When a former Church of Christ preacher showed up at the Temple Sinai with his wife, nine children and three goats, a tale unfolder that stretched from deming, N.M. to Israel.

On a lovely day in May 1981, a man with a soft Southwest drawl phoned Marcus Laster, executive director of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation on Military Road in Northwest Washington. The stranger said he was calling from a gas station on U.S. 1 in Virginia and asked if he and his family, on their way to New York, could attend that evening's celebration of Shavuot, the festival commemorating Moses' receiving the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. He also asked permission to park his van on the temple's parking lot overnight. Laster agreed to both requests.

Shortly before sunset, a battered 1963 Ford van with a family of 11 and three goats bleating on a trailer arrived at the parking lot of Temple Sinai.

The strangers looked rural and stereotypically Anglo-Saxon, faces out of "The Little House on the Prairie." "We are Jews," said Claud Lee Moore, the patriarch of the tribe. "We are on on our way to Israel."

Moore had a flowing beard and the friendliness of a politician working a crowd; his wife Larue said nothing. Their nine children, from age 2 to 21, were dressed austerely: four boys in dark trousers and white shirts, and five girls in long-sleeved, ankle-length dresses.

They knew the Hebrew prayers and songs, and they prayed and sang with gusto. The males wore skullcaps, obligatory dress in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues but rare in the Reform branch of Judaism. The father and his eldest son further surprised the congregation by appearing in prayer shawls, seldom seen in a Reform synagogue. All the children were scrubbed and starched for the festival, a holy day that no one present would forget.

Temple Sinai is known in Washington as a social action congregation; good interfaith relations are second nature to its members, many of them leading professionals. They are liberated from the ghetto fear of creating controversy, and they are the only synagogue in Washington to have lent a podium to Palestinian mayors expelled by Israel. But the Moores' unique brand of faith jolted them.

"I was full of immense curiosity about them," says Esther Lipman, a psychiatric social worker who is the wife of the congregation's senior rabbi. "But Mr. Moore was an off-putting man. I tried to talk to the wife and the kids, but they didn't answer me, just looked straight at me. They were cowed, . . . as if the father owned them. Mrs. Moore had no personality, no presence -- no sense of freedom."

"Those people were mixed up," one congregant remembers his first reaction. "If they were Orthodox, what were they doing in a Reform temple?"

Are they Jews or Gentiles? congregants asked one another.

"What lovely looking kids," Rabbi Eugene Lipman recalls as his impression from the pulpit. "Most of them redheads -- and what beautiful red hair! They were all sitting in one row. Mother at one end, father at the other."

After services that morning in May, Rabbi Lipman walked through the parking lot and heard the goats bleating. As Lipman soon learned, the Moores kept goats because the father believed that only a diet of goat's milk would keep alive his youngest child, born two years earlier with a detached esophagus and operated on immediately. "Asa Joel is doing just fine. Praise Yahweh!" Moore declared to Lipman. Moore had decided on goat's milk as a curative because the goat is an animal mentioned frequently and favorably in the Bible.

All 11 slept in the van and were at services the next morning -- scrubbed and starched.

Lipman invited Moore to his office and learned that the family, while passing through Knoxville, Tenn., had met a friend of Lipman's who suggested that they turn to Temple Sinai for help in arranging their immigration to Israel.

Moore jumped at the chance to tell Lipman his life story -- a passage from the evangelical Christianity of the Bible Belt to the Judaism of the eastern seaboard. Lipman, drawn to mysticism and controversial causes, listened.

Claud Moore was born in 1937 in a homestead in Quemado, N.M. He was 1 1/2 when his fa ther left the family that included Claud's brother and two sisters. At age 5 Claud saw his father once, and again at 13, when he returned, fathered another son and then disappeared again. Claud's mother Ora moved from one town to another, taking in laundry, waiting on tables and working in a mattress factory. Claud was not yet 6 when he began to clean yards, shine shoes and pick cotton. By the time he was 13 he worked 60 hours a week. For the next 30 years, he hoed and picked beans, set up and welded irrigation pipes, operated a cotton gin and punched cattle, managed supermarkets and sold automobile tires, built frame houses and installed automatic doors at airports.

