With song and remorse, an unlikely Amish group comes to Israel

‘Lift your voices, year of jubilee, out of Zion’s hills, salvation comes. Behold he comes, riding on the clouds, shining like the sun, as the trumpet calls.” Thursday was the first day of Hanukkah in Jerusalem, and this Christian spiritual song, “Days of Elijah,” filled the corridors of the chief rabbi’s office.

Ultra-Orthodox men wearing black hats rose from their desks, drawn by the voices down the hall singing about Jerusalem as they waited to meet Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau. Married Israeli women in long skirts and wigs poked their heads — and their camera phones — into the room, witnessing something they had never seen before.

More than 30 Amish Christians stood, some with arms raised, many with eyes shut. As they did at every opportunity on a week-long mission to Israel, they were singing religious hymns, in English and German, in perfect pitch.

The group, which flew out of Israel early Sunday morning, is unique in the traditional Amish world. Brought to the country by Keshet, an Israeli educational tourism company, its members were on their third Reconciliation Mission to Israel to Israel to build bridges with the Jewish people and show remorse for what they called the Amish community’s apathy at generations of Jewish suffering.

“We, the Amish and Anabaptist people turned away from the Jewish nation, while they were in their darkest hour of need,” reads the group’s mission statement. “We hardened our hearts against them, we left them — never lifting our voices in protest against the atrocities that were committed against them. We want to publicly repent of this and acknowledge our support of Israel.”

‘Put out’ from their communities

The group — which included families from other denominations besides Amish, such as Hutterites and Mennonites — was made up of Anabaptists who have challenged their communities’ orthodoxy in a number of ways. They use telephones and iPads and, obviously, flew on a plane to reach Israel — defying the Amish eschewing of most modern technology. Some have questioned traditional Amish interpretations of the Bible for a more literal approach. One man had refused to go along with church orders to shun a family member. Some of those here were dressed in modern clothes, others in the Amish distinctive suspenders and plain button-down shirts.

Their progressive thinking has come at a significant personal cost. Most of the participants have been officially excommunicated from their Old Order Amish communities. “The bishop tells you, you need to not be associated with us anymore,” explained Steven Girod from Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, whose father Ben is one of the founders of the group. “This saddens our heart, because we do want to be associated, and in our hearts we still are.”

“It was painful, but no longer,” said Jonas Stolsfus, a gazebo builder from Paradise, Pennsylvania, who was excommunicated three years ago. “I had to make a choice between compromising my belief or being put out.”

Excommunication means they are now limited in their interactions with family and community, explained David Lapp, from Ephrata, Pennsylvania. His family has been excommunicated, and his father and five siblings joined him on the trip, but his wife’s family is still in good standing with their community. “We can still connect with them,” he said, “but there are certain things we can’t talk about.”

Despite the painful experience, they emphasized that they still consider themselves Amish and harbor nothing but love and patience for the churches that turned them out.

“We feel it’s more of a misunderstanding,” said Lapp. “I feel if they’ve had the experience we’ve had over the years, it’d be more of an open flow. But if we step out of the way it’s always been done, then it’s frightening for them.”

“I grew up traditional, but we were not able to fly or use cars or any of the modern conveniences, and we felt that part was wrong,” said Girod, who dresses in modern clothing. “But a lot of the matters of the heart we still keep. What is in our heart is very important to us… It’s not so much what you do but what’s in your heart. “

“We’re Amish, and there’s nothing that can change that. We can change the outward appearance as much as we want to; that’s still not going to change who we are,” agreed Lapp.

‘We need your friendship’

Lau entered the room, and the group stood and clapped. He took his seat at the head of the long table, and before beginning his remarks, he asked them to sing one more song.

“Let your love flow through me, let your love flow through me,” they belted out, “make me a blessing Lord, wherever I may be. Keep us pure keep us clean so that you might be seen, let your love throw through me.”

MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), who was on her way out of the building after meeting with Lau, came into the room when she heard the music.

“I want to add warmth, to add light, all my life,” said Lau, telling the group a little about Hanukkah, and explaining the lighting of the menorah. “I can’t sing at your level, but if I could do it, maybe I’d sit with you,“ he joked.

For a chief rabbi, interjected Lavie, “that’s quite a statement.”

