Montana and Arkansas cowboys are on a mission from God: “We want to help Israel.”
Montana and Arkansas cowboys are on a mission from God: “We want to help Israel.”
“It’s not like this is anything crazy. We’re just out here picking vegetables, but it’s something good, something that needs to be done, and we can show support for Israel in a good way,” says one of the cowboys who came to support Israel in its fight against terrorism.
“I love the Jewish people and I believe this is their God-given land,” says Ezekiel Strain, twisting the tip of his boots into the muddy soil beneath him. It is almost mid-November, but the 20-year-old’s eyes are shielded from the bright sun by a large, brown, cowboy hat. His voice is deep, with a drawl causing some of his syllables to linger longer than usual. “I wanted to help out wherever I could here,” he says, looking at the farmland in the distance. “They’re a small country and they need the help. We should help them.”
Once Israel’s war with Hamas broke out following the massacres on October 7, Ezekiel and three others from Montana and Arkansas were spotted at New York’s JFK airport boarding a plane to Israel. Their mission - or calling - is to help the people of Israel in their efforts against the terror organization that killed thousands of Israelis and kidnapped hundreds more, causing many to enlist in the country’s armed forces.
These cowboys, from Montana and Arkansas, were invited to visit Israel as part of HaYovel, a Christian Zionist organization that helps bring Christians to Israel to ‘serve the land and people, enabling them to connect to the land of their faith, restore Christian Jewish relations, and confirm Israel’s right to their ancestral homeland.’ Founded in 2004, the organization brings Christians from all around the world to Judea and Samaria (also known as the West Bank) to plant trees, prune and harvest vineyards, and tour the biblical heartland, where 85% of the Bible was written and where much of its contents are believed to have taken place.
We met them in Mehola at Meshek Dor, a private organic farm on the corner of the Jordan Valley and the West Bank run by Nevo Dor, a local to the area. Crops of zucchini needed harvesting, and the lads started their mission under the desert sun. “We felt like the biblical character represented what was happening here with the non-Jewish world responding to a big need in Israel, a really important and critical need,” explained HaYovel Direction of Operations Joshua Waller. “We’ve been working here for 20 years and weren't about to leave our farmers here alone.”
Ezekiel, alongside his brother Yosef "Yoss" Strain and fella cowboys John Plocher and Luke Hustlar, came to Israel for at least a month as part of ‘Operation Ittai’ which was started in the aftermath of 7/10 as a call to provide support to Israel during its crisis. Named after the biblical story of Ittai, a foreigner who stood with King David, the organization is calling on Christians from around the world to ‘stand with Israel.’ As well as providing trips to the land, the Operation also takes donations which have provided the IDF with helmets, protective vests, aerial surveillance, and night vision binoculars. In total, it has raised $2.2 million of its $29 million goal from almost 4,000 volunteers.
“We talked to a few of the building supply stores, and they said they wanted to help out too so they donated all of the materials for these buildings to help out here,” Plocher explains as he sits on the earth examining the batch of vegetables next to him. “It was neat to me seeing all the community out there in Montana. When they were given the opportunity, not all of us were able to be here in the land, but there are ways we can help.” He picks a large zucchini from the ground and examines it carefully before placing it in a plastic bucket with dozens more.
“It’s not like this is anything crazy,” he says. “We’re just out here picking vegetables, but it’s something good, something that needs to be done, and we can show support for Israel in a good way… I come from the country and there we support Israel because you guys have values and morals and you care. You care about life and you want peace. We want peace, too. We support that.”
As we join the cowboys and other volunteers in the fields, members of the group express a feeling of divine calling - a need to help the people of Israel in any way they can during one of its toughest times in recent years. Ezekiel and the others have been to Israel many times before, to answer the “call of duty” and offer support. But this time they garnered almost global attention since their arrival in the context of Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel and the country’s retaliation currently taking place in Gaza.
“We have no choice. It is a moral duty. We have to stand for life, we have to stand for the Jewish people. There’s one Jewish state, man,” Waller adds. He shares how he moved to Israel from Tennessee 20 years ago at the age of 14 and has been here ever since, helping almost 3,000 volunteers each year support Israel.
Montana and Arkansas are two of the most farming-centric U.S. states. The former, also known as “The Treasure State” and “Big Sky Country,” has an economy based on agriculture, including ranching and cereal grain farming. The latter, also known as “The Natural State,” is recognized for its abundance of forests, mountains, rivers, and wildlife. Their populations are 1 million and 3 million, respectively.
Due to visa travel restrictions, the group of cowboys and volunteers are scheduled for a return flight to the USA at the end of December. However, their intention is to return for as long as necessary. “This produce wouldn't be picked if we couldn't come and harvest,” Waller explains. “This is most of the harvest, this is the critical point. The Jordan Valley is their focus now. There are tons of farms all over this region that need critical help.”
Operation Ittai has welcomed dozens of volunteers from around the world and has helped Israel during its war with Gaza both on the battlefront via donations, but also with physical assistance to attend the harvests that would typically be picked by those currently in reserve duty. According to 24-year-old Plocher, those overseas are also helping by purchasing sheds and other equipment from American-owned businesses with 100% of the profits going to Israel.
According to Plocher, the challenges faced in Israel and the international response to its retaliation are one of the primary reasons the group felt the need to arrive. “The sad thing is that people who have morals and values, and have good character, are not necessarily always out there with that angry big voice,” he says, picking up his freshly picked harvest and looking at it. “It's like a kid throwing a temper tantrum - they're the ones who get all the attention.” He places it into the bucket and smiles.
It is true that those “angry big voices” are currently heard in the streets of Europe and American states and college campuses. Hundreds of thousands are rallying in the streets in Europe and their chants and acts of violence pulsate across social media. Yet this time it was the cowboys from Montana and Arkansas that got some of that global attention, if even for a short while.
As the sun continues to bake over the group of cowboys and volunteers, the temperature rises and water is brought out. Everyone gathers around the water station to take a break and catch their breaths. In one corner, a group of female volunteers are boxing up the vegetables and preparing them for shipment. They will reach their destinations and the people of Israel will remain fed. Despite its risky location (on the drive to the location there were warning signs in Hebrew of landmines that likely went unnoticed), the cowboys remain determined to help a country in need, preserve its safety and success, and ensure its prosperity into the future.
“My heart breaks for Israel. I want to show my support and show we care about you guys and care about the things you care about,” he concludes. “We're for peace.”