"I am an all-around, $10-an-hour carpenter," he says, but adds that preaching has mattered to him most. "The Bible has been my life since childhood," he says. "I was 10 when I started preaching. I memorized a whole chapter -- Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 3. But I only had a high school education. I am an ignorant man."

Moore talks about his 26 years of lay preaching for the Churches of Christ, the evangelical religious group he was born into. "I was cleanshaven then," he says. Between 1972 and 1974 he was a paid, full-time preacher for a group of four congregations, leading revivals across the country. For 10 years he had a weekly half-hour radio show on KOTS in Deming, N.M., where he has lived off and on for more than 30 years.

The turning point in Moore's life came at age 38, in 1975. Through a series of dreams as well as letters from his radio listeners and his younger brother, Claud Moore came to a new understanding of the Bible's message: "Christianity is a total mistake because no such institution was intended by its alleged founder or by the apostles," and Christian holy days are borrowed from pagan practice. When Moore prayed, he began using Jesus' Hebrew name, Yahshua, and, instead of God, he said Yahweh (the name by which God identified Himself to Moses, but which Jews do not pronounce when they encounter it in the Bible, substituting Adonai, the Lord.)

Moore decided that his mission was to tell Christians that their faith is "a Greek falsehood, a sham and a lie," and that Yahshua wanted followers to become Jews. Thus the laws in the Torah were to be observed, and Jewish holy days were to be celebrated. Moore argued that once Christians believed that the Messiah Yahshua was only a Jew and not the founder of another religion, He would come again.

Moore started preaching his theology, but neither the Churches of Christ nor other Christians wanted to hear him. He and his family began attending synagogue services in Odessa, Tex. "In eight months' time we started keeping the pure food laws, the Shabbat, the High Holy Days, the festivals of Leviticus, Chapter 23," Moore says. "We don't mix meat and milk. We butchered our own goats. We bled them correctly, from both sides of the neck, and then we salted the meat. We had a kasher kill."

In 1978, Moore says, "I circumcised myself. That was in DeLeon, Tex."

In 1978, Moore decided that "to live a complete Jewish life," he and his family had to move to Israel. "We bought the six acres of land south of Odessa, Tex." Moore says. "Our purpose was to build a house, sell the property, and use the money to go to Israel."

But, Moore says, because he preached "the truth of Judaism," he lost his job, couldn't find another, and the bank foreclosed on his house. Moore says that after he was beaten up on the street and the Bible under his arm spat at, he concluded that Yahweh wanted him to go to Israel -- "There was no place else to go."

He put his family on his van and the goats in a two-wheel trailer. They first went to Houston, to visit the Israeli consul. He told them that to qualify as immigrants to Israel, they would have to convert to Judais easterm; or, if they remained Christians, they would have to obtain proof of employment.

He drove to ports on the Gulf as well as in Virginia, and even as far as Maine, to get a job on an Israel-bound tanker. But no ship would agree to let his family go along.

Going from one town to another, he visited preachers and university professors. Whenever possible, he called on rabbis. They gave him the same advice: conversion.

"I would convert if the rabbi accepted my faith in Yahshua the Messiah," Moore says. "But not for this whole earth and all that's on it would I give up my faith in Yahshua."

"We traveled through 19 states and slept on the ground for 67 consecutive nights," Moore says. This journey eventually led the family to the parking lot of Temple Sinai.

After Laster told Moore that they were welcome to attend services but that they could not camp on Temple premises, Moore drove his van to a camping ground in Fairfax County and pitched his 10-by-16-foot tent. When that site closed around Labor Day, he found a place in Prince George's County. Then a neighbor reported to the county that the Moore children did not attend public school and that their tent was not fit for subzero weather. "Public schools take your children away from you," Moore says. He says that he provides religious instruction, and eldest daughter Janet coaches each child individually.

Moore found odd jobs -- carpentry, potato-picking, house-building. But wherever he was, for almost every sabbath and holy day between May and February, he faithfully returned with his family to Temple Sinai, driving as long as three hours, even in the snow.

Rabbi Harold White, Temple Sinai's second rabbi, was delighted to have Moore at Bible study classes."He would quote Scripture by chapter and verse the way Christians do," White says. "We aren't trained that way. Our people found themselves defending the legitimacy of Christianity. He would argue against that."

