Last week, the Jewish world responded with uncharacteristic mania to a picture of four men in cowboy hats, taken by Haviva Litman Zwickler, that went viral on social media. The picture was captioned, “These Cowboys from Arkansas and Montana were at JFK today on their way to help out at the farms in Israel. They are not Jewish.”
Jews were still celebrating their arrival when reports started appearing, intimating that the American cowboys, and HaYovel, the sponsoring organization, have an agenda that might include “spreading the gospel.”
Shannon Nuszen, director of the counter-missionary organization Beyneynu, released a written statement in which she claimed, “Jewish communities across Israel have raised concerns regarding the activities of Hayovel, a Christian organization led by Tommy Waller.
“Hayovel is an evangelical group that provides substantial volunteer support for agricultural work in Judea and Samaria. Jewish communities have been troubled by the organization’s mission, which founder Tommy Waller has openly articulated.
“Waller has expressed his vision for Hayovel as a platform for sharing the Gospel with Jewish people in Israel. What further raises concerns is his criticism of the Church for sharing the Gospel in ways that could undermine Jewish identity. This perspective aligns with the goals of the Messianic movement, which aims to share the Gospel with Jews while preserving their Jewish identity and rejecting replacement theology.
“Efforts to seek clarification from Waller, specifically requesting any documentation disavowing such activities, have yielded no results. Furthermore, Waller himself has indicated that he does not perceive the necessity of making such a statement, given his perceived acceptance within many Jewish communities.
“Given these concerns, Jewish leaders often hesitate to invite Hayovel’s volunteers into their communities, as the organization has not provided any unequivocal documentation that disavows Jewish evangelism. We are deeply concerned.
“I therefore appeal to all Christian Zionists to accept us as we are, and resist your desire to ‘share the gospel’ with us. This is our only red line.”
As concern spread, the enthusiasm of many Jews over the arrival of the photogenic cowboys was rapidly extinguished. It was clear HaYovel’s true agenda needed to be clarified.
The truth about HaYovel
HaYovel, which operates under the supervision of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed of Har Bracha, requires every prospective volunteer to sign a statement that reads, in part:
“My purpose for this trip in Israel is to bless and serve the Jewish people by volunteering, NOT to proselytize, evangelize, or to ‘win souls.’ Therefore, I will NOT engage in any proselytizing, actual or having the appearance thereof, during this trip. This includes any conversation or argument with anyone outside the HaYovel program that attempts to justify or validate a personal belief, conviction, or understanding of the Bible. As a guest of the nation of Israel, I will strive to show honor and respect to the established spiritual and political authorities.”
Volunteers who violate the agreement are immediately escorted to the airport by HaYovel staff.
A decades-old video of Waller, in which he speaks about sharing Jesus with the Jewish people, recently resurfaced. Waller has repeatedly repudiated that video, emphasizing that it was made at “the beginning of my journey.”
He spoke with the Magazine to explain about how his relationship with the Jewish community has evolved over time.
“I grew up in a Southern Baptist church in rural middle Tennessee – what many would consider the most Evangelical missionary denomination in the world. The term ‘missionary’ was one of the most respected positions within the denomination.”
Although his understanding of missionary work has been completely altered, Waller acknowledged that “today, my family and I are still devoted Christians.
“I believe both Jews and Christians will read this, looking for evidence to prove my guilt. No statement will make sense unless you hear and understand how I got here.
“Everything changed for me the day I met Nir Lavi in a vineyard in the community of Har Bracha, located in the mountains of Samaria. Nir, the first Orthodox Jew I had ever met, read me the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:5, ‘You shall yet plant vines on the mountains of Samaria.’
“In short, I was undone. In one moment, the God I met in a building in Lebanon, Tennessee, became the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God of a promise. As a farmer from Tennessee, I was excited to see the touchable reality of God’s word. I asked Nir if I could be part of what he was doing, and, as they say, the rest is history.
“Over the years, I began to read the Bible through the eyes of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. The vision of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the chief rabbi of Har Bracha, for the nations became my vision, [part of] the preparation for the House of Prayer for all Nations in Jerusalem. Understanding my role in protecting the identity of the Jewish people became a priority to me.
“Christianity should have never been the enemy of Israel or the Jewish people. Christians all over the world are denouncing replacement theology but are still arrogantly practicing the same arrogant presentation of Jew-hatred the Early Church Fathers embraced.
“Once we remove ourselves from this doctrine of demons, our eyes will be open to God’s plan for the world through Israel and the people God chose. Christians who believe sharing a ‘Gospel’ that takes away the markers of Jewish identity are not ‘good news’ for the Jews or the world,” he argued.
“Instead, we must strengthen Jewish identity. The prophet Isaiah tells us to say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ (Isaiah 52:7). In the Psalms of Ascents, the nations will say, ‘The Lord has done great things for you’ (Psalms 126:2). This is the prophetic purpose of Christianity.
