This week, I met with Tommy Waller and Aaron Murphy of HaYovel. Tommy hails from Franklin, Tennessee and Aaron is from Denver, Colorado. For the last ten years or so, these men have been organizing other fundamentalist Christian men and women like themselves traveling to and ascending on the land of Israel to assist farmers in the Jewish State with the annual fall harvest in the fields and then the planting in the spring.
HaYovel primarily works the fields in Judea and Samaria as they feel a special connectedness to what is commonly referred to as “greater Israel,” and the biblical land of Israel. In the past, their group totaled a few more than 200 volunteers. This fall, Tommy believes they will be taking about 300 people with them.
“I never before touched the word of Gâ€‘d the way I do in Israel,” Mr. Waller says. They consider this project to be a profound privilege that moves them to the core of their bible believing souls. It was a fascinating exercise to sit for an hour with Tommy and Aaron and listen to their profound expressions of love for Israel and the Jewish people.
At the outset of our conversations, I addressed the concern that their ultimate objective was to missionize amongst the Jewish people and if possible to create converts to their brand of fundamentalist Christianity. I worked with fundamentalist Christians at a radio station here in New York in the mid 1980’s so I am somewhat familiar with their agendas and objectives on some levels.
I can tell you this about real and sincere fundamentalist Christians: they truly and genuinely love Israel and the Jewish people. We may not be in sync or agree with their motivations that inspire that love. But Israel needs friends and as far as we are concerned, the catalyst behind their interest in Israel is so farfetched and dreamy to the point where it really has no practical application. There is no real hidden agenda here. They know we are weary of that approach and they are sensitive to that concern.
They explained that strict rules for the group prohibit missionizing in any way, shape, or form. Throughout their stay in Israel, they live segregated from the Jewish population that they work with so as not to cast even a minimal image of suspicion in this direction.
Tommy explains that this project grew out of the difficulty farmers in the Shomron have in recruiting or hiring reliable workers. He explains that often local Arabs that are hired to work during the day sneak back in at night to vandalize and damage the same farms they work on during the day.
I ask him how he conducts his activities during the Shemittah years. Tommy responds that on all issues of this nature, he consults with a rabbi and in this instance it is Rav Eliezer Melamed in the Yeshiva in Har Bracha near Itamar.
“I don’t like working the fields during Shemittah,” Waller says. He adds that his group works the harvests but does not do any planting during Shemittah. This is just one example with which Tommy and Aaron handle themselves with ease sliding in and out of the vernacular on terms and issues such as Shemittah and related matters.
Fundamentalists believe in the sanctity of the land of Israel and harbor an honesty and dedication to their core beliefs when it comes to the matter of the biblically based relationship between Jews and the land of Israel. They see this idea of uprooting Jews and attempting to supplant them with Palestinians–particularly in Judea and Samaria–as being anathema and something that they need to make impossible by their mission here. “Our working with Israeli farmers and playing such a central role during the planting and especially during the grape and olive harvest solidifies the Jewish hold on the land,” Waller explains.
David Ha’Ivri, one of the spokesmen for the Shomron Regional Council, thinks very highly of the group. “The HaYovel group represents an amazing phenomenon of non-Jews who fully appreciate the miracle of the gathering of the Jewish people in our homeland,” he says. “They are non-Jews who observe their own theological understanding which teaches that their mission should be to assist the Jewish people in settling the land of Israel,” Ha’Ivri adds.
In the meantime, as I sit with Tommy and Aaron, you can sense and see in their eyes the excitement and enthusiasm about their project and their upcoming return to Israel to work the land over the next few weeks. Tommy, who does most of the talking, speaks glibly and with great familiarity about almost everything Jewish or that has to do with Israel.
In the meantime, as their $750,000 annual budget grows and applications pour in from around the world seeking to participate in working and cultivating the land of Israel, Waller and Murphy are doing their utmost to keep the project growing and strengthen the land and people of Israel.
I was introduced to the group a year ago by political consultant Jeff Ballabon at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, DC. Accepting Christian sources of funding has divided Israelis for many years. Some are ardently against it while others see it as being helpful, building bridges and helping the overall world image of the state of Israel. At last year’s conference, there were over 1,500 mostly fundamentalist Christians and about 40 of us Orthodox Jews. The HaYovel team that was present joined us for our Shabbos meals so as to introduce us to what they were doing.
Ballabon, who has worked on some high profile national political campaigns and resides in West Hempstead, is very high on HaYovel and believes that they should be receiving support from the American Jewish community. “HaYovel just wants to work in service of the great miracle of kibbutz galuyot and has been careful to avoid anything that could even conceivably be viewed as sending a Christian message to Jews,” says Ballabon. “I appreciate that approach and their sensitivity, but I think shul audiences in America would actually gain tremendously from being introduced to HaYovel. It’s hard to not be impressed and even moved by HaYovel’s passion, commitment, sincerity, and modesty. And it’s impossible not to be both uplifted and challenged by HaYovel’s view of the role Klal Yisrael plays in the world,” he added.
“Part of our task is to educate Christians to the point where they gain added or new respect for Jews,” said Waller. He says that this is done most effectively by demonstrating the historical connection that exists and has always existed between Christians and Jews. As to why he is here in New York and making some of the rounds in Jewish communities, Waller explains that his group wants the endorsement of the organized Jewish community and wants to be viewed as credible, making an important contribution to Israel, in the view of Jewish community leaders.
After a planting or a harvest season, Waller says, when our young people return to their homes in far-flung regions of the world, he feels that they have accomplished a vital part of this entire undertaking. That, he says, is creating ambassadors for Israel in Christian communities all around the globe. “That’s very important to us,” Tommy Waller says. “In fact, I don’t think there is anything more important.” v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was written by Larry Gordon and originally published by the 5 Towns Jewish Times on July 4, 2013