Gideon Elazar, Ariel University and Bar Ilan

Plowmen and Vine-trimmers: Hebrew Roots and Jewish Restoration in Samaria

It was harvest season in late September, and the men, women (some with babies on their backs) and children volunteers were picking grapes in the vineyards of Psagot, a Jewish settlement just north of Jerusalem. They had been working since before dawn, filling up huge carts of grapes. Chatting and singing were interrupted periodically by a question shouted out loud: “What are we here for?” and answered by others in unison: “geula!” (Hebrew for redemption).

On this first visit to meet the Christian volunteers of Hayovel, I was struck by what seemed to be a unique dress code; the women wore long skirts, sleeves up to their elbows and head coverings, a costume quite accurately resembling that of Jewish religious-Zionist women of the settlement movement. Later that day as we were sitting down to have lunch, I discovered that many of the volunteers had participated in the grape harvest several times. I asked if the work and tours to the same Biblical sites were not repetitive. Brian who was on his third harvest trip answered that every visit helped deepen the attachment to the land and added that the only thing he was bored with was the time allotted to shop for souvenirs in Jerusalem. Several of the women objected to Brian’s comment. Shopping time was important to them as it was a chance to stock up on “modest” clothing – long skirts and head coverings that can scarcely be found in the US.

The noted lack of appropriate clothing in the United States underlaid an important feature of Hayovel’s specific variety of Hebrew Roots theology. While expressing adherence to biblical law, it was a declaration of distance from American cultural norms, positioning the organization as an American counter cultural movement, a central feature in the theological development of Hayovel founders, Tommy and Sherry Waller. Moving away from the American mainstream has led towards deep identification with the Israeli national project and its manifestation in the West Bank. Thus, connection with the modern Israeli nation as an expression of Jewish destiny, is expressed in the physical mirroring of Orthodox Jewish appearance.

The path from rural Tennessee to the mountains of Samaria began with the Wallers’ decision to break away from the American mainstream by home schooling their children. That initial act of defiance against a system run by people who were “replacing God with themselves”, was followed by the establishment of a church congregation, eventually leading to several years “off the grid” in a self-supporting Mennonite community with no electricity. As is not uncommon in evangelical circles, the Waller’s came to believe in the binding relevance of the entire Bible, including the Old Testament and its legal code. What this meant exactly was an issue of continuous negotiation – the Sabbath was observed instead of Sunday, Jewish holidays were celebrated, and Christian holidays abandoned, some dietary restrictions were observed and as noted, a style of clothing was adopted. In addition, the Waller’s eldest son Brayden and his wife Tali developed and promoted a model of biblically inspired gender relations and marriage referred to as “betrothal”. The organization also runs a variety of activities from its American base in Missouri including large gatherings for Jewish holidays and Hebrew language courses.

hayovel harvesting
Hayovel volunteers harvesting grapes in Samaria. Photo courtesy of Used by permission.
The Waller Family, near Har Beracha. Photo courtesy of Used by permission.

The central feature of Hayovel, however, is the agricultural work taking place in the West Bank. Waller’s encounter with a winemaker from the settlement of Har Beracha in Samaria on his first visit to Israel in 2004, led him to view contemporary Zionism in general and the Israeli presence in Samaria in particular as the fulfilment of prophecies. More importantly, inspired by the verse “Strangers shall stand and pasture your flocks; aliens shall be your plowmen and vine-trimmers” (Isaiah 61:5), the Wallers decided this was an opportunity to be partake in the redemption process, by bringing in Christian volunteers who could be used as “vine trimmers” for the region’s expanding wine industry. Under the patronage and guidance of the settlement Har Beracha’s rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the organization has been given a hilltop where volunteers recruited internationally through the organization’s website come several times a year. While the majority of participants are American, the groups I met included volunteers from Norway, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and Hong Kong.

The ongoing search for biblical roots has led the Waller family and their followers to seek guidance from Jewish Orthodox legal teaching, while at the same time maintaining their identity as Christians. This point is evident in Hayovel’s visits to the Temple Mount. In the early years of their activity, groups used to walk the entire site including the area adjacent to the Dome of the Rock. Later they discovered that Orthodox Jews refrain from walking in the vicinity of the Dome, considered to be the original site of the temple’s inner sanctum, limiting themselves to the perimeter of the site. The Waller’s decided to follow the same route. This act of emulation, along with their physical appearance have led the Muslim guards of the site to tend to identify Hayovel groups as Jewish, causing occasional friction. Thus, the dress code adopted by the volunteers identifies them as part of the Israeli nation and its national conflict with the Palestinians. Likewise, Hayovel groups tend to avoid visiting Christian sites in Palestinian areas such as Bethlehem and Jericho. As Joshua Waller explained to me, visiting those sites had become difficult since “we look so Jewish”. Yet, ideological and physical identification with the nation of Israel does not imply full immersion. Hayovel leaders speak of assuming the role of “the nations” – a peripheral supporting position, revolving around a Jewish national core. This in itself is seen as the resurrection of an age-old relationship between Jews and gentiles, exemplified in Solomon and the Phoenician king Hiram’s joint effort in constructing the first temple and King Cyrus’ cooperation with the Babylonian Jews to establish the second. Likewise, Christian Zionists become part of a national project, while retaining their position as “strangers and aliens”.

Unlike other Evangelical groups on the Hebrew Roots path, Hayovel have to a large degree adopted the theology of national-religious Zionism regarding the inherent holiness of the land of Israel and the significance of the settlement movement. Several of the volunteers expressed their feeling that faith alone is simply “not enough” for Christians today. As such, they are highly critical of the traditional Protestant rejection of territoriality and sacred space and maintain special emphasis on a spiritual experience of the concrete, revolving around physical contact with the land of Israel. Direct contact with the earth through agricultural work is thus a physical expression of a multi-layered experience of restoration: The prophesized return of Jews to the land, Hayovel’s own move towards an “original” Biblical form of Christianity and the adoption of the material experience of agricultural work as a way of entering the biblical narrative, are all facets of the same broad trajectory.