Friends of the Jacob Sheep directors Jenna and Gil Lewinsky with their flock. (photo by Mustard Seed Images)
El Al has agreed to come on board as a partner and subsidize the flight of the Jacob sheep from Canada to Israel. The flight would take place from an airport in North America with logistics to be determined.
The airline’s announcement came as the Israeli Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development gave the green light for the export of the Jacob sheep flock of approximately 120 animals, subject to a quarantine on both the Canadian and Israeli side, and medical testing. Despite having a low incidence of blue tongue in Canada, the quarantine is to protect the sheep. After the Canadian quarantine, the sheep will be medically tested for blue tongue and then flown to Israel.
The Israeli agricultural ministry told the Times of Israel in June that Canada is not on the list of countries that are approved to export livestock to Israel, so the Jacob sheep flock “will be approved under special circumstances, on a one-time basis for tourism purposes only.”
The project has been endorsed by the Israeli embassy in Ottawa, which blessed the endeavor to return the sheep “to their land of origin, the state of Israel,” in a letter released in May.
The Jacob sheep’s return also has received rabbinical endorsements. Rabbi Amram Vaknin of Ashdod has called the return of the sheep a “highest mitzvah” and wishes to be there to bless their return. Late last year, local Chabad Rabbi Falik Schtroks visited the Jacob sheep flock for parashat Vayeitzei, to deliver a sermon and to wish them a safe return to the land of Israel.
Friends of the Jacob Sheep directors Gil and Jenna Lewinsky have started a crowdfunding campaign to help fundraise for the costs of transporting the sheep to Israel, for feeding costs and to build appropriate infrastructure for them on the Israeli side. The campaign can be found at gofundme.com/jacobsheep.
Jenna and Gil Lewinsky with Israeli Ambassador to Canada Rafael Barak, who is holding one of the Lewinskys’ Jacob sheep. (photo from Friends of the Jacob Sheep)
Israeli Ambassador to Canada Rafael Barak was recently hosted by Friends of the Jacob Sheep, a Jewish organization in Abbotsford whose mandate is to conserve the endangered four-horned heirloom Jacob sheep and to send them to a future heritage park for their conservation in the Golan Heights. Barak visited the sheep barn on Feb. 16.
Barak came to give an endorsement of the Jacob sheep project – led by Gil and Jenna Lewinsky – and offered to continue to help facilitate the sheep’s return to Israel.
“The first thing I did when I heard of this [project] from Jenna, was I opened the Bible to see if this is a true story … and, behold, the story was there. It is real,” said the ambassador. “Our hope is found in our national anthem, a strong hope of 2,000 years. And then we heard about the Jacob sheep. We have been helping Jenna [and Gil] with connecting with the agricultural ministry … it is right for the Israeli culture to give the green light for this and to help it.”
The Israeli embassy in Ottawa further commented: “We follow the project and do our best to help more than a year after the Lewinskys contacted us. Now there has been great progress in bringing the sheep and it is evident that the ministry of agriculture is trying to help the issue. We hope that all the bureaucratic procedures required to bring the sheep will be completed soon and will be brought to the ground.”
Jacob sheep Molly and Leah. (photo by Mustard Seed Imaging)
Chabad Rabbi Falik Schtroks of the Centre for Judaism of the Lower Fraser Valley delivered a lecture on the meaning of the Jacob sheep in conjunction with parashat Veyetzei during a visit to the flock in Langley on Sunday, Nov. 15. He was accompanied by his students and invited guests.
The rabbi explained how the sheep look just as they are described in the Tanach: they have spotted ankle bands (akudim), spotted and speckled patterns (nikud), patches (tiluyim) and bands (broodim), all of which are mentioned in the Bible.
“It is very likely that the animal we are looking at is the Jacob sheep, as there are no other sheep in the world that have all these characteristics. If I would have ever imagined Jacob’s flock, I wouldn’t have imagined them any different than the flock in your field,” he said.
In his lecture, Schtroks taught that the patterns of the sheep have relevance for day-to-day living by comparing the patterns to the progression of human civilization, as well as to personal growth. The ankle bands represent the incubation phase or childhood. The speckles represent individualism, but the blotches represent our growth in this world, which allows us to recognize and include others. The goal is for the blotches to “bleed” into each other to form a band, for individuals to live in harmony with the outside world.
“It is not very often that one can be down to earth, mingling with sheep, and find there vivid clarity of mystical teachings. What is usually an obscure narrative comes bursting into life,” said Schtroks.
The rabbi was very excited to observe the sheep’s behavior. The sheep operate as a collective, he noted. If one sheep were to go missing, it would cause mass distress in the flock. “Take a look at how these sheep behave only as part of a herd and none act truly independently … it is comparable to the Jewish people who are compared to one flock.”
He continued, “Seeing the Jacob sheep as they have survived until this day, as an heirloom breed with the biblically described characteristics, seems to parallel the miracle of the Jewish people and their survival – despite all odds – for the duration of the past 4,000 years.”
Schtroks said he hoped that the sheep’s transition to life in Israel would be easy. The flock’s “shepherds,” Gil and Jenna Lewinsky have been lobbying the Israeli government to allow their Jacob sheep to return to the Golan Heights. The couple would like to establish a heritage park where this endangered breed of four-horned and speckled, spotted and ankle-banded sheep can be preserved, and put to their biblical and original use.
