Just after sunrise on a recent morning, Matilda Haggstrom was among about 200 Christians picking grapes on a hillside in the Jewish community of Pnei Kedem. During a short break, she looked across the valley to Hebron, mentioned in the Bible as the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives. “Before I came here, these were just stories,” said Haggstrom, a health coach from Stockholm, who is here for the sixth time as a volunteer with HaYovel, a Christian nonprofit organization that helps Jewish farmers harvest grapes in the growing number vineyards in the West Bank. “But now that I have seen these places, it helps me see the past, present, and future. What we are doing here now is fulfilling a biblical prophecy.”
Haggstrom was referring to Isaiah 61:5, which says that when the Israelites return to their land, “strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers.” HaYovel’s volunteers see themselves as these biblically prescribed “strangers” and “sons of the alien” helping to support revived Jewish agriculture. The vineyards themselves—especially in these areas of the contested West Bank that were once the heartland of biblical Israel—are also seen as the fulfillment of prophecy since Jews began to plant them again in the 20th century.
A devout Christian from Tennessee, Tommy Waller had quit his job as a Federal Express executive to move with his wife and 11 children to a rural farm without electricity to pursue spiritual growth. In 2004 he made his first visit to Israel, where on a tour of the Shomron region of the West Bank, he met Nir Lavi, a local farmer and owner of Har Bracha Winery. “We were both farmers, living off the land, so we connected over that,” Lavi recalled. The next year, Waller returned with three of his children to help with the grape harvest. His family stayed in Lavi’s house in the settlement of Har Bracha, which back then consisted about 30 religious Jewish families.
Seeing religious Jews growing grapes and making wine here was powerful for Waller’s son Caleb, who was 14 at the time. He had spent many evenings reading the Bible with his family and was familiar with the numerous verses that refer to wine for the Temple being harvested out in these hills 2,000 years ago, and how someday, it would happen again. “As a young guy from the U.S., I was looking for something to live for,” Caleb Waller recalled as he munched on grapes from Pnei Kedem’s vines. “And I saw this prophecy becoming reality. That for me is more interesting than the history.”
Within a few years, helping Lavi out became a mission for the whole Waller family, who returned every autumn to pick grapes. Back home, others in their religious community expressed interest in coming to help. With Lavi’s encouragement and the blessing of Har Bracha’s rabbi, Eliezer Melamed, the Waller family founded HaYovel in 2006 and began to bring groups of Christian volunteers to Israel from all over the world.
HaYovel no longer confines its work to Lavi’s fields but brings its volunteers—about 400 are coming this autumn, up from just a dozen a decade ago—to dozens of vineyards and farms in the region. Volunteers also plant vineyards in the spring and have recently started helping with olive harvesting. In the last 10 years, more than 3,000 volunteers have come here through HaYovel.
HaYovel is now just one of several Christian programs that have cropped up in recent years with a religious mission to support Israeli agriculture. It is another sign of the deepening relationship between certain branches of evangelical Christians and some Israeli Jews, and a reflection of new religious interpretations and understandings among both groups.
“On an economic level, it helps these farmers out,” said Rabbi Tuly Weisz, the Orthodox director of Israel365 and Breaking Israel News, organizations that reach out to and work with Christians interested in Israel. “But it’s also the most wildest and unbelievable fulfillment of the Torah.”
Many farmers say they appreciate the help because it can be difficult to find seasonal labor, and they often need to provide transportation for those workers, whether they are from the surrounding Arab villages or groups of Jewish youth.
“These people are great to work with—they show up on their tour bus and work really hard,” said Michael Luria, a real estate agent who lives in Pnei Kedem and owns plots of grapes and olives. “I think it’s kind of cool. Jewish people around the world don’t have a lot of friends, but these people are willing come here and physically help us out.”
The number of vineyards and wineries in the West Bank have increased in recent years. Although many are small operations, their wines have attracted attention for their quality, and play an important role in the nascent tourism industry in Jewish areas of the West Bank.