Moore told members of the congregation that he and his family were determined to live in Israel. First he declined offers of charity, but, as he got to know congregants, he accepted small donations -- usually $20 at a time -- from the Rabbi's Fund, which routinely dispenses such charity, and from one member of the congregation.

Accompanied by his eldest son Quentin, Claud Moore visited the Israeli Embassy in Washington where they filed application forms for emigration. "They told us to come back a week later," Moore remembers. "Then again they said, 'Come back next week.' That went on for many weeks."

Rabbi Lipman spoke to Moore about conversion. "But he wouldn't listen," Lipman says. "He wouldn't let me teach him. I kept saying to him, 'Don't tell Jews what a Jew is -- not if you want to be one.'"

In July, Lipman asked a friend in Wayne, N.J., Rabbi Israel Dresner, to arrange meetings for Moore with rabbis and Israeli representatives in New York.

"Mr. Moore," Rabbi Dresner says, "can do anything with his hands, and he could traverse mountains and seas. I put him in touch with three or four rabbis, but they made short shrift of him. He went to see a Lubavitch rabbi, but all Moore had to say was 'Praise Yahweh' and the rabbi knew he couldn't deal with him."

"Moore is a unique individual, very likable, upfront, and I felt a lot of sympathy for him," says Rabbi Kasriel Kastel of the Lubavitch movement. "Some concepts he developed are close to ours. But no rabbi can convert him with those concepts of his about Jesus. He is a very stubborn man. I don't see him as part of our people, but he can be a friend of our people. And, by God, we need friends."

Moore located an American in Jerusalem, Charles Dugger, who shared his beliefs about Yahweh and Yahshua. Moore assured Lipman that Dugger promised him, in letters and onnthe phone, that he meet the Moores at Ben-Gurion Airport with his Volkswagen bus and would take care of the family while Moore looked for work.

In November 1981, Lipman and White began a fund-raising appeal to fly the Moores to Israel. Within two months, more than 30 members of the congregation contributed $3,200. The rest of the money -- $1,700 -- came from the Rabbi's Fund.

Last January, Lipman invited Moore to his office to tell him that the money for the airfare was ready. The Moores were to go as tourists. But the tickets they held were one-way. Moore was to tell the Israeli immigration official processing their passports that his family was to be picked up by a friend who would take care of them. Rabbi Lipman told Moore to keep his mouth shut about religion.

Claud Moore is a truthful man.

After arriving in Israel, he tripped on the first question an immigration official put to him.

Asked how long he and his family planned to stay, he replied: "Forever."

For two days, the Moores were detained in a Tel Aviv hotel while their case of fraudulent entry was investigated. Moore says he was not permitted to call his friends in Jerusalem or in Washington. An Israeli Embassy official acknowledged that Moore's account seemed correct: "The routine is to let such a stranded person make only two calls--his consulate and his lawyer."

The authorities determined that the Moores were not eligible for immigrant status since they were not Jews by birth or by conversion. And because the 11 of them had only $200, they would not be considered tourists. The Moores were put on an El Al plane and sent back to New York. The Israeli government paid for the hotel and the airfare.

Moore denies any anger toward Israel. "The people who turned us back only did their jobs. But it was the biggest letdown in my life."

Just for saying to the immigration official that he wanted to stay there 'Forever,' he should have been allowed to stay," says Rabbi White.

"I thought it had been all arranged with the Israelis," says a prominent Washington surgeon who helped raise the airfare. "I wish Mr. Moore could have called me from Israel -- I could have done something with my connections in Israel. I would have persuaded the Israelis to let the Moores stay.

"I am a practical man. I don't waste time discussing theology, and I din't discuss theology with him. This fellow is not a Jew by the standards of most Jews, but if he settles in Israel, his children will marry Jews and his grandchildren will be indistinguishable from my grandchildren.

"I don't know who is a Jew. A fellow by the name of Abe Levy who calls himself a Jew for Jesus -- is he a Jew? Because of his Jewish mother? Is he more or less of a Jew than Moore? A Jew who works for the PLO but never becomes a Moslem or a Christian -- is he a Jew?"

"Many of our members are upset that money was spent to send a Christian family to Israel," says Laster, the temple's executive director. "We were taken to the cleaners. And it was a waste. But no Temple operating funds were spent -- only private funds.