Rabbi Amram Vaknin, the rabbinical mystic from Ashdod, Israel, endorsed the Lewinskys’ Jacob sheep in October, telling Friends of the Jacob Sheep, later reported to Breaking Israel News, that the sheep do not belong in Canada but rather “in the land of Israel.” He told the news outlet and the couple that it is permissible for the sheep to return as long as the shepherds are G-d fearing.
Following the rabbinical endorsements, the Lewinskys are optimistic about the prospect of negotiating for the return of the Jacob sheep and feel that their flock will bring a tremendous blessing to the nation of Israel. “It’s the spiritual wealth of Jacob and the national animal of the Jewish people according to the Tanach,” they said.
From left to right, are Naomi, Michelle and Max Dodek with Gil Lewinsky in Abbotsford. Michelle is holding a one-day-old Jacob sheep. (photo by Jenna Lewinsky)
A couple living in Abbotsford is gaining international attention for their unusual quest. They want to return their flock of Jacob sheep to the breed’s ancestral home – Israel.
After visiting Gil and Jenna Lewinsky at the farm where they rent a barn and outdoor space for their sheep, there is no doubt that these modern Jewish shepherds are committed to taking their flock to Israel. Once there, the couple intends to set up a heritage park for visitors to connect with this aspect of ancient biblical history.
These sheep, according to the Lewinskys, are the descendants of Jacob’s original flock. Sheep are discussed in Genesis 30:32, when Jacob negotiates with Laban to keep the speckled and spotted offspring of Laban’s sheep in payment for his 14 years of service to Laban. As Laban has managed to trick Jacob before, most famously by switching brides and having him marry Leah instead of Rachel, he thinks he’s getting the better deal here, as well. However, the Torah explains the special techniques Jacob employs to grow a strong, large speckled flock, leaving the weaker, solid-colored sheep for Laban. It is the first recorded case of selective breeding and, apparently, it worked.
“People know that Jacob fathered the Jewish people but they don’t know that he also ‘fathered’ a breed of sheep,” said Gil. He also explained that these sheep followed Jacob’s family into Canaan and eventually Egypt. While the Children of Israel returned to Canaan after centuries of slavery, it seems that these sheep did not accompany them. They went west and ended up, many centuries later, in England, where they were bred extensively. A few of the “heirloom breed,” those unaltered from their original ancient Syrian physiology, have made it to hobby farmers in Canada. Not one lives in Israel.
The Lewinskys feel this is a problem that needs to be solved. “God put it into our hearts to bring the Jacob sheep back to Israel,” said Jenna in an interview. In response, she and her husband have formed a nonprofit organization called Friends of the Jacob Sheep with a stated mission to bring the animals back to Israel.
Friends of the Jacob Sheep plans to repatriate the sheep from Abbotsford to the Golan Heights, where the Lewinskys hope to open up a heritage park so that the biblical sheep can be seen in Israel and be put to their original purposes for the Jewish people.
According to Gil, Jacob sheep in ancient times were used in every aspect of life, including using the wool for religious clothing such as tallitot, the skin for leather for tefillin or parchment to make Torahs and mezzuzot, as well as for food and Temple sacrifices. Of course, the horns were also used to make shofars. This breed of sheep has an advantage in the area of shofar making because both male and female Jacob sheep are commonly found with four horns and can grow up to six at one time.
While the Lewinskys are very dedicated to their mission, there are a number of stumbling blocks in the way of their plan. In order to export animals to another country, many policies have to be followed. Ever determined, they have lobbied both the Israeli and Canadian governments to find a way to fast track a trade agreement that would enable the sheep to return to Israel. Federal Trade Minister Ed Fast visited the Lewinskys’ flock in early August this year. The Lewinskys describe Fast as a strong supporter of the state of Israel and they hope to use this contact to further their plans.
“We have around 50 sheep now and, when we reach 80, we will be ready to take them to Israel,” said Jenna. Since my visit to the farm, the flock has increased to about 70.
“Our new flock are from the Okanagan and from Cabri, Sask.,” said Gil in an email to the Independent. “The flock from Saskatchewan trace back to the first four Jacobs that were imported from the U.K. to Canada at the Assiniboine Zoo in Winnipeg. They retain their primitive confirmation.”
The increase in numbers is due in part to the Lewinskys’ continuing efforts to acquire heirloom Jacob sheep from farmers in Canada and the United States, and in part to a good spring, with many of their ewes birthing adorable lambs. Jenna and Gil have investigated and negotiated with an airline that specializes in transportation of livestock to transport the flock as soon as they can wade through the red tape currently preventing the exportation of the animals and, of course, once they have raised the money to do so.
By chance, one sheep made it onto Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun’s Facebook page, and Gil has used his experience as a journalist to get the word out about these sheep all around the world, with the story being picked up in news outlets from Israel Vision TV to Scotland’s Jewish Telegraph. The couple said they are applying for grants from a number of agencies and making connections with both Jewish and non-Jewish communities for support.
For more information on Friends of the Jacob Sheep, visit their website (friendsofthejacobsheep.weebly.com) or like them on Facebook to keep abreast of the latest developments.
Michelle Dodekis a freelance writer living in Vancouver.