Farmers On Mission To Return 'Old Testament Sheep' To Holy Land

Jan 2, 2017

A Jewish farming couple from Canada says it has shepherded the sheep of the bible back to the Holy Land after centuries in exile.

With donations from Jewish and Christian supporters, and some help from the Israeli government, Jenna and Gil Lewinsky have airlifted 119 furry members of the Jacob Sheep breed from their farm in Abbotsford, British Columbia, to Israel.

Jacob Sheep are found in the U.K. and North America, but the Lewinskys say the breed originally roamed the Middle East and ancient Israel, and their spotted and speckled coats match the description in the Book of Genesis of Jacob's flock.

"You know that Israel is built on Jewish people returning. Now you have a case of an animal from the Old Testament also returning," said Gil Lewinsky from a customs loading dock at Israel's international airport near Tel Aviv.

Several times a week in recent weeks, an Air Canada jet touched down at the airport carrying a group of the Lewinskys' fluffy Jacob Sheep in its cargo.

"Come, Israel, come!" farmer Jenna Lewinsky said to one reticent animal, coaxing him out of his shipping crate. Each animal comes with a Hebrew name.

About two years ago, the Lewinskys wanted help with their spiritual mission to repatriate Jacob Sheep to their biblical homeland, and they contacted Eitan Weiss, then the head of cultural relations at the Israeli embassy in Ottawa.

"I was like, what the hell? Sheep?" Weiss recalled. "I don't know. It sounded very, very odd, I had to say. But when I did the homework and when they sent me some material, I said, I think this is an amazing story."

The Israeli Agriculture Ministry was not as enthused. Canada is not on Israel's list of approved countries for livestock import.

But the Israeli ambassador to Canada got involved, and the Agriculture Ministry granted a one-time exception for the Jacob Sheep.

Curious to learn more about the sheep's pedigree, I visited sheep expert Elisha Gootwine at the Israeli Agriculture Ministry's research organization, the Volcani Center.

"Jacob Sheep are related to Jacob the same as the American Indians are related to India," Gootwine said with a chuckle, standing inside the research center's sheep pen.

The Jacob Sheep are originally British and got their name in the late 19th century because their spots and speckles called to mind Jacob's sheep from the Bible, Gootwine said.

Generally, all sheep can be traced back to the Near East, he said, because sheep were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. But the Jacob Sheep breed, according to Gootwine, is not indigenous to ancient Israel.

Zohar Amar, a senior lecturer in the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, who studies the flora and fauna of ancient Israel, said the Jacob Sheep breed "may have a long history in the U.K.," but, "according to all of the scientific indications we have (historical and zoological sources), it has no connection to the ancient sheep breeds" of ancient Israel.

"Anyway, it's a nice breed and people will be happy to see it," Gootwine said. "It is a good story. For journalists, not for scientists."

"So, it's just, it's a myth," I said.

"Yes. But what is wrong with myth? If you enjoy it, why not?" Gootwine replied.

The Lewinsky farmers say the biblical roots of the Jacob Sheep are not a myth.

They've traced the breed's route from ancient Israel to the Iberian Peninsula to England to North America — and now, to Israel.

The Lewinskys are currently setting up a farm for the sheep near Jerusalem, and they are continuing to solicit donations for support. Five of their sheep died shortly after arriving in Israel.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Foreign Ministry is planning a welcome home ceremony for the animals.

Is Israel their original home? The Israeli Foreign Ministry's Eitan Weiss said he sees it as a matter of faith.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It took about two years and the help of the Israeli government, but in recent weeks a farming couple from Canada has airlifted 119 sheep into Israel. The farmers are Jewish and citizens of Israel, and they say the sheep descend from an ancient breed which roamed the Holy Land during the time of the Bible. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been looking into their supposed biblical heritage and greeted them as they arrived at the airport.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: This is Israel's main airport near Tel Aviv, and an Air Canada jet has just landed with 18 sheep in cargo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING)

ESTRIN: Farmers Jenna and Gil Lewinsky have already flown over from Canada to shepherd their sheep through customs. The sheep have Hebrew names.

JENNA LEWINSKY: Come, Israel.

GIL LEWINSKY: Come. Come. Come. Come.

J. LEWINSKY: Come, Israel. Come.

G. LEWINSKY: Come. Come.

ESTRIN: Gil Lewinsky says he and his wife Jenna are on a spiritual mission.

G. LEWINSKY: You know that Israel is built on the Jewish people returning. And now you have a case of an animal that comes from, you know, the Old Testament also returning.

ESTRIN: Their sheep are a breed called Jacob Sheep. They're found in the U.K. and North America, but the Lewinskys say the breed is originally from the Middle East. And their coats have speckles and spots, as Jacob's flock was described in the Book of Genesis. About two years ago, the Lewinskys wanted help bringing Jacob Sheep to their biblical homeland, so they contacted Eitan Weiss at the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa.

EITAN WEISS: And I was like, what the hell? I mean, sheep? I don't know, it sounded very, very odd, I had to say. But when I did the homework and when they sent me some material I said, I think this is an amazing story.

ESTRIN: The Israeli Agriculture Ministry said no. Canada is not on Israel's list of approved countries for livestock imports. But the Israeli ambassador to Canada got involved and the Agriculture Ministry granted a one-time exception for the Jacob Sheep. I wanted to learn more about the Jacob Sheep, so I visited sheep expert Elisha Gootwine at the Israeli Agriculture Ministry's Volcani Research Center.

ELISHA GOOTWINE: Jacob Sheep are related to Jacob the same as the American Indians are related to India (laughter).

ESTRIN: He says Jacob Sheep are a British breed. They got their name in the late 19th century because their spots and speckles called to mind Jacob's sheep from the Bible. He says all sheep can be traced back to the region because sheep were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. But the Jacob Sheep breed was not indigenous to ancient Israel.

GOOTWINE: Anyway, it's a nice breed and people will be happy to see it. That's - and a good - it is a good story for journalists (laughter). Not for scientists.

ESTRIN: So it's just - it's a myth.

GOOTWINE: It's a - yes. But what is wrong with myth? If you enjoy it, why not?

ESTRIN: The Lewinsky farmers say it's not a myth. They've traced the Jacob Sheep's roots from ancient Israel to the Iberian Peninsula to England to North America and now to Israel. Jewish and Christian donors have contributed to help bring the sheep to Israel and help the Lewinskys set up a farm near Jerusalem, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry is planning a welcome home ceremony for the animals. Is Israel their original home? The Foreign Ministry's Eitan Weiss told me he sees it as a matter of faith. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMBCHOP SONG, "UP WITH PEOPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.