They tend the vineyards and olive groves in the West Bank during harvest and pruning seasons, but their presence has irked some rabbis.
Clipping bunches of grapes from a vineyard situated at the foot of this Jewish settlement and nearby Palestinian villages, 44-year-old Lorri Schaefer could easily be mistaken for a Orthodox Jewish settler with her headscarf, ankle-length skirt and a T-shirt reading, “Youth for the Land of Israel.”
Except that she’s an Evangelical Christian from Powhatan, Va., who has been coming to the West Bank for the last three years to volunteer in vineyards run by Israeli settlers. An owner of beef cattle, the vineyard combines her family’s loves of Israel — farming and devout faith in biblical Scripture.
“This is the best of two world for us,” she said, motioning to her 21-year-old daughter working just a shout down the row of vines. “We enjoy coming and working and having our hands in the soil and working the grapes. It feels like when you open the Bible — you step back in time into the Scriptures. This is the land where our Messiah walked. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
The Schaefer family is part of Hayovel, a Franklin, Tenn.-based organization that has brought hundreds of Evangelical volunteers to Israel over the last eight years to work in agriculture. The Schaefers and others like them relish the physical work that few Israeli Jews (even the settlers themselves) would be ready to subject themselves to.
On a micro level, Hayovel (Hebrew for “jubilee”) participants are a valuable source of free labor that gives a boost to Israeli farmers as well as a growing number of settlement boutique wineries. On a macro theological level, the volunteers see themselves as joining forces with fervent Jewish ideologues to hasten the coming of the Messiah through working the land. Despite that, some Orthodox rabbis in the West Bank have bristled at their presence.
Hayovel is part of the vision of Tommy Waller, a former FedEx employee turned organic tomato farmer. About a decade ago, Waller was inspired by the sight of an Israeli farmer working in a vineyard near the settlement of Har Bracha, an M-16 slung over his back. So he convinced his wife Sherri to sell their 37-acre farm, move their 11 kids in with their parents, and figure out a way to get to Israel.
“He said, ‘We have to go there to help them,’” even though the couple had been taught, based on their Evangelical beliefs, that the Jews “needed to be saved,” said Sherri Waller. “On a gut level, we felt that these people have faith and we needed to help them.”
On a typical day, the volunteers wake up before dawn at their base on the settlement of Har Bracha, and arrive in the vineyards by about 6 a.m. They work until noon, stopping for a group lunch in the vineyard of pita, hummus and chopped vegetables. The grapes are handed over to the Israeli winemakers.
“Within halacha [Jewish law], I know I can’t make it kosher,” said Waller’s son Joshua. “We bring the grapes to their door, and it’s their baby after that.”
The volunteers come to Israel for the harvest and for pruning seasons, and next week a group will arrive to help settler farms harvest olive groves, which have become a battleground with Palestinians.
Joshua Waller, a 21-year-old group leader, discounts the security risk, even though he himself came under a brief rock attack. U.S. cities are more dangerous, he said.
As foreign volunteers on Israeli farms, the Hayovel group is following in the footsteps of ideological American Jews and European backpackers who came to Israeli kibbutz collectives beginning in the 1960s in order to pitch in and sample the lifestyle of rustic asceticism.
Hayovel is also taking the alliance between U.S. Evangelicals and the settlers to a new level, making themselves a familiar presence in the settlements. After working the fields for several weeks in the West Bank, the Wallers and other
Hayovel members go back to the U.S. to do advocacy work on behalf of the settlers and recruit new volunteers.
Avigdor Sharon, the vintner from the Gat Shomron winery in the settlement of Karnei Shomron, says the volunteers are helping to reduce costs made more expensive by the need for extra security. Amir Shteinberg, who oversees the vineyard, said the volunteers work harder than the average Israeli.
“These are strong ideological people,” he said. “Would you take three months of a trip oversees to work?”
The presence of the Evangelicals has kicked up opposition from some prominent settler rabbis. Among the fears, rabbis are worried the volunteers will do missionary work and look for converts.
Moshe Tsuriel, a prolific writer on issues of Jewish law and a spiritual mentor to yeshiva students, came out against the volunteers in an article published earlier this year. “On the one hand, they declare that they are helping us in our war against the Arabs,” Rabbi Tsuriel wrote. “[But] there is a big risk that [Jewish] souls will become closer to Christianity.”
In an interview with the same news website, The Jewish Voice, Shilo’s rabbi, Elhanan Bin Noon, called for a halachic ruling on the issue of accepting help from Evangelical Christian groups. “When these people are invited to perform acts of assistance, for them it’s a religious worship. How can you be interested in something like that?” He also accused the group of blurring the distinction between Judaism and Christianity.
Shortly before Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi Dov Lior, another prominent settler rabbi, issued a general halachic ruling against accepting material assistance beyond money from Christian groups because they practice idolatry.
However, the Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the rabbi of Har Bracha, the settlement where the volunteers are based, has said that they aren’t missionaries. Hayovel has also gotten backing from David Haivri, a spokesperson for the Samaria regional council.
Volunteers like Joshua Waller say they have gotten the message from rabbis critical of their presence, and that his group does not pursue religious converts. Instead, he sees himself in a supporting role in promoting the settler wines, boosting the Jews, and helping realize the vision in the Bible.
“We believe the restoration of the land is a major thing that happens before the moshiach comes,” Waller said, using the Hebrew word for messiah. “We want to be part of it.
“The Christians think we know who the Messiah is, and the Jews don’t know yet, but it’s the same goal to hasten the restored kingdom, whatever that day looks like.”
This article was written by Joshua Mitnick and was originally published by on The New York Jewish Week (Times of Israel) on October 19, 2012