"Have you ever heard about the mega-orgy that the Raelians tried to have in Tel Aviv?" asked my friend Yoni Pinchev while we sipped arak at his apartment in West Jerusalem, Israel. "They said it was to promote world peace, but it was canceled because of public pressure."
It was the end of last summer. Although I had been living in the Middle East for a year, I had never heard of the Raelians. Or mega-orgies, for that matter.
My Israeli friend grabbed his laptop and pulled up a few articles on the Web about the Raelians, where words such as aliens, human cloning, French leader, extraterrestrial embassies and Go Topless Day, caught my attention.
Intrigued, I decided to check it out. I went to the Raelian movement monthly meeting in Tel Aviv
Raelians are atheists who believe mankind was created by aliens who came to Earth thousands of years ago.
French writer Claude Vorilhon founded the movement in 1974. Known today as Rael Maitreya, he claimed to have had encounters with extraterrestrial beings, known as Elohim, who told him they created humankind in their own likeness and that we mistook them for gods.
"We are a mirror of them and they are a mirror of us," said Raelian guide Kobi Drori at the meeting.
He said that the skepticism toward the Raelian message comes from the fact that people still believe in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. But life on Earth did not evolve; it was simply created thorough the synthesis of DNA in laboratories.
The sect is also known for its liberal attitudes toward sexuality, and it promotes events such as Go Topless Day for women and International Orgasm Day.
Raelian marriages are monogamist as well as polygamist. Divorces take place in form of celebration to honor the time spent together, explained another Raelian.
The international movement is active in Israel because it strives to build an embassy outside Jerusalem to welcome the Elohim return, which is foreseen for the year 2035.
According to Drori, the movement has raised $10 million for its mission, the money coming from members and supporters.
Love, peace, inner happiness and self-fulfillment were emphasized throughout the meeting.
After a conclusive meditation session, Drori invited me to participate in the transmission of my cellular plan, a ceremony in which new members officially recognize the Elohim as their creators and Rael as their messenger. Amused and keen to know more about this controversial and bizarre movement, I accepted his invitation.
My genetic transmission to the Elohim, which is the equivalent of a Raelian baptism, took place on Oct. 7, the date of Rael's second encounter with the aliens, when he was taken to their planet. I officially became a Raelian at 3 p.m., the time when the Elohim are above the Earth to receive transmissions four days a year.
Drori dipped his hands in a bowl of water in order to make an electrical connection and summoned me. As I stood in front of him, he placed one hand on my forehead and the other behind my neck in order to send my genetic code to the Elohim, which would then be stored in a super computer. In case of a world catastrophe, the Elohim will use my DNA to clone me.
"The Elohim are recognizing you," Drori whispered in my ear. Then, the other members hugged me and welcomed me into the family.
Back home in Jerusalem, I went over the Raelian welcoming booklet, which states that being part of the Raelian movement does not cost any money, but members are welcome to make donations in order to help Rael in his mission of spreading the message and building the embassy. Although the size of one's donation is freely decided by each member, the recommended amount is 10 percent of one's income after taxes.
Some say the Raelian Movement is a sex cult and just a bunch of nudist freaks; others accuse them of being anti-Semitic, because their symbol is a Star of David with a swastika in its center. But the swastika, they explained, represents infinity in time, meaning that everything is cycling.
What of the Rael's Girls website that supports those who wish to be part of the sex industry?
Drori said that the movement simply promotes freeing the mind from prejudice that mostly comes from the old religions, and that the movement believes in the idea that anyone has the right to experience and express her or his sexuality in any way they feel like — of course, only among consensual adults.
The movement claims to have over 70,000 members in 97 countries. There is a Raelian Movement Florida chapter but no Raelians in Tampa, according to regional manager Donna Newman who lives in Miami.
Since my return to Florida, I've been talking to people about the Raelian movement. "Do you realize how insane it sounds?" has been the common reaction.
The Elohim message is literally out of this world — but so is the widespread belief in a supreme being known to most as God. Neither doctrine convinces me.
What now? The Elohim have my genetic code!
Drori, though, assured me the movement would never use my own DNA against me. As welcome as you are to join the movement, he said, you are even more welcome to leave it, with no consequences.
"The backdoor is wider than the front door," Drori said.
— Alessandra Da Pra is a former tbt* staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.