I couldn’t wait for the second day of Chol HaMoed; that day our family would be going grape harvesting on Har Bracha. Grape harvesting anywhere sounded like fun, but this particular harvesting excursion was going to be something special.
Har Bracha is a mountaintop in the Shomron. A large tent sits atop Har Bracha, a short distance from the main town. It’s the kind of tent that you’d put up for an event, weatherproof and white. But on Har Bracha, the tent stays up all year round. Rows and rows of dining tables line the wooden floor inside the large structure, and there is also a snack bar and a big whiteboard.
This is the gathering hall for HaYovel, an organization which helps pioneer and plant the land of Israel. The founding members of HaYovel believe that the modern-day existence of the State of Israel is a fulfilment of ancient biblical prophecies. They believe the redemption is happening right now- through the flourishing fields and blossoming vineyards all over Israel, and the Jews streaming back to settle the land.
HaYovel wants to help this phenomenon. But what makes them different than all other religious Zionist organizations is this one small detail: HaYovel is staffed entirely by non-Jews. Not only that, but they’ve brought in thousands of non-Jewish volunteers to help build up and plant in Israel.
Before being introduced to HaYovel, we had heard of Evangelical Christian groups who support the Jews and want them to return to Israel, but most of these groups believe that they themselves are God’s new chosen people, and that Jews returning to the land is what will bring about the Christian final redemption. The people of HaYovel are different. They don’t believe in replacement theology. They believe that the Jews are still God’s chosen people, a light unto the nations, and they want to spread the word to other non-Jews and play an active part in the redemption.
I was full of anticipation for our day out at Har Bracha. What would the “righteous gentiles” be like? Was this going to be a totally weird experience, or were these people genuine in their desire to help the Jews?
Our friends were going to take us to meet some of the organization’s founding members for a private tour. On the second day of Chol HaMoed, we set out early; it took us two long hours to drive over. As we pulled up to a lookout spot near Har Bracha, we heard sounds of the shofar blowing. Hundreds of Asian looking non-Jewish tourists were streaming towards us. As we passed through the throngs of people, they shouted words of greeting.
“Shalom!” called a few.
“Tishmor et Haaretz!” shoulted one. Guard the land. We had come to the right place.
My kids began asking questions, lots of questions. “Ima, who are these people?” asked my sixteen your old daughter, who was very familiar with Israel, and encountering non-Jews blowing the shofar for the very first time.
“Why are they blowing the shofar?!” my 14 year old son wanted to know.
By the time we reached the lookout spot and Caleb Waller, the guide who was going to be escorting us that day, all of my children were dying to know the answer to this question.
“Ask him, “our friend said, nodding in the direction of Caleb. “He’s the guy with all the answers.”
Caleb stood six feet tall with strawberry blond hair. He was young, maybe twenty-five years old. That day, he wore a big cowboy hat and a Magen David belt buckle. To outsiders, he might easily pass for a good-looking Jewish tour guide with a southern accent.
“My job, he explained to our children, “is to explain Jews to the Christians, and Christians to Jews.”
He went on to explain how these non-Jews (the Nations, as he called them), were blowing the shofar because they thought it might help penetrate evil forces at work in the valley of Shechem below. The shofar had gained popularity amongst Evangelical Christians in recent years; they view the sound of the shofar as an eschatological act, something more than a simple call to repentance. Caleb also gave us a little history of the area, reviewing the stories of biblical Shechem and getting us up to t speed with the situation of the Palestinian Arab refugee camps that exist on the edge of Nablus today.
After Caleb’s little talk, we all caravanned over to the HaYovel campus that surrounded the big white tent atop Har Bracha, otherwise known as “Base.” This is what the Wallers call the HaYovel center, where they live there for six months out of the year.
It felt like I was entering an alternate universe. In a good way. We were out in a quiet, natural area of rock-covered hills, under a blue sky filled with puffy white clouds. We stepped out of the car and walked down a path, past the main tent, which boated beautiful vineyards on one side and neatly kept caravan homes on the other. The vineyards were reminiscent of a Napa Valley landscape…endless, orderly, fruitful, and mottled with fall color. And next to each caravan home stood a little sukkah.
Caleb led the way to his caravan, and we all followed behind. We entered through his sukkah, which he explaind, “Is not exactly kosher.”
“It’s kosher style – like dill pickels,” I joked.
His blonde wife Kendra came out to greet us wearing a headscarf and a long skirt. It was so strange for all of us; she looked just like a typical Israeli settler. In her arms, over her pregnant belly, she held one year old baby Geula. Caleb and Kendra’s other two children, Chaya and Shifra, played nearby on the wooden deck.
This wasn’t our first time meeting the Wallers (they had spent Shabbat in our hometown of Neve Daniel a few months earlier, at our friends’ house), so we weren’t totally surprised by their Jewish names and style of dress, but as we left Caleb’s home and walked through rows of caravans, meeting Caleb’s brothers and friends, I felt a new level of awe. Every single man looked like Caleb, tall, blond and wearing a hat. Dozens of blond children were playing between the small homes. The women were modestly dressed, headscarves and all, according to Orthodox Jewish standards. The sukkot were neat and clean, almost military, each one containing a bunkbed or two, and a small table and chairs. We met Caleb’s brother, Joshua (they record a podcast together, the Joshua and Caleb report – pun intended) who described the scene at Har Bracha on Erev Sukkot when they had all built their sukkah huts together. It sounded quite similar to holiday preparations in our town.