"Why did we do it? Most of us have strong feelings about the Moore family. . . . Father made all the decisions . . . As a father it bothered me that they had to sleep together in a van situation, never being sure where their next meal would come from. The idea of kids in a tent in subzero weather bothers me. Then: they were not to say a word to anyone in our congregation. When we offered food to Mrs. Moore, she said 'You have to talk to my husband.' Our women didn't understand that at all."

Esther Lipman felt offended by "the charade of Moore's representing himself as a Jew -- wearing a skullcap and a prayer shawl and yet not really being a Jew. He was a Christ-like figure, rigidly set in his fantasies. He didn't take time to listen to what Gene (Lipman) or Harold (White) said. They didn't belong to us. They came and said, in effect, 'We are here and you must deal with us.' They presented themselves in a depending and demanding way. One part of me said, 'Why not invite all of them for a big picnic dinner?' But I couldn't do it. I wasn't hospitable or kind to them -- and now I am not pleased with myself."

"Our congregation looked at the family with a sense of envy," says White. "It was so anachronistic: beautiful children worshiping with their parents. It was an inspiring example. Something was gained by our congregation. I hoped they'd stay here.

"I am amazed that there isn't more anger in the congregation. It could be that he intentionally sabotaged the trip to Israel. He went because Moses saw the Promised Land from afar. He called me from New York and said, 'I kissed the ground. It was sufficient.'"

"I think most of our congregation thought that the Moores were a terrible burden," says Besse Zaritsky. "I felt sorry for Rabbi Lipman for having to deal with him."

Moore reminded Lipman of Abraham, the biblical patriarch -- the first Jew, the first to believe in One God. "Moore is a 'first,'" Lipman says. "What matters to him is his theological obsession . . . He is a self-destructive fellow. And he would leave his wife and son in the desert the way Abraham left Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. If God told him to be cruel, he would be cruel. When God tells him to do, he does. It's a simple cause and effect relationship. Nothing in the real world could deter him.

"The immigration inspector is real. Children eating three meals a day is real. My real world includes the external world. I don't let God make demands on me that are suicidal in the real world. For me, the whole business with the Moores is a tragedy."

Lipman feels guilty. "I blame myself all over the place even though I don't know what I have done wrong," he says. "I don't know what I would have done differently. Were we too nice to him? There is no moral to this story."

What the congregation did was "a copout," Lipman says with a deep sigh. "We got rid of them. But I had no right not to do that. I felt, Thank God I am getting rid of him."

After their return to New York, the Moores were interviewed by a television crew. As a result, a van from the Seventh Day Church of God -- keepers of the sabbath -- came to the airport hotel where the Moores stayed and offered them shelter in Brooklyn. For 90 days the Moores slept on the floor of the church, which has an all-black congregation, mostly from Caribbean islands. It was with their contribution -- $400 -- that Moore purchased another van, a 1963 Chevy, and made his way back to Deming.Deming is an oasis of clapboard and cinderblock, a town of 12,000 souls and no less than 43 churches -- but the nearest synagogue is 60 miles to the east. Thus nothing quite prepares the visitor for the tableau of the Moore family in front of their house: the males with earlocks sticking out under black skullcaps and with ritual fringes on the sides of their shirts; the females in dresses covering their arms, necks and knees. The women veil their mouths with their hands when smiling and they turn their heads to avoid looking into a stranger's eyes; and the men have the classic slouch of Orthodox Jews.

The house where the Moores have been living since May is a tiny one-bedroom cabin that belongs to his mother who lives five blocks down the street. The Moores sleep on the floor.

Moore says that last year his total income was $6,778 -- half of it from work, the other half from "tithes and offerings."

They eat pinto beans three times a day and grind their own flour for wheat bread. Ora Moore, 69, Claud's mother, says, "I let them have what cash I have. This shifting from here to yonder is hard on them. But Claud has peace of mind."

Ora Moore says that she, her eldest son Harrel and youngest son Dean, have all been "moving toward Judaism" for a long time, and independently of Claud. "I may not be a Jew," she says, "but I sure am not a Christian."

The Moores are in a no-man's land between Judaism and Christianity. Their call is to roll back nearly 2,000 years of history by returning to what they see as the original mission of the carpenter of Nazareth: to convert the world to Judaism. But no branch of Judaism can accept a man who insists that the Messiah is Yahshua -- or Jesus by any other name. Jews believe that the Messiah is yet to come.

