack. “We wrote to Chabad and they were very happy that there was a little Indian girl named after their Rivka,” Anne says.

One reason the Zion Torah Center community took to Jewish practice so quickly, Samuel says, is that nearly 60 percent of them were already keeping “some kind of Jewish ritual” as members of the Chettiar caste.

A mercantile caste in southern India, the Chettiars have a number of “Jewish” customs, Samuel explains. “They light candles on Friday night and keep a kind of Shabbat. On Friday afternoons they wash the whole house. On Hanukah, they light clay oil lamps. When a woman niddah [that is, she has her period], she sits in a different part of the house, outside under a portico, for seven days and must take a bath in the well before re-entering the home. Teenage Chettiar boys go through a rite of passage into manhood that includes donning a shawl and “sacred thread” before proceeding to conduct a festive ceremony at the local temple..

A year ago an archaeologist working in Chennai found Jewish graves inside a Chettiar cemetery, Samuel adds. “That’s just not possible! Cemeteries in India are strictly divided according to caste.” He speculates that, as businessmen and travelers, the Chettiars may have had closer links with other Jewish Indians and adopted some of their customs over time. He isn’t suggesting that the Chettiars have actual Jewish ancestry.

When Samuel made his bombshell announcement at his sister’s funeral, there was another prompt: his son Moshe was approaching the age when it was expected he’d be baptized. But Moshe was increasingly uncomfortable. He finally blurted out to his father, “Abba, I can’t be baptized. I’m Jewish!” That gave Samuel the courage to finally reveal his truth.

Samuel’s dream for the future of his community is to make mass aliyah…to Israel’s Negev desert. He cites Isaiah’s prophesy (Isaiah 35:1) that the children of Israel would help make the desert bloom. He knows that Israelis have been doing just that for decades. “Still, there’s a lot of desert area, so let our community be part of the dream,” he implores.

There’s only one problem: Erode is not a farming community. “We are mostly textile workers, doctors, engineers,” Samuel concedes.

Coconut farmSo the Devasahayams purchased 100 acres of land and planted 3,500 coconut trees. “Every month, we invite people from the community to come and work in our farm, to get hands on experience with agriculture, to be ready to work in the Negev,” Samuel explains. And just to be extra prepared, the farm is watered by Israeli-made drip irrigation.

The coconut farm is part of Samuel and Anne’s income, which also includes running a local printing press. A Jewish calendar with all the holidays – written in Tamil – is one of their prized products. Samuel also prints small booklets for every Jewish festival, including their own Passover Haggadah. Their son Moshe serves as book designer and editor. Several hundred copies of each have been printed.

Samuel and Anne are under no illusions that converting to Judaism, let alone immigrating to Israel, will be easy. The members of the Zion Torah Center have no formal Jewish roots. They are not in the same category as the Bnei Menashe, the Indian tribe that claims descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes, but are rather more like Uganda’s Abayudaya, whose Christian leader Semei Kakungulu adopted Judaism in 1919.

“But God can do wonders, there could be another Exodus,” Samuel says. “You would never have believed the Hebrews could get out of Egypt. But when God wanted to bring them to Israel, nothing could stop Him, not even the Red Sea. God will definitely bring us, I’m sure of it.”

That would allow the community to realize another dream: “To contribute 100 new IDF soldiers,” says Anne. “If you ask a child here what he wants to become when he grows up, he will say a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces.”

Meanwhile they have to contend with bureaucracy back home. For example, they don’t yet call the Zion Torah Center a “synagogue,” even though it acts like one. “We need to get permission to build our own cemetery first,” Anne says. “Otherwise if we move too fast, we’ll lose permission to bury our dead in the Christian cemeteries. And the alternative [the Hindu custom of burning the dead] is against the Torah!”

We caught up with Samuel and Anne on the tail end of a three-month visit to Israel – the longest of Samuel’s five trips to the Holy Land (Anne has made three) – where they were studying Judaism and taking a daily Hebrew ulpan. “We do everything according to what we know from the Torah,” Anne explains, “but there are so many more rules in the Mishna. We have simple kosher, we know not to cook milk and meat together, but we didn’t know what to do when, say, some meat falls into a milk pot. Every time we come, we learn a little bit more.”

Michael Freund, the chairman of Shavei Israel, a non-profit organization which works with “lost” tribes and “hidden” Jewish communities around the world, including India’s Bnei Menashe, has met with the Devashayams several times during their visits to Israel. They have invited him to visit Erode later this year.

“Samuel and Anne are two very sincere seekers of spiritual truth who have made enormous personal and professional sacrifices in order to embrace Judaism,” Freund says. While emphasizing that contemporary Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, Freund adds that if the Devashayams “have taken the first step of their own volition and sincerely wish to join the Jewish people and live a Jewish life, then I believe we should assist them. They clearly have a thirst for Jewish knowledge and are anxious to deepen their familiarity with Jewish history and tradition.”

India in general moves at a slower pace than the frenetic West, but there is one clock that’s ticking fast in the Devasahayam household: 15-year-old Moshe is considering his options in the next few years. “More than anything, he wants to learn in an Israeli yeshiva,” Anne says.

Will it be possible? More improbable things have happened in the small town of Erode, with its ever-present Jewish Stars and the sound of Hebrew mixed with Tamil on a muggy Saturday morning.

Sidebar: Bnei Ephraim also want to join the Jewish people

Erode’s Zion Torah Center is not the only community in India without formal Jewish roots that is eager to join the Jewish people. Some 750 kilometers to the north, in the Indian state of Andra Pradesh, 120 families call themselves the Bnei Ephraim, claiming descent from the biblical tribe of Ephraim, one of Joseph’s two sons.

Like the Zion Torah Center community, the Bnei Ephraim was founded by a Christian preacher. Pastor Shmuel Yacobi was living in the small village of Kottareddipalem when he visited Israel as a tourist in the early 1980s and became convinced that his ancestors were actually Jews who, after being exiled from the Land of Israel, traveled through Afghanistan and northern India before settling in an area called Nandial. Known locally as Telegu Jews, Yacobi says that the Bnei Ephraim always had certain mysterious customs that can be found in Judaism, including burial, marriage, coming of age (bar mitzvah) and family purity laws.

Shavei Israel has helped the Bnei Ephraim as well, sending teachers to India, arranging for members of the community to visit Israel, and translating books about Jewish practice into the Telugu language.

The Bnei Ephraim today keep Shabbat and kashrut and take off from work on major Jewish holidays. Several small synagogues have been established. Moreover, Shmuel Yacobi’s son Yehoshua managed to immigrate to Israel in 1993, where he served in the IDF and worked at the Hebrew University library. He lives in Ramat Gan today.

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