You get into trouble with a daily blog on a long trip. 2 days ago, I wrote about how great a day we had on Monday visiting the Bnai Menashe. I said there were no words to describe it- well, you can read it for yourself. So now I am here late Wednesday night in my hotel room after what really was THE GREATEST DAY of the trip and trying to come up with words to describe the experience we had today.
First of all, a short background. Several years ago, there was a man named Samuel who lives in Erode, a city of 500,000 in Southern India. He was a Christian minister of a congregation of 3000 members and a businessman as well. He began to realize on his own that the Christian teachings he had learned and taught for so many years were just not making sense anymore and the concept of one G-d was something much more sensible. He began to learn about Judaism and began secretly practicing the religion (to the best of his ability) in secret while still leading his congregation. Finally, when his son was about to be baptized, he decided to address his congregation about his feelings of becoming Jewish and asked who wanted to join him to create a new congregation that would attempt to take the necessary steps to becoming Jewish. Half of them agreed to continue to follow his path and so a new congregation was born. Samuel and his wife Anne realized they had little knowledge of Judaism and its authentic practices and searched for help as to how to acquire the necessary knowledge to attempt giyur. They found Ari and Ari and today, we travelled to Erode to meet them.
We awoke this second day Rosh Chodesh to a beautiful outdoor Shachris and a wonderful breakfast catered by Ralphy’s staff. We were able to taste yet another Indian recipe- a bread called Pura along with lots of pineapple and coconut curry. We headed to the buses for the 2 hour ride to Erode.
During the ride, we heard from Ari and Ari about their long and arduous journey towards finding out about the masoret for kosher birds. They also discussed the Halachic process of determining the difference between kosher and non-kosher animals. It was fascinating and enlightening and really made the trip seem much shorter.
Our first stop was at a coconut farm which was a 40 minute ride before Erode and is owned by Samuel and his family. He bought it with the hope that a prosperous coconut crop could enable his family to live well in Israel without being a burden on the State of Israel! We arrived to a heroes welcome at the farm where the coconut trees were painted blue and white and the cows boasted welcome signs hanging from their necks. The farm is called ZIon Farm and it was a real pleasure to meet Sam and his family. I had the opportunity to speak with him about his farm- it has 240 dunam and in a. year can produce 40-50000 coconuts. The last 3 years there was no harvest because of bad weather conditions but with Hashem’s help (his words, not mine!), this year is looking better!
We were treated like royalty- we drank coconut juice straight from the source with a straw (very tasty); we ate a delicious rice pudding; and we were also greeted by 39 chickens who had no idea that Ari Greenspan was about to schecht them for our Shabbat dinner! The really suprising thing that happened was that women from the community plucked and cleaned the chickens and started singing Shalom Aleichem while they were cleaning! After witnessing the schechita, the boys of the local community treated us to a show of dance with fire and bamboo sticks to make it more than interesting to watch.
Recently, Rabbi Yishai Tzur and his wife came to Erode to teach Sam and his congregants some of the basics of Judaism. Four of their five children arrived with them for several months and they are having a big impact on the congregation. Their son joined in the bamboo swinging performance and really did well for a rookie!
We then observed a man act like a monkey and climb his way to the top of a twenty foot tree to knock down some coconuts for us. His feet were gripping the sides of the tree like his hands would- it was a unique thing to watch. We left the farm to head to Erode for the main center of the community and were presented with pens made of eagle feathers as a keepsake to remember our visit.
And then came the amazing thing- we arrived at the center and HUNDREDS of people dressed in their finest clothes with a red carpet leading into their building. They were so excited that a group of Jews were coming to visit them that they literally spent weeks preparing for us to come. We really felt like VIPs in every sense of the word as we were escorted into the building with great excitement and smiling children and adults.
We were overwhelmed with their affection and warmth- one of the members of our group really summed up my feelings the best when he said “I hope we are worthy of the honor they are bestowing upon us.” They are treating us like royalty because the Torah says we are royalty- G-d’s people and every one of us felt humbled by the incredible show of love that we were honored to have from these people.
We spent hours there- much longer than anticipated! We had a choir performance, a dance performance, a fantastic lunch supervised by Rabbi Yishai, a Brit Milah performed by the wizard of everything, Ari G. and a Bat Mitzvah celebration!! Wow, no wonder we were there so long.
We danced with them; we hugged and kissed them; we connected with them. By the time we headed for our bus, we felt so uplifted by these very special people, who as Rabbi Yishai told us, were always happy and positive despite very difficult economic circumstances. Many of our group were honored to present different members of the community with the Tfilla for the State of Israel designed by the OU in 3 languages – Hebrew and two Indian languages- and they were thrilled to receive it. We waved goodbye after making a quick stop at Samuel’s house and although exhausted, we all felt changed somehow after this extraordinary experience.
We spent a while on the bus using the intercom system to share our feelings about the day. There was a range of feelings expressed- one man thanked his wife for dragging him on the trip! Another said he felt he had met people who had the spirit of Avraham Avinu who recognized G-d’s presence without any outside intervention. There was a general spirit of humility in the air as we all realized the high regard that these special people had for us. Rivki quoted from Tehillim Chapter 47 which we say before Shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana. “All the nations clap their hands; they call out to Hashem with joy. Because Hashem is wondrous and the G-d of all the world” These extraordinary people in the middle of a country filled with Avoda Zara were able to recognize the truth about Hashem and his people- we all hope that our own brothers and sisters can do the same.
Heading to the Southern tip of India tomorrow early- we will be blogging tomorrow from Cochin!
Thoughts on the visit to Zion Torah Center:
The enthusiasm, love, and adulation showered upon us by the members of the Zion Torah Centre are a challenge to us to live in a way that actually matches their expectations. We represent Torah, Israel, and Hashem to them. Now we have to strive to be worthy of that.
“The encounter with Samuel,Anne, and their congregation was a transcendent experience. Until now, we were the recipients of many great experiences but at Bnei Zion, we were participants as well.
Yesterday we all shared an experience that bonded us. Assuredly when we will cross paths in the future we will feel a sense of kinship from the spiritual experience we shared “