The Moores' crossing over from fundamentalist Christianity to their own blend of the Judeo-Christian tradition is not part of a broad movement. But in America, conversion -- being born again as a Jew or a Christian -- is a great explosive religious passion. Israel -- with its many religious communities frequently clashing -- is the Wild West for the theologically adventurous.

"Conversion is like a sex-change operation," says one Lubavitch rabbi who did not want to be quoted by name. "It's irreversible surgery. We Jews don't like to count people by number, but it is clear that conversions are much more common than they used to be -- among Christians too. We have lots of converts; we accept them all the way."

In the long run, an American, the proverbial self-made-man, cannot be denied, on grounds such as his Christian parentage or his theological radicalism, when he declares: I am a Jew! One of these days the Moores, or someone like them, may start a branch of Judaism made in America, the second Zion and the hothouse for the varieties of religious experience.

Moore says he prays for the congregation of Temple Sinai three times a day. He exchanges letters with White and with the surgeon. His letters offer pages of theology and a few lines about his family.

Moore has not been able to find a job since his return from Israel. He charges that people won't hire him because of his faith.

"He practices the ministry of confrontation," says the Rev. Ronald Chastine, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Deming. "I first thought he was a Jew -- and we Baptists are traditionally friendly with Jews. But then he started his Yahweh-Yahshua spiel. He comes on strong, and you can't have a dialogue with him. He is right and you are wrong. So I terminated our conversation."

"Preaching is my mission," Moore says, out for an evening stroll. "I have to keep doing it even if they kill me. And the Christians might yet kill me. But the Jews will accept Yahshua as the Messiah. Then Yahweh will be king and David will be His prince again."

Night in Deming descends as abruptly as in the Holy Land; it's either cloudless brilliant daytime or pitch black. Deming is of the same latitude as the Judean Desert where Jesus was tempted by Satan; both are sandy wastelands, and the horizon is cut off by bare mountains.

Would Claud Moore agree to settle his family in Israel in stages, beginning with Quentin, the eldest son? The Moores' surgeon friend in Temple Sinai reasons that Quentin could easily be placed in a kibbutz, and his behavior could convince Israeli authorities to accept the rest of the family. The benefactor is certain that he will be able to raise the money for the airfare once more.

"I won't let him go until he reaches 20," Moore says. Quentin, always at his father's side, is silent; his face shows no emotion. "But it won't be necessary," Moore adds. "Quentin is 17 now, and the Messiah will come before that." CAPTION: Picture 1, Claud Moore, Church of Christ preacher-turned-self-proclaimed Jew, has adopted most of the trappings of traditional Jewish observance for himself and his family. His doorway includes an outsize mezuzah, a metal case containing a parchment on which is written in Hebrew the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. The first passage is the Shema Yisrael, the Jewish creed. BY LUIS VILLALOBOS; Picture 2, Rabbi Eugene Lipman, Temple Sinai's senior rabbi, said of his experience with the Moore family was one of the most painful of his rabbinical career: "I had a sense of doom from the beginning. I knew that no joy would come out of all this." BY JANET OCHS WIENER; Picture 3, Behind the patriarch, the members of the Moore family array themselves in front of the tiny house in Deming, N.M., where they now make their home following their abortive effort to immigrate to Israel. Moore's wife, Larue, stands immediately to his right. Quentin, 17, eldest son of the family, is at left. The other eight children, whose ages range from 3 to 22, stand between them. BY LUIS VILLALOBOS; Picture 4, AsaJoel 3, was born with a detached esophagus that required immediate surgery. Moore is certain his son's present good health is attributable to his drinking goat's milk.; Picture 5, no caption, BY MARGARET THOMAS; Picture 6, The oldest Moore daughter, Janet, 22, is an accomplished guitar player and singer of Hebrew songs. She also is teacher to her younger siblings.; Picture 7, One of the Moore family's supporters believes they would be permitted to enter Israel if Quentin, 17, were to go first alone and work on a kibbutz. BY LUIS VILLALOBOS; Picture 8, The Moores were assisted in the purchase of their current van, a 1963 Chevrolet, by a $400 contribution from a Seventh Day Church of God in Brooklyn, a sabbatarian Christian group. BY LUIS VILLALOBOS; Picture 9, no caption, BY LUIS VILLALOBOS