“There is a consequence for not standing with Israel and His people. ‘It shall come to pass that whoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, there shall be deliverance. As the Lord has said, Among the remnant whom the Lord calls’ (Joel 2:32).”
Statements of support from Jewish leaders
Waller’s claim that he, and HaYovel under his leadership, have renounced that all Evangelical activity is supported by Jewish leaders who have cooperated closely with HaYovel over the past 20 years.
Sondra Oster Baras of CFOIC Heartland said, “I have known Tommy Waller since he first explored the idea of volunteering in Samaria. As the founder of CFOIC Heartland, I have spent more than 25 years connecting Christian Zionists with Judea and Samaria, with zero tolerance for missionary activity. I know what a missionary is, and Tommy Waller and HaYovel are not missionaries,” she asserted.
“There are millions of Christians around the world who love Israel and who want to help us in any way they can. Their desire is pure and without agendas. But they are often ignorant about Judaism.
“As Jews, we are uniquely positioned to help Christians understand how offensive missionary activity is and how their support must be unconditional and based on respect. I have guided the Wallers and worked with them to educate Christians towards a positive relationship with Jews.
“And we are truly making a difference. Christians are supporting humanitarian and security needs throughout Judea and Samaria through CFOIC Heartland and are coming to help in person through HaYovel. I salute these volunteers and our Christian friends all over the world. We all should!”
Rabbi Yehudah Glick of the Shalom Jerusalem Foundation commented, “I heard about the Waller family and their fabulous work 15 years ago, while Israel was involved in uprooting Jewish settlements from Gush Katif and northern Samaria. At the time, Jewish settlers were going through a period of deep sadness and despair and felt totally neglected by their own people.
“I was quite excited to see that, while our government was busy destroying Jewish life in the Holy Land, there were people who got up and were there to share a loving hand with those struggling to develop the land.
“It was only nine years ago, after surviving an assassination attempt, that I personally met Tommy Waller and his family. Since then, I have been in a close relationship with them.
“We have spent hours discussing various issues to do with the people of Israel and their relationship to God. I was invited several times to speak to and guide their groups as we ascended together to Zion – His holy mountain. We are quite aware of the topics we agree on and those in which we share completely different opinions.
“As a Jew who is committed to Halacha [Jewish law] and devotes his life to promote the fulfillment of the prophecies described in Tanach [the Hebrew Bible], I am so inspired by the fact that there are non-Jews who unconditionally express their love to the people of Israel and to the Land of Israel, without any secret agenda besides love for God.
“The Wallers have always taken the side of the nation of Israel. I have never faced any complaint about efforts on their part to try to impose their Christian faith on other Jews. I have witnessed them speaking up loudly and clearly against others who spoke differently,” Glick stated.
Rabbi Ari Abramowitz of The Land of Israel Network said powerfully, “I have seen over the years that coming to the defense of the Wallers can put you directly in the line of fire, to receive the same outrageously slanderous accusations that are being leveled at them. But over the years, I’ve come to realize this is a hill I’m willing to die on. Not only because the Wallers have quite literally shown they’re willing to die on our hill for us, but even more importantly because it’s simply the truth.
“There has not been one Jew who has converted to Christianity at the hands of HaYovel. Not one. There is zero evidence supporting these false and slanderous accusations. There are, however, tens of thousands of Christians who have developed a deep love and appreciation for Israel and the Jewish people due to their influence.
“I have known the Waller family for over 20 years. We’ve had countless hours of heart-to-heart conversations, and they’ve become like family. If there is any doubt, let it be dispelled. They are indeed the righteous of the nations,” Abramowitz affirmed.
Rabbi Tuly Weisz, founder of Israel365, put the whole controversy in a larger context. “For good reason, Jews are suspicious of Christians, especially those who come to Israel with seemingly irrational enthusiasm. Centuries of Christian persecution and antisemitism have left us scarred and traumatized to the point that most Jews today have PCSD – post-Christian stress disorder!
“I had it, too, until I met Tommy Waller 12 years ago.
“Tommy represents a new kind of Christian, the likes of which our people have never known before. Tommy and his special family have pioneered a Christian who loves Jews for who we are, unconditionally. The Wallers do more to support Israel than many Jews I know, without any strings attached.
“Not only that, but Tommy has been sharply criticized by his co-religionists for not trying to convert us, yet courageously follows what he believes the founder of his religion wants from all Christians – for the Jews to return, settle, and flourish in the entire Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria, our biblical heartland.
“For Israel’s sake and the security of Jews living in the Diaspora, it is time for our people to start treating our PCSD by building strong relationships with pro-Israel Christians. We are facing a vicious, common enemy. Jews and Christians together are an unstoppable force supporting our shared values, which are under brutal attack around the world.
“Yahad ne’natzeach! Together we will win!” Weisz concluded.