“This has been a wine-growing area for thousands of years, so if you have an area that’s perfect for growing grapes all you need is people who want to make it happen and you have a wine industry,” said Adam Montefiore, a long-time consultant to the Israeli wine industry and now a partner in The Israeli Wine Experience, which offers education about local wines. In addition to their quality, the wines have come into the spotlight in recent years due to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and measures taken by some European countries banning labeling products from the West Bank as made in Israel. “The BDS movement has had no material effect on this wine industry—rather it has caused people who want to support Israel to seek out these wines,” Montefiore said.
HaYovel says its motivation in supporting these vineyards is not political but simply following the Bible. And Caleb Waller, now director of public relations for HaYovel, is aware that, ironically, the very wine HaYovel is helping to produce by picking the grapes has also traditionally been one of the quintessential boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, rather than a point of unification: According to most Orthodox interpretations of halacha, Jews do not drink wine that was touched by a non-Jew at any point.
“At first it was a bit of a surprise to me,” said Caleb Waller. “But now I understand this boundary and I think it’s a good thing. The moment we try to change each other or say one is right or wrong is the moment we lose our ability to be an influence on the world.” In keeping with Orthodox rabbinic requirements, HaYovel’s Christian volunteers do not participate in the actual wine-making, just in the agricultural work.
Although they travel to various farms, the HaYovel groups stay in a campus of temporary buildings constructed on a hilltop in Har Bracha, now home to about 300 families. On the surface, these volunteers blend in with many of the local religious Jews: The Christian women wear long skirts, with married women covering their hair in scarves. The men wear hats and many even wear tzitzit. This stems from a dress code that “is in accordance with the customs of the local population,” according to HaYovel’s website. They also eat Shabbat dinner with kiddush and challah, and study the weekly Torah portion on Saturdays, when they refrain from work. Sometimes local rabbis deliver lectures to them.
Caleb Waller said that these practices have meaning for them because they are based on the Bible, not because they want people to think they are Jewish. He also emphasizes that his group does not seek to convert Jews to Christianity, and respects them for upholding a covenant with God, and for their role as Jews in returning to the Promised Land: “We are not here to change them, but to stand with them.”
Both Christian and Jewish religious leaders say this attitude is illustrative of the shift away from replacement theology, which holds that the Christian church replaced Jews as God’s chosen people. Although many Jews still view Christians with suspicion, and a few have criticized HaYovel’s presence, more are slowly starting to understand and appreciate the motivation behind such groups, explained David Nekrutman, a Jewish theologian and executive director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel.
“This is an unprecedented phenomenon that Jews are not used to,” Nekrutman said. And although evangelical groups that actively support Israel are a tiny fraction when compared with Christianity as whole, the relationship should be nurtured, he said: “If Judaism is relevant for the 21st century, and the only religion that is similar to ours is Christianity, then there needs to be a partnership so that together we can change the world and be a light unto the nations. It doesn’t mean that every Jew needs to be involved, but there should be a reconsideration in Judaism of how we view Christianity.”
Although evangelical support for Israel is often viewed in financial or political terms, Christians working with Jews in Israeli agriculture is a unique way to deepen what Nekrutman says should be a “sacred” relationship. While there have always been Christians over the years who have volunteered on kibbutzim, there are now more-organized ways to participate in Israeli agriculture. Israel365 recently started a program for Christians to plant trees. They can either donate money to buy trees or plant trees themselves during visits to Israel.
“They care about strengthening the land of Israel through partnering with Jewish farmers and helping to strengthen their roots in the land,” Weisz explained, noting that most want to plant trees in West Bank settlements because many of the prophecies about returning to the land refer to this geographic area.
Israel’s national food bank, Leket, has also seen a growing number of Christian volunteers who help with harvesting food for Israel’s needy. By picking crops that farmers donate to Leket, “they are doing a biblical mitzvah,” said Ray MacDonald, the Canada-based director of Christian Connections for Leket, who coordinates overseas support of Christians. “Rather than being a student of Israel, they can participate in what Hashem is doing in the land of Israel. They are getting their hands dirty with the soil of the holy land and having a unique experience.”
Back in the fields of Pnei Kedem, HaYovel volunteer Nick Giauque, a landscape worker from Fort Collins, Colorado, who has visited Israel before and seen all the tourist sights, said the chance to pick grapes was something different.
“It’s awesome just being able to get in touch with agriculture here,” he said. “And even more awesome knowing that this was something going on thousands of years ago, and today it’s come back and it’s pretty much the same.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.