New emissary heads to India’s Zion Torah Center

New emissary heads to India’s Zion Torah Center

Tamar, Matan and Yishai Tzur before their departure to India

Tamar, Noam and Yishai Tzur before their departure to India

Tamar Tzur is an Israeli gynecologist. She wanted to add to her skill-set by learning laparoscopic surgery, a technique involving much smaller incisions than traditional methods. The Israeli medical system does not teach laparoscopy, however, insisting that doctors get their training abroad as a way of broadening a physician’s experience. Tamar was poring through hospital websites on the Internet, trying to decide where would be an affordable location when her husband Yishai made a surprising suggestion.

“How about India?” he said. Tamar was skeptical. She was not one of those Israelis who backpacked through Asia following her army service. She’d never even been to India before.

But India was on Yishai’s mind for another reason. Over the past two years, he had gotten to know Samuel and Anne Devasahayam, leaders of the Zion Torah Center in the city of Erode in Tamil Nadu province. In 2001, Samuel came to the realization that Judaism was the truth path to God. Ten years later, he now heads a community of 1,500 Torah-observant Indians. The men wear kippot and are circumcised, mezuzot adorn every doorpost, and the community keeps Shabbat, all the Jewish holidays and the laws of kashrut. We wrote about how the Zion Torah Center came to be in this article.

Yishai had become friendly with Samuel and Anne through a mutual friend, Aryel Tsion, in the village of Sussia, south of Jerusalem, where the Tzurs also live. The Devasahayams would often spend Shabbat in Sussia.

At the same time, Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund was getting to know Samuel and Anne as well, and he decided to send an emissary to Erode to learn more about the community and to provide the in-depth teaching the Devasahayams had to travel all the way to Jerusalem to find.

“What if we combine these two missions?” Yishai asked Tamar. “You could learn the surgery in India and I could work with the Zion Torah Center people.”

Tamar thought about the Devasahayams, their kind yet passionate character, so typical of rural India, and her resistance melted. With the Devasahayam’s help, she found a hospital in Cochin that could provide the instruction she needed. And last week, the Tzur family – Yishai, Tamar and five of their seven children – flew to India to begin one of the most improbably Jewish journeys imaginable.

Yishai Tzur, 41, was born in Brazil but grew up in Jerusalem. He has spent most of his career as a Talmud and Jewish Law teacher in yeshiva and state high schools, as well as in pre-army preparatory mechinot programs.

The Tzurs were greeted as near royalty upon their arrival. The entire community came out to greet them with song, flower garlands and a rather large cake – as you can see in the pictures below.

While in India, Yishai and Tamar will be home schooling their children in Cochin during the week, while spending Shabbat and Sunday in Erode. “It’s an 8 hour drive. India is a big country,” Yishai says with a smile, though it’s clear from his optimistic energy that nothing as mundane as a full day on pot-holed roads will stop him.

Yishai isn’t sure yet what the community needs – that’s one of the reasons Shavei Israel decided to send an emissary – but he figures he will focus on “teaching them how to pray and what are the various halachot (Jewish Laws).”

Although Yishai has never been to India, he has some familiarity with Indians. His brother-in-law works for Shavei Israel, coordinating activities for the Bnei Menashe new immigrants in Acre. “Every time I go there, I pray with them. I like the atmosphere. They are quiet and everybody always comes.”

There is also a community of Jews from Cochin in the Indian state of Kerala who made aliyah in the 1950s and settled in the northern Negev desert, not far from Sussia. “We’ve visited them to find out more about Jewish life in Cochin,” Yishai says.

Yishai and Tamar are not just newcomers to India, but to its food. “I admit, I never tried it before! I told them, don’t start by making it too spicy for us. We’re Ashkenazim after all,” Yishai says, referring to Jews from Europe who have less of a tradition with hot peppers and curries.

Samuel and Anne Devasahayam dream of bringing their community to Israel someday. While that may be a long way off, with the help of Shavei Israel, a little bit of Israel is coming to them.