From Canada to the Holy Land: Why couple devoted lives to moving sheep

Jacob's sheep, which trace their lineage back to biblical times, gradually disappeared from the Holy Land. That is, until Gil and Jenna Lewinsky transformed their lives to bring them back to Israel.

After overcoming many hurdles, Jacob's Sheep now back in Israel

One of the Jacob's sheep at his new home in Nes Harim, Israel. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Life-changing journey

A breed of sheep known as Jacob's sheep traces its lineage to biblical times. The Old Testament book of Genesis says the patriarch Jacob bred speckled and spotted varieties to produce sheep that are white with dark patches and have up to six horns.

Gil and Jenna Lewinsky recently moved more than 100 of the sheep from British Columbia to Israel.

Jenna and Gil Lewinsky often take the sheep out for a walk in the meadows near their farm. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

'I was truly amazed!'

The Lewinskys heard that a heritage farm near their home in Abbotsford, B.C., was looking to sell its Jacob's sheep.

"I thought they were novelty sheep, but it wasn't until I took out my Bible and started researching that I was truly amazed," Gil said.

Jenna and Gil Lewinsky with their sheep in Abbotsford, B.C., in March 2016. (Patricia Tessier/Mustard Seed Images)

On the move

The Lewinskys bought a number of sheep and soon began to breed them, giving up their day jobs to devote themselves to raising the sheep and eventually taking them to Israel.

It became apparent, however, that there would be many bureaucratic obstacles to overcome in getting the sheep to Israel, so they enlisted the help of Israel's ambassador to Canada.

By the summer of 2016, the flock had grown to 119 sheep, and the couple and their animals were ready to begin their long journey from Abbotsford to Hamilton, where they would need to be placed in quarantine.

The sheep were loaded into a semitrailer and began their journey through the Rocky Mountains to Hamilton in southern Ontario. (Jenna Lewinsky)

Record-setting journey

The Lewinskys needed to move their flock across an ocean. Travel by ship wouldn't do, but they couldn't all go in one aircraft, as the animals wouldn't have enough air to breathe in an airliner cargo hold. So they were transported to Tel Aviv's international airport on board 11 separate Air Canada flights, in what would become the largest-ever airlift of live animals from Canada.

A crate containing 19 of the sheep is unloaded at Tel Aviv airport in December 2016. (Ellen Krosney/CBC)

A cold reception

The flock of Jacob's sheep was once again placed in quarantine upon arrival in Israel, at a farm in the southern part of the country. It was cold and rainy when the animals arrived, and five sheep died of exposure. 

"They basically had to survive there in those conditions for the mandatory eight days for that shipment," said Gil Lewinsky. "So some of the sheep just weren't strong enough."

After their arrival, the sheep were placed in quarantine in southern Israel, where five of the animals died of exposure. (Jenna Lewinsky)

Securing the sheep

The sheep are now home at a farm in the Israeli agricultural town of Nes Harim, west of Jerusalem. The Lewinskys have had to install security cameras to keep watch on the flock around the clock, as livestock theft is a serious problem in Israel. The couple sleeps in a small apartment attached to the barn, so they are nearby to ward off trouble. 

The sheep live on a farm in the agricultural town of Nes Harim, high in the hills of the Jerusalem forest. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

'I had a passion'

Jenna Lewinsky, who worked as an accountant in B.C., understands that some may wonder why a couple would give up their lives in Canada to become modern-day shepherds in Israel. 

Community support

The entire operation to move the sheep from Canada to Israel has so far cost approximately $80,000. The Lewinskys say most of the expenses have been covered by private donations, mainly from the Jewish and Christian communities in Hamilton.

Gil Lewinsky with Rabbi Felik Schtroks at the Lewinskys' B.C. farm in November 2015. (Patricia Tessier/Mustard Seed Images)

A mission of biblical proportions 

Gil Lewinsky says when he found out about the breed's connection to the Bible, it became his life's work see Jacob's sheep roam the hills of the Holy Land again.

Some animal experts have questioned whether these sheep are the direct descendants of the flock mentioned in the Old Testament, but Gil Lewinsky says he has faith. 

A historic connection

Yair Zakovitch, a world-renowned biblical scholar from Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said the return of the Jacob's sheep is part of a surging interest in Israel in the biblical era.

"We are nostalgic," Zakovitch said. "We want this country to look at least a bit the way it looked in biblical times."

Prof. Yair Zakovitch greets one of the Jacob's sheep at the Lewinsky farm. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

An ancient experience

The Lewinskys say they will soon open a heritage park so Israelis and tourists can reach out and touch a part of biblical history when they visit their flock of Jacob's sheep.

Modern day shepherds Gil and Jenna Lewinsky on a hilltop near their farm. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)