For Evangelical Volunteers, Grapes of Wrath?

They tend the vineyards and olive groves in the West Bank during harvest and pruning seasons, but their presence has irked some rabbis.

10/19/12
Israel Correspondent
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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.”

Last Update:

11/09/2012 - 03:27

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I have no respect for anyone in that family. He claims to follow Jewish law but only the parts he likes. They don't eat pork, but love to eat at Red Lobster. They didn't go to Israel one year because it was the Sabbath year but that only applied to Israel apparently because they planted a garden in TN and made my father work it. My father was married to Tommy's mother. My father died in May. The last week of his life they had him brush hogging and working on their sewer even though he had recently had heart surgery and wasn't even cleared to play golf yet. My father left absolutely everything to my stepmother, disinheriting my brother and I because my stepmother promised that if she died last she would divide everything they both had between me, my brother, Tommy and his brother. Do you think she is going to do that? No, she said she wasn't and she didn't have to because my dad died first. And then they buried my father without a funeral home, in a coffin made of 2x4s in nothing but the underwear he died in. His feces filled underwear of course because they didn't even clean his body and everyone knows how the body purges itself after death. They also wouldn't let my father's best friend of over 30 years perform his funeral because they were afraid he might say something about their own false biblical views. And now with my father's money Tommy will have lots of money to buy military guns for his cult. And I think none of his work is based on Christian love. As soon as last fall his webpage said he saw a business opportunity in Israel and he took a group of businessmen there to explore that opportunity. And even at my father's memorial he was trying to get my brother and I to give him more of OUR money or provide housing to him if he was in our towns. And just to give you another taste of what his mother is like, the day after my father died, she was having my grandfather's coin collection appraised and prying the valuable coins out of it.

There is just so much more. There is the also animal torture. One Thanksgiving he and his sons tied a chicken to a log outside their home and then took turns shooting at the terrified thing until one of them finally killed it.

The most interesting news here.

As the director of the Israel office of CFOIC Heartland and as an Orthodox Jewish resident of Samaria myself, I know the Wallers for many years. They are not missionaries. Unfortunately, there are some rabbis who have allowed their intense and legitimate concern for Jewish continuity to blind their vision. Instead of meeting with Tommy Waller and Christians like them, and seeking to understand what they are really seeking, they persist in clinging to old prejudices against Christians that are no longer relevant. Thank G-d, there is a new relationship between Christians and Jews and it is centered on Israel. And the relationship is bringing new awareness and understanding among Christians of the beauty that is Judaism. Find out more: www.cfoic.com

Starting out on the wrong foot in the first paragraph Joshua Mitnick speaks of "Jewish Settlements" and "Palestinian Villages". Jews live in villages, towns and cities as do Palestinian Arabs, so why the differentiation in terminology unless you are trying to delegitimize the rights of Jews to live in Judea and Samaria.
Let's stop the smear campaign against the dear Jews building amazing, vibrant communities living in our heartland. At the same time let's not initiate another smear campaign against those that come to help rebuild a Jewish presence in our homeland. There were Christian Zionists in the early 1900's who were essential to get the Balfour Declaration in place as well as countless other examples of help. Today those lovers of Zion are represented by the Waller family and the volunteers who come to Israel with only one goal in mind - to help the Jewish people rebuild our homeland.

As with most Jewish issues, there are (at least) two opinions. But one thing I want to make clear as someone who has known the Walkers for a long time: they are not proselytizers or missionaries. I am unaware (and I would be aware) if any Jewish soul has been 'snatched' by the HaYovel volunteers. I am not denigrating suspicions or concerns but, on the other hand, I am quite disappointed in Jews here in Israel, including Rabbis, who persist in casting doubt without any real evidence, on the one hand, and, on the other, ignore the many Biblical sources indicating that at the time of the reinvigoration of the Jewish nation in its land that there will be some sort of positive cooperation between the 'foreign sons' and the Jews. Instead of standing on traditional interpretations of the relationship (and Jews accept charity from Goyim?), the theological challenge is to reinterpret. There are many 'pro' Rabbis including Rabbis Riskin, Eliyahu, Gisser and more and so we here in the vineyards of Samaria are confident that the work of these Christian volunteers is but an expression of acknowledgement that the prophecies about the return to Zion is not an ancient text but a contemporary political, social and economic reality that needs be supported by all.

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