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Thursday, November 21, 2019

A New Torah-Oriented Community

It was only recently that I learnt about a Torah-oriented community in Erode, in the state of Tamil Nadu, in South India. I felt close to them, since we shared a mother tongue, and immediately wanted to visit. Then, I heard that the long-term leader of the group, Samuel Devasahayam, had just passed away. Rather than wait anymore, I decided to go to Erode as soon as possible. I called up Hannah, Samuel’s widow, and she immediately invited me to visit Erode even though it was not even three months since her husband had passed away. I asked about kashrut, and Hannah told me that the community had cooking utensils that were kept exclusively for vegetarian cooking and that they only used them for individuals who kept kosher.

I took a train from Bangalore to Erode on the night of June 7, 2018. I arrived at Hannah’s house in Rangampalayam, about five miles out of Erode proper, in a neighborhood Samuel had named Zion Nagar or Zion Town. I was happy that I would be staying not in the town itself, but rather in a semi-rural area, surrounded by fields and small groupings of houses and stores. I went out in the morning for a nice jog, and was treated immediately to some coconut juice, right out of the nut—a special treat. After, I ate a leisurely and very tasty breakfast of dosais, a typical Tamilnadu breakfast food, a sort of rice crepe.

Samuel’s Story

Hannah told me this story about the history of the community: Samuel Devasahayam was born in 1964 into a rich Christian family. Samuel’s father, himself, was already a Zionist and led daily prayers on behalf of the state of Israel, fasting whenever Jews were in danger, such as during the Entebbe hostage crisis in 1976. His love for Jews did not come out of nowhere. His own grandfather had been an Iraqi Jew, who came to India to work for the government. Eventually, he divorced his wife and moved to England, but the family that he left behind continued its Jewish trajectory. The young Samuel was raised by his father with a deep love of Israel. Although Samuel’s father had founded a Pentecostal church called the Zion Full Gospel Church and was a pastor along with his bank job, Samuel himself did not originally feel any calling from God. In his early 20s, though, he met with an accident that left him with a life-long limp. He took this as a message from God and took over his father’s church at the young age of 22. When he met Anne, he was impressed that she shared his philosemitic feelings. They married and had three children, Moshe (who is now 18 years old); Jerusha, 14; and Rivka, 7.

Samuel had long felt that Christianity was not the way to God. Finally, in 2011, he declared the truth to his community and said that he could not believe in Jesus as the son of God anymore. About half of the community stayed with him. On November 26, 2012, the church was renamed the “Zion Torah Center.” A printed Torah scroll was imported from Israel and a mezuzah was fixed to the door. Samuel and Anne set up a new neighborhood, which they called “Zion Nagar”; all the houses in this small colony would henceforth have a Magen David to indicate their newfound allegiance with the Jewish people. It was Samuel’s dream to lead his people to the Promised Land. Unfortunately, before this could attain fruition, he suddenly died in March 2018.

Shabbat in Erode

The neighborhood where I was staying, is about 90 minutes by foot from Erode, where the Zion Torah Center is located—a bit too far to walk back and forth Friday night and again on Shabbat. So Hannah arranged for me to stay at a very comfortable hotel right next to the Torah Center. Friday evening, a couple of hours before sunset, I was driven to the hotel and settled myself in. I prayed by myself (there was no minyan, of course) in the hotel room both at night and during Shabbat morning and then walked over to the Zion Torah Center. There was a small group of 250 people who had come on Friday night. Men sat in the front and women sat separately in the back. The prayer service consisted of psalms for the most part, chanted in Tamil. On Shabbat morning, in addition to the chanting of psalms, the Torah was also taken out. I offered to read from it and they were very happy for me to do so. Seven people were called up to the Torah, followed by the maftir. The haftarah was read out in Tamil. There was a brief sermon delivered by Moshe, followed by lunch, which had been prepared in the special kosher utensils.

In the afternoon, I met with the children of the community and gave them a brief Hebrew lesson. The students were all very familiar with the Hebrew script, and were very enthusiastic and engaged. After, we played an English word game, which they also really enjoyed. After Shabbat was over, I returned to Zion Nagar.

On Sunday, I visited the farm, which was about 40 miles or so from Zion Nagar and consisted mainly of coconut trees that were used to add to the income of the church and to fund church activities. Samuel had also used it as an experimental location to apply techniques such as drip farming that had been developed and were used in Israel with the idea that he could prepare his flock for the eventual move to the Promised Land. In addition to functioning as a coconut plantation and orchard, there was also enough land and space for use as a meeting place for church gatherings, as well as youth camps. The farm was a fun outing for me, just before I left Erode; at the same time, it was an indication of how serious Samuel was about his plans for his community and how far-seeing he was about where he wanted his family and his followers to be in the years to come.

Encounter With the Erode Community

Since not everybody was able to come on Saturday because many people were not willing to travel on the Sabbath and others had to work, my talk was scheduled for Sunday. There were about 350 to 450 people who came on Sunday and I was quite impressed that so many people had turned out. It was parashat Shelakh and I decided to use the themes in the parasha as my proof-texts, as it were, using some interpretations that I picked up from R. Liebtag’s weekly parasha email. In talking with Hannah, I knew that some of the congregants were unsure about where they stood—they knew that they did not consider themselves Christians. However, at the same time, they also knew they were not Jews, not having undergone a religious and ritual conversion; and conversion aside, keeping all the commandments is no easy matter in India, where the work day lasts from Monday to Saturday and Saturday is often a full day with schools remaining open and important exams being administered on that day. I had to decide what to say to them and how to say it; how the Bible did speak to them, but differently from Jews. I had to keep in mind, however, that this congregation read the parasha regularly and carefully and would not be shunted aside by platitudes; they wanted to hear the word of God from His own book.

Thus, I chose to emphasize the universality of the Jewish worldview. The Jewish God is a God of all humanity, not just a God of the Jewish people. Not all people had the same commandments, of course—Jews have commandments that are different from those of non-Jews, but then men have commandments that are different from those of women, and kohanim/priests have commandments that are different from those of non-kohanim. But in a key point, all humanity is united before God and have the same status before God. Numbers 15:14 notes: “If a stranger resides with you, or those among you in future generations, and he offers up a fire offering of pleasing fragrance to the Lord, as you make it, so shall he make it. Similarly, in the next verse, we read: “One rule applies to the assembly, for yourselves and for the stranger who resides [with you]; one rule applies throughout your generations just as [it is] for you, so [it is] for the stranger, before the Lord.” This establishes that worshipping the Lord is accessible both to Jews and to the non-Jewish stranger residing with the Jews. I emphasized to them that if their destiny was to become Jews and go to Israel, then He would help them fulfill that goal. If their destiny was to remain in Erode and worship the One God as fellow-sojourners, that was an equally desirable goal, since God would be with them in either case.

What’s to Come?

I have continued to be in contact with Hannah. Moshe has shown himself as possessing the potential to follow in the footsteps of his father. Still, he is only 18. And the followers of the Zion Torah Center are still trying to figure out where they stand with respect to Judaism and Christianity. Whatever happens, the outpouring of seeking and faith in the One God that I encountered in Erode has convinced me that the movement will only move closer to God.

By Meylekh Viswanath


Meylekh Viswanath is a professor of finance at Pace University. He speaks many languages and has travelled all over the world. An area of intense interest for him is to understand religious Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist texts using economic analysis. He has published economic analyses of sugyas in Bava Metsia and Gittin.