We were full of questions, so Caleb and Joshua obliged us with a little interview.
Why do their people (the Nations, as they refer to themselves, which is a literal translation of goyim) follow a version of Jewish law? Why do they support the Jewish people?
Joshua explained to us with patience that they were trying to lead a Godly life. They believe that God gave the Jewish people the formula to do so. Whatever is good for us, therefore, must be good for them too, at least on some level.
In addition, Joshua explained that they believed that it was clear that God was bringing the Geula, the final redemption, now. And they wanted to be a part of it.
After our talk and sukkah tour, we headed off to the grape vines. Every day during harvest season, busloads of no-Jewish volunteers spend the early hours of the morning picking grapes. They treat this as a holy task and care for each cluster with great reverence. Besides serving the purpose of beautifying the land and providing grapes to one of the local Jewish wineries, these righteous non-Jews feel that they are holding onto the Land of Israel for future Jewish settlement. Which to them is, “obviously,” as Caleb put it, the most important thing.
Caleb pointed out the next hill in the distance. It was rocky and barren, typical of the landscape you often see around Israel, especially in the 'settlements' – the type of mountain that’s hard to envision as a place of fertile growth. “You see those hills over there?” he asked. “When we got here, this whole place looked like those mountains. Our volunteers spent months just picking up rocks.”
It was hard to internalize. I could see that the vineyards were beautiful, the land neat and well-kept, the grape vines full of fruit. I had never connected Israel’s rocky rolling hills with lush fertility and productive farming. Was it possible that, with hard work, much of the country could be as green and fruitful as a Napa Valley vineyard?
Our six kids went on to spend an idyllic hour running down the rows of grapes, enjoying the beauty of the area, and picking leftover bunches. At some point, the Wallers left us to wander the vineyards on our own; they set off to get ready for the local Udi Davidi concert in Har Bracha. The rabbi of Har Bracha, Rav Eliezer Melamed, enjoys a close relationship with the people of HaYovel so, of course, they were welcome to take part in the Sukkot festivities in the town.
When we were done exploring and picking, we said goodbye to our friends – they were off to Har Bracha, themselves. Then, we found a kosher sukkah at HaYovel and had a picnic dinner.
As we sat there with our sandwiches, I allowed my feelings of disbelief to wash over me. The entire experience had been so strange. After thousands of years of persecution, we Jews are almost trained to be distrustful of religious non-Jews. Now it seemed like that would have to change in order for the prophecies about the redemption to come true. After all, at some point in time all of the nations of the world are supposed to recognize God and come to serve Him in the Third Temple.
And here we were: modern Jews experiencing this strange version of serving God. I, for one, never would have imagined that one day, I would be eating dinner with my family in a non-Jewish sukkah in Israel. Who would have thought that such a thing even existed? The fact was, it was neater and prettier than some of the Jewish-built sukkot I had seen in my life. I let these thoughts sink in over omelet sandwiches and cut up cucumbers.
As the sun began to set in the sky, we piled the kids back into our car and drove off to join our friends at the Udi Davidi concert.
That Sukkot, the CD we played in our car was a collection of songs based on some of the Psalms, performed by Ben Tzion and Tali Waller. Ben Tzion is the oldest son in the Waller clan, and Tali is his wife. Our favorite song on the CD was Psalm 123, the one we recite every Shabbat at the end of each meal, before Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals).
We listened to the words that described the coming of the Geula (redemption), so artfully sung by Ben Tzion and Tali, “Then they’ll say among the Nations, ‘Hashem has done great things for them.’ Hashem has done great things for us. And we are glad.”
These prophecies from the Tanach were actually coming true.
This struck us in a profoundly real way that day as we rocked down in our beautiful land to “Shir HaMa’alot,” sung by The Nations. A land which was being changed before our eyes from a place of desolation to a land of plenty. A land returned to us by God. A land where “those who sowed in tears” now “reap with songs of joy.”
At the Udi Davidi concert, it was hard to keep our eyes off the Wallers- they were dancing and singing along with the Hebrew words as if this popular religious Israeli singer were Justin Bieber. These people inspired me to be better- to be a better Jew and a better person. If they could be so devoted to God, shouldn’t I be doubly so?
I thought of the miracle that is Israel, a land reclaimed after millennia of lost hope and suffering. Seeing the Waller’s farmland made me realize that it wasn’t just the early pioneers who had had a mission to rebuild the destroyed land: it’s something that anyone in the world can be a part of today. As strange and foreign as it seems, people like this have the ability to empower us on our mission to return the Jewish nation to its land, and its people to God.
The above is an excerpt from Susannah Schild’s new book, From Southerner to Settler: Unexpected Lessons from the Land of Israel, available at fromsouthernertosettler.com and on Amazon.