After months of tense negotiations, with assistance from ambassadors, international media coverage, rabbis, farmers, historians, and an army of volunteers, the Canadian and Israeli governments have reached an important breakthrough agreement, a first in their shared history: The sheep can come to Israel.
The sheep in question are a special breed of heritage sheep called “Jacob Sheep” that traces its origins to the Middle East some 3,000 years ago. Jacob sheep are physically similar to the sheep described in the Book of Genesis who have “spots and speckles” in Jacob’s flock, when he was a shepherd for his father-in-law Laban.
Canadians Gil and Jenna Lewinsky fell into their new profession as shepherds almost by accident, when they met a woman who needed someone to adopt some of her heritage sheep in rural Western Canada. The Lewinskys ended up falling in love with the idea of protecting a vanishing breed of biblical sheep. They now own the largest flock of Jacob sheep in Canada, but that’s not enough.
For the past two years, they have been desperately trying to bring the sheep back to their historical home, Israel.
“The basic point is that they come from this nation of origin, so they have the right of return,” said Gil Lewinsky. The Lewinskys are currently in Israel to try and find Israeli partners for their enterprise. In a surprise move, the Canadian government’s Food Inspection Agency and the Israel Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development decided last month that they will allow the importation of live sheep to Israel on this one-time basis. According to the agreement, the sheep must undergo a two-week quarantine in Canada and an additional quarantine in Israel.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said the ministry is waiting for blood tests that will be administered after the quarantine in Canada to ensure the sheep are healthy and disease-free before they give the final stamp of approval. But the approval for the quarantine program has enabled the Lewinskys to start the import process.
The Israeli spokeswoman added that Canada is not on the list of countries that are approved to import livestock to Israel, so the Jacob sheep flock “will be approved under special circumstances, on a one-time basis for tourism purposes only.”
In December, a spokeswoman for the ministry said that due to concerns over diseases, Israel only permits the importation of live livestock from a limited number of countries where there is no evidence of certain livestock diseases such as the bluetongue virus or the mycoplasma bacteria. Canada has very rare incidences of bluetongue virus, but the Lewinskys will be able to maintain a proper quarantine by utilizing nets to keep out insects that could carry the virus.
“The [Ministry of Agriculture] protocol was the most important part, without that it won’t move,” said Gil Lewinsky. But now the clock is ticking down.
The lease on the Lewinskys’ farm in Abbotsford, a rural town near Vancouver in the western part of Canada, will expire at the end of July. According to the agricultural protocols, the sheep must be in the same place for a number of years before the quarantine begins, so if the Lewinskys move, they will have to restart that clock.
“Our flock is too big to move now, no other place would take us,” said Jenna Lewinsky. “We’re not commercial, we’re not for profit, and we can’t survive for another few years [to start the process over again].”
“If we don’t get the flock to Israel by the end of July, we won’t have a flock,” she added.
There are a number of other hurdles along the way. Currently, they do not have any land in Israel, though the mayor of Katzrin has expressed initial interest in the couple starting a heritage animal park in Katzrin.
And they have no idea how to get the sheep to Israel. Gil Lewinsky said that an El Al representative who met with them said that the airline may have the logistical capacity to carry the sheep, but it will take weeks for them to prepare a proposal. “I am worried that it won’t be ready in time,” said Jenna Lewinsky.
They are trying desperately to find more Israeli partners, hoping that government entities like the Tourism Ministry might see the value in bringing an endangered Biblical species back to Israel.
The Lewinskys estimate it will cost approximately $80,000 (NIS 300,000) to transport the flock of 100 sheep from Canada to Israel in special livestock containers.
“If the sheep were to make it to Israel, then we can haggle further with the land,” said Gil Lewinsky. “The important thing is that Israel will have the sheep on their soil. Maybe some kibbutz will open up,” he said.
“But if we don’t have an aircraft, we’ll have all these beautiful statements from the government, and all this work with Agriculture Ministry and the Canadian government will be lost, and we’ve been working together for five years.”
“I don’t feel optimistic, I think in the end of July we’ll be selling this flock,” said Jenna Lewinsky. “I’m resigned to failure at this point.”
Genetic markings for this breed date back at least a few thousand years. The journey for this breed of sheep began in ancient Syria (also the biblical home of Laban) and led through North Africa. Moorish invaders brought the breed to Spain, then to England, where the animal was something of a trophy sheep. A number were brought to North America, originally for zoos and then later for commercial use.
The breed received the name “Jacob sheep” from Genesis, Chapter 30, when Jacob talks about leaving Laban’s home and taking part of the flock as his payment for years of service. “I will pass through all thy flock today, removing from thence every speckled and spotted one, and every dark one among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and of such shall be my hire.” (Genesis 30:32)
״I know the Jewish people and Israelis have a heart, they very much love animals, and I think they’d want to see the sheep returned,” said Gil Lewinsky.
“These are the ancient animal of the Jewish people,” he added. “The animals are physically waiting on the farm, just waiting to come home.”