MOSHAV SDE UZIYAHU—When the group of four American cowboys with their trademark wide-brimmed hats, leather belts with heavy metal buckles, jeans and rugged boots walked up to the security check at the El Al counter at New York’s John F. Kenedy International Airport earlier this month, security at first didn’t know quite what to make of them.
In an instant, the image of the strapping 20-something cowboys on their way to volunteer in Israel following the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 went viral, and they became a media sensation in a country at war before they even boarded the plane.
The atypical volunteers from America’s farming heartland were heading to the biblical heartland.
A symbolic lifeline for agriculture
The agricultural warehouse at this farming community just east of the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, which has been repeatedly hit by rocket attacks from Gaza, was buzzing with activity on Wednesday with dozens of volunteers, including both Israelis and Americans, packaging nearly a thousand cartons of just-picked produce from farms near the Gaza Strip for delivery across the country.
But it was the cowboys carting the fresh cherry tomatoes, peppers, parsley, celery and other assorted vegetables who immediately stood out in the crowd.
With thousands of Thai agricultural workers who used to work at the farms currently out of the country, Palestinian laborers unavailable for security reasons, and more than 360,000 Israelis called up for military service, local farmers have been seeking any and all assistance so that their crops—their economic lifeline—do not go to waste.
“We are not staying home and doing social media but doing something here that needs to be done,” said Tennessee-born Britt Waller, 24, logistics manager of HaYovel, a Christian Zionist group that organized the scores of U.S. volunteers. Every year, the organization, which his father, Tommy, established in 2005, has brought hundreds of people to work the vineyards in the land of the Bible.
“For 2,000 years, Christians thought ‘that’s it with the Jews,’ but now the question is what is going on with Israel, where prophecies are coming true,” Waller told JNS.
When the war broke out, the group launched an emergency campaign for hands-on agricultural helpers among its former volunteers (“people you could trust with your life during wartime”) coupled with a fundraising campaign aptly named “Operation Itai”—after the non-Jewish biblical general who joined with King David—for needed equipment that has already brought in $2.5 million.
“As soon as I heard what had happened in Israel, I felt I needed to be here,” said volunteer Samuel Wearp, 27, from Texas, who grew up on a farm and now works in his family’s business, Blessed Buy Israel, selling products from the biblical heartland. “I felt that it was my own people that this was happening to.”
Taking center stage
The group of cowboys hail from Bible Belt states in the United States: Montana, Arkansas, Texas and Tennessee. Volunteers and passers-by stop to take photos with them, their modest and humble demeanor in stark contrast with their VIP status nationwide.
“This is the most important time to come to Israel for anybody who wants to help,” said Yose Strain, 22, from Montana, who was wearing a metal Star of David on his belt buckle and who normally trains horses and rides them in rodeos. “As soon as the war started, I said if there was any way I could make it then I would.”
The group has been working in locations throughout the country including the Wednesday visit to the south, the central region, the Jordan Valley and Har Bracha in Samaria, where Hayovel is based. They have met with Israeli evacuees from the south and paid a condolence call to the Jerusalem home of Elisheva Rose Ida Lubin, the slain Border Police officer who was born and raised in Atlanta and was a huge cowboy fan; her cowboy hat and boots line her graveside.
In Israel at her hardest hour
“We always say we support Israel but if you can’t be here in the hardest time then it’s not real support but just words,” said Luke Hutslar, 19, from Arkansas, who works in construction.
The cowboys, who are spending their six weeks in Israel all on their own dime, said that they were stunned by the publicity their visit spawned and are awed by the appreciation expressed by Israelis and the intense feeling of both solidarity and unity permeating the country.
“It is beautiful to watch the unifying factor,” Hutslar said. “Unfortunately, it takes hardships for this to happen.
“People have been calling us heroes but we are not,” he said. “The real heroes are the guys in green [he said of Israel’s soldiers].”