A spiritual imperative: couple on a mission with heritage sheep breed

Abbotsford shepherds hope to bring their flock to Israel

Gil Lewinsky holds the lamb he's nicknamed Baba

Gil Lewinsky holds the lamb he's nicknamed Baba

Laura Rodgers

As Gil Lewinsky began to recite his morning prayers, Hebrew prayer book in hand, one of his particularly curious congregants strode over to peek at the pages.

Appreciating the interest, Lewinsky repeated the passage, making sure that Isaac heard it well.

Isaac is a sheep a black-and-white mottled headstrong ram, with large horns and an inquisitive disposition. Lewinsky believes Isaac’s particular breed can trace its lineage all the way back to the Book of Genesis. Though he’s a media spokesperson by trade, Lewinsky and his accountant wife Jenna have unexpectedly become shepherds of a now 68-strong flock at a farm in Abbotsford.

Their goal is to move all of the sheep to Israel.

“We’re on a mission to preserve these sheep. It’s the sheep breed that is important,” Lewinsky said. Known as Jacob sheep, the small, lean, smart breed has long been out of fashion with commercial sheep farmers. The few left are often kept as novelty animals for their unusual spotted coats.

The couple received their first few sheep as a gift from a friend last year the hope being the pair of animal-lovers would enjoy the unusual pets. The Lewinskys, who hail from Israel, researched the breed and found what they describe as a spiritual calling. When the heritage ranch from which their first few sheep came decided to get rid of its entire flock, the couple offered to take them. They’ve continued collecting the animals since.

Jacob sheep were a popular ornamental breed in England during the 17th and 18th centuries and some were imported to North America in the early 1900s. Since then, the English breed has often been cross-bred with larger commercial sheep varieties, which produced a more marketable animal, yet kept the Jacob sheep’s appealing leanness. The small number of Jacob sheep remaining in North America, estimated at less than 10,000, maintain the breed’s original smaller size.

The Jacob Sheep Breeders Association says historical documentation traces the appearance of similar-looking sheep back to the area that is now Syria. Due to their uniformly spotted appearance and Middle Eastern provenance, the Lewinskys believe their sheep are directly descended from a flock owned by Biblical patriarch Jacob, as described in chapter 30 of the Book of Genesis.

In that chapter, Jacob works as a shepherd for his uncle Laban for a number of years. As payment for his work, he proposes that he be given any sheep with dark spotted coats initially, a very small portion of the flock. But by selectively using dark-spotted rams in mating, he produces many offspring with spotted coats, and leaves Laban’s service with a large flock of his own. This became the flock kept by ancient Hebrew people, the scripture says, and they provided a livelihood and factored significantly into religious life.

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Gil and Jenna Lewinsky first met in Israel, when he worked for a newspaper and she had a contract job with the Israeli government. Both grew up splitting their time between Israel and Canada, and they moved to Abbotsford shortly afterward. After receiving their first few sheep in 2014, they sought out any heritage farms or private owners across Canada and the United States that kept some of the rare breed.

They chose only to collect the traditional, “unimproved” small Jacob sheep, which are believed to be unchanged in appearance for hundreds of years. So far, Gil estimates they’ve spent close to $20,000 between purchasing, farm rent, feed and maintenance.

Currently, the sheep found in Israel are from the Awassi breed, a hardy desert variety. Though there is no firm scientific evidence linking their flock to those described in Genesis, the Lewinskys see bringing their sheep to Israel as a spiritual imperative tied to the idea of aliyah, which describes immigration from the Jewish diaspora to Israel. More than just moving some livestock from where they are to where some believe they were, the couple sees this as the fulfillment of a promise from God.

The group they’ve formed to further the cause of bringing the sheep to Israel, the Friends of the Jacob Sheep, has now partnered with officials from the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem Canada, a group formed by evangelical Christians to express their support for the State of Israel.

The next step in their quest to bring the sheep to Israel is to push for an okay from the nation’s agriculture ministry. Currently, Israel does not allow the import of livestock from Canada. A spokesperson for Israel’s agriculture ministry told the Jerusalem Post in June it was “impossible” to grant this import request for this reason.

Yet the couple remains hopeful.

“We want to send them to Israel because that’s where they belong,” Gil said.

 

 

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