Family of Karaite Jews Tries Homesteading in the Lower Peninsula
By Barbara Lewis
Photos courtesy of Eric and Ashley Wormsley
Like the ancient Israelites, they’ve come “out of Goshen” and found their promised land. For the Wormsley family, paradise is a 10-acre wooded site near Farwell, pretty much smack in the middle of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
Eric and Ashley Wormsley and their six children, age 2-18, sold their house in Florida and spent many months looking for their ideal homestead. They moved into their three-story geodesic dome house in October. Baby Tovia, the seventh child, was born a few weeks later, bringing their family to nine.
Despite being so far away from the organized Jewish community, the family tries hard to live an observant Jewish life. Eric, 49, was born Jewish but says his parents were “very secular.” Ashley, 35, grew up in a Protestant family; when she met Eric, she said, she knew she wanted to be Jewish.
She has not formally converted. She and Eric gain most of their Jewish knowledge from reading, from online resources such as alphabeta.org, and from the Torah itself. They regard themselves as Karaite Jews, following the strictures laid out in the Torah but not many of the laws and practices from the Talmudic/rabbinic period.
For example, Karaite Jews recognize patrilineal descent. The Karaites stem from an ancient sect that split from mainstream (Rabbinic) Judaism around the 7th century CE. (See bottom of page for more information).
For Eric, originally from New York, wandering in the wilderness took less than 40 years — but it was close. He joined the Navy after high school to see the world, worked as an electrician and visited 13 countries. In 1991, while serving in the first Persian Gulf war, he developed an epilepsy-type disorder that causes seizures and numbness; he received a medical discharge. The Veterans Administration now regards him as permanently disabled.
Ashley was born at Providence Hospital in Southfield but moved away as a young child. The Wormsleys met in Colorado, where their families were neighbors. They married while Ashley was still in her teens. Eric graduated from Colorado State University and Ashley got an associate’s degree. They started having children.
They moved to Kansas City, where Eric earned a degree in chiropractic medicine. He practiced for a while but gave it up when his brain disorder affected the feeling in his fingers.
The growing family moved to Florida, where they lived for 10 years. Eric taught anatomy and physiology at a nursing college. The older children — Naomi, now 18, Hannah, 16, and Samuel, 13 — attended a private school when they lived in south Florida. When they moved to Pensacola, Eric and Ashley were unhappy with the schools and started homeschooling.
Finding A New Home
A few years ago, they began to feel Florida wasn’t right for them. It was too hot, home- schooling regulations were too strict and land was expensive. They wanted to find a place that had four seasons, liberal homeschooling laws, good benefits for disabled vets and acreage they could afford on their limited budget, where they could be as self-sufficient as possible.
They sold their Florida home in early 2018, bought a trailer large enough to sleep eight and a van strong enough to tow it and began traveling.
They thought they’d found a place in Colorado, close to Ashley’s family, but the deal fell through and they started having second thoughts about the state.
“We arrived here (in Michigan) in June and almost immediately realized we loved the state,” Eric said. They just had to find a large house on land they could work at a price they could afford. As soon as they saw the 2,700-square-foot dome on West Herrick Road, they knew that was the place.
Homesteading is a lot of work, as is caring for a family of nine. The Wormsleys live frugally, depending on Eric’s VA benefits and income from ads on their YouTube channel, Out of Goshen, a vlog — video blog — they started when they decided to leave Florida.
Eric posts a new entry almost every day except Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and the family has amassed a following of 19,000 viewers. Dozens of fans sent housewarming and new-baby gifts.
“We were visiting my family in New York and we went into a kosher restaurant and someone recognized us from the channel,” said Eric. “That was pretty cool.”
Ashley keeps detailed lists and every week — she’s trying to get it to two weeks — the family drives a half-hour to Mt. Pleasant to shop. They frequently order food and supplies via Amazon. Even to run out for milk at the nearest grocery involves a trip of several miles along an unpaved road.
Once a month, they travel to the Detroit area to buy kosher meat, cheese and other products hard to find in mid-Michigan. They look for Jewish events and activities they can do at the same time. In November, they went to Congregation Beth Shalom’s Chanu-Con and enjoyed meeting members of the local community.
Looking To The Future
Their plans for next year are modest: expand the existing organic garden; harvest fruit from the half-dozen apple, peach and cherry trees; and build coops for chickens, both for meat and for eggs. Ashley killed chickens as a farm girl and wants to learn to do it the kosher way. The Wormsleys also hope to raise turkeys and maybe goats. Eric bought a tractor to plow out the garden and purchased more than 300 packets of non-GMO seeds, including many heirloom varieties.
They put in a wood-burning stove to help heat the house. Eric is still able to do a lot of the work, though he has occasional seizures and has some trouble walking because of the numbness in his legs.
When they’re not doing formal schoolwork — from books or online programs — the older children help by caring for the younger siblings (David, 6, Jenna, 4, Corban, 2, and baby Tovia), cooking, cleaning and doing laundry. Naomi, who loves to write, is preparing college applications. Hannah enjoys baking and all kinds of arts and handicrafts; she recently started her own YouTube channel, That Creative Bug. Samuel likes to be hands-on with wood-working and electrical projects. He loves the outdoors and is looking forward to gardening as soon as spring comes.
Since moving to Michigan, the Wormsleys have relied on each other for social relationships. Eric and Ashley are hoping to find activities nearby where the children can meet others their own ages. They’re also looking at Jewish camps for the summer.
What is a Karaite?
Imagine some of the ways your life would be different if you accepted the validity of Torah law but not of the Talmud, also known as the “oral law”:
You would eat only kosher meat and fish, because that is decreed in the Torah. But aside from cooking an animal in its mother’s milk — or with a certain kind of fat, which is another way of interpreting the Torah verse — you would not be prohibited from mixing milk and meat.
You would take your shoes off in the synagogue and prostrate yourself during prayer. You would not need a minyan for certain prayers.
You would not light candles for Shabbat because that command is mentioned nowhere in the Torah. And you might not celebrate Chanukah, a post-biblical holiday.
You would follow patrilineal descent, where having a Jewish father, not mother, determines if you’re a member of the tribe. And, if you were a woman in an unhappy marriage, you could divorce your husband.
Jews who follow such practices are known as Karaites, an ancient sect that split from mainstream (Rabbinic) Judaism around the 7th century CE. The movement crystallized in Baghdad, but, for many years, the largest population was in Egypt. The Egyptian community relocated, mostly to Israel, after the Six-Day War.
“Karaite” is an Anglicized form of the Hebrew word karaim or bnei mikra, which means “followers of scripture.”
Karaites, in general, study and respect the Talmud and rabbinic religious rulings but don’t feel bound by them.
Mireille Plotke of Beverly Hills grew up in a Karaite family in Cairo, Egypt, but has not practiced as a Karaite since she left in 1960 at age 16. She is now a member of Congregation Shaarey Zedek. She remembers her family had many customs most Jews would find usual. They did not celebrate Chanukah and did not consider chicken to be meat, for example.
Today, there are probably fewer than 50,000 Karaite Jews in the world, mostly in Israel. The United States has a single Karaite synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel in Daly City, Calif., near San Francisco, with several hundred families. The Bay Area has the largest American Karaite population.
For many centuries, the Karaite community did not recognize converts, a ban that was reversed only recently by the Karaite Council of Sages in Israel. The council authorized the founding of the non-accredited Karaite Jewish University in California in 2006; the first class of converts graduated in 2007, following a year-long course of study. The converts took the oath the biblical Ruth used when she joined the ancient Hebrews.