Last Tuesday, at an impossibly early hour of the morning, Tommy Waller was fresh and full of energy. Pruning shears in hand, he skipped among the vines of the vineyard adjacent to the Jewish settlement of Dolev and piled up clusters of grapes in buckets. For most of the year Waller, 50, raises tomatoes and sheep at his family farm in the Appalachian foothills of Franklin, Tennessee. For about two months now he, his wife Sherry and their 11 children have been busy harvesting the vineyards and olive groves of Judea and Samaria, in service of the People of the Book.
Waller is the leader of Hayovel (The Jubilee ), a group of "believers," as they call themselves, from North America who promote realization of the vision of the ancient seers. The members of this small group do not define themselves as evangelical Christians, and avoid identification with any specific church. Some of them are Messianic Jews, some wear tzitzit (ritual fringes ) and some of the women cover their heads. All of them are united in a literal belief in the Hebrew Bible.
As they see it, the Jews are God's chosen people, and the establishment of the State of Israel proves the truth of the prophecies concerning the revival of the Jewish people in its land. The utterance "Praise the Lord" is common among them and they react with true joy (and hugs and photos ) every time they encounter one of the Chosen People.
For three years now Waller has been organizing groups of several dozen followers, who come to help independent farmers in Israel. They work as volunteers on Jewish agricultural lands in the territories - mostly in Nir Lavie's vineyards at Har Bracha, Erez Ben Saadon's vineyards at Shilo, Yaakov Berg's vineyards at Psagot and Shlomi Cohen's adjacent to Dolev.
They begin the workday by rising at 3:30 A.M. At sunrise they set out for the vineyards below Dolev, which sits in the rolling hills west of Ramallah. As they harvest grapes, they raise their voices in song - with lyrics based on biblical verses being special favorites.
Waller, whose 6-year-old-son is among the working the vineyards, was born to a Baptist family that had been in Tennessee for seven generations. Fifteen years ago, as he was reading Scriptures at his farm, he realized that "the 1948 war and the 1967 war are fulfillment of the prophecy that God would establish the Promised Land. For us this was confirmation of the truths of the prophecies in the Bible."
Since then he has deepened his interest in Israel, made several visits to the Holy Land, brought more children into the world and organized tours here.
"Everything we do is to bring more people here, to connect them to the soil. This is a trip that teaches them who they are, gives them a feeling of what the Old Testament is. The Bible talks about agriculture. It is written: Again shalt thou plant vineyards upon the mountains of Samaria. That's what we want to do - agriculture like in the Bible. I encourage people to do things the Bible says will happen."
All the work - organizing, flights, lodging, tours everybody pays for themselves - is done voluntarily by Waller and his friends and everybody pays their own way. "The real blessing is that they are letting us work here and touch the grapes. That's our pay," he explains.
The Hayovel people don't care much for politics, but offer unconditional support for the actions and positions of the State of Israel. "It's impossible to remove the settlers from here, as long as they believe in the Bible," he declares. "The solution to the conflict will be for the media to stop encouraging the Arabs' uprising and encourage them to live together with the Jews."
Homeopath Kim Polk, 51, says her trip to Israel was predicated on a sign from heaven. On August 8, 2008, at 8:08 A.M., the North Bay, Ontario, native says she heard a lecture on Israel in which it was said the number 8 in the Bible symbolizes change. That same evening she talked with her husband and they reached the conclusion that the time had come for a change. A trip to Israel was planned for a week later, but the couple did not have passports.
"We said that if we managed to get passports - usually it takes a month until they issue a passport in Canada - it's a sign from God and we have to go."
The passports arrived right at the last second and they traveled to Israel for the first time in their lives. As she stood on the deck of a tourist boat on the Kinneret, she felt God was speaking to her: "I felt he was saying, this is the time. When I got off the boat I bought a watch, because this is the time to spread the word."
Since then the Polks have made the trip four times. On this visit they brought along their son Taylor and their nephew Tom. "We are poor people, but God has sent us money for the trip each time. My passion is that my children will serve God. Since we came to Israel, their hearts have opened. I gave my heart to Israel and God has given his heart to us. It's written in the Bible."
Next to them stands Lindsey Winkleman, 20, from Wisconsin. Only a day earlier, she landed at Ben-Gurion airport, and already she is in the field. Her fingernails, lacquered in pink polish, are getting splattered with mud.
"This is an experience of a lifetime," she says. "I just want to serve God and study the Bible as much as possible."
Dean Bay, of Centralia, Ontario, goes around the vineyards with his camera. During the year he visits churches in his home country to spread the word about the Chosen People among believers. He preaches a literal reading of the Bible, speaks in praise of the Jews and spurs the members of the Christian congregations to visit their homeland.
Every year, Bay organizes a training camp before the trip to Israel. There, 25 to 30 people learn how to work in a vineyard and read Scripture.
During the weeks he spends in Israel, he films a five-minute video every day, an up-to-the-minute report from the Holy Land, which is sent out to believers back in Canada. For the sound check, instead of the traditional "One, two, three, four," he subs in, "Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord."
In a typical update, Bay is seen walking with the camera in Jerusalem, the Galilee or the territories. He speaks to one of the locals, asking him questions like: "Can you tell the viewers about this wonderful, marvelous country, praise the Lord," adds a few words of his own and ends with a promise that the entire church is praying for the Jewish people. Then one more "Praise the Lord," and cut.
The settlers who own the vineyards and the plantations are pleased with the deal.
"Lots of people in the world are coming to the conclusion that not all Jews are monsters. They see us as an enlightened and moral people," says Ben Saadon of the Shilo winery. "They, specifically, are very moral and there is a natural connection between us and them, apart from the fact that in the books of the prophets it's written that many nations will want to join up with the Jewish people in the future. They are the first harbingers and they see us, the settlers, as the fulfillers of the prophecy. Though they are working as volunteers, we help them in many areas." Gershon Masika, head of the Samaria regional council, has established a foreign relations department at the council, responsible for liaison with the groups of Christians who come to the region.
"Every month a group of Christians who love Israel comes to me," he says. "They are excited to see the flourishing of Samaria."
Last February a number of Hayovel people found themselves in the midst of a clash between settlers and Palestinians near Har Bracha. According to them, Palestinians from the nearby village of Iraq Burin attacked them with stones while they were in the vineyard.
The Har Bracha security coordinator came and fired on the Palestinians, who say they were defending their lands, wounding a shepherd.
"We had almost finished working," says Waller's son Zack, "and then about 10 Palestinians came along and started throwing stones at us. One of us was injured in the leg by a stone. We called the security coordinator. He came and then we went. I don't know about the shooting."
Despite the experience, Zack does not intend to give up the work in the vineyard. "This is the Holy Land. We are here."