One of the trip’s leaders presented Lau with a traditional Amish lamp, drawing the connection with Hanukkah. “In order for us to come to our destiny with the Lord, we need to bless our Jewish brothers,” he told the chief rabbi. “We are commanded to pray for Jerusalem. The Lord told Abraham that those that bless you shall be blessed. We in our past and in our history have had a somewhat anti-Semitic view of Jews. And we have come to repent for that. Now we want to develop a relationship with you. We want to draw close to you.”

“We need your friendship, we want your friendship,” Lavie told the group. By chance, MK Dov Lipman, with whom the group had met earlier in the day, had already sent her pictures of the mission, and she pulled out her phone to show them off.

Clinging to tradition in a changing world

The story of the Amish begins in 16th century Europe, with the advent of the Anabaptist movement, which rebelled against both the Catholic Church and mainstream Protestants. The word Anabaptist means “to baptize again,” a reference to their belief that Christians needed to be baptized as adults once they accepted the faith. Amish, named after Swiss clergyman Jakob Ammann, came about after a schism within the Anabaptists in the late 17th century.

Shortly thereafter, they migrated to America. Over the past century, their numbers have skyrocketed, going from 5,000 in 1920 to over 280,000 today.

Though people often associate Amish with Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, they are spread across America. Significant concentrations exist in Ohio, Indiana, Idaho, and Missouri.

Amish do not generally vote, serve in the military, or continue formal education past the eighth grade. Their mother tongue is a German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch, though some speak a Swiss dialect. Insurance is shunned, as the community bands together to raise money for hospital bills and to rebuild damaged or destroyed homes.

Like traditional Jewish movements, Amish have been faced with the challenge posed by modernity. The general trend has been to forbid symbols of modernism, though this is not absolute. Electricity is permissible in some situations, and exemptions are granted in cases of medical or other hardships. Many Amish run businesses, and rely on phones and other technology to operate.

A movement born through personal networks

Living in tight-knit rural communities, Amish don’t regularly come across Jews. While some of the participants in the groups, especially those who have been to Israel before, showed a broad knowledge of and comfort with Judaism, others betrayed the extent of their unfamiliarity. One woman asked for an explanation of the term “bar mitzvah.”

“The Amish people’s hearts are in the right place, but they just don’t have the understanding yet to go there and step out,” said Lloyd Miller, the leader of the trip, who is a Montana bishop. “If you’re a voice for truth and righteousness, you’re vulnerable, and they’re just not ready for that vulnerability yet. But their hearts are very good.

“We as a group have given up and compromised our voice, and we are now silent,” he lamented. “We need to repent for not speaking out.”

The group began to come together some 20 years ago, and grew through personal relations among those who had been excommunicated.

Miller’s involvement began by chance. “I happened to be at the right place at the right time. We were visited by these Amish brothers, and we became friends. And just connected and began to walk together… At the time, there was nothing about reconciliation. From then, I’ve been friends with leaders. Wherever they went I went. It wasn’t a planned thing.”

Shared destiny with the Jews

Ben Girod, one of the founders, said that when the group came together, “We understood that not only did we have our own persecuted past, from Europe, from our forefathers. There’s that suffering identity,” he added. “We also realized that we have a present-day obligation to identify with the Jewish people because they have a destiny from God, and our destiny is tied to yours.”

Their desire to reach out to Jews comes from the depth of their faith. “We’re Christians,” said Miller. “We believe in a crucified Jesus. But we don’t believe in a Jesus that killed Jews. We believe in a Jesus that lays his life down for others. The one who loves people where they’re at, and this is what we came to do. To bring our love to you and say we’re sorry for not protecting you during the Holocaust. We didn’t care, and that was wrong.”

David Lapp, who works for a counseling ministry in Ephrata, PA, was on the trip with his father and five of his siblings. He believes in building bridges with other groups besides Jews, including Native Americans and other churches. “What we feel called to do is to find the good in everybody. To find the golden nugget that God has given everybody. If we meet someone we can always find something bad, we can always find someone good. And our heart is to find the good in everybody.”

But Israel always touches him deeply. “Yad Vashem has really been a moving experience for me, to realize what the Jews have actually experienced,” he said. “To walk through the Holocaust museum and really see some of the horrors that the Jews have experienced. It’s hard to walk through that without shedding some tears.”

For Steven Girod, it was the Western Wall that left an impression, “Because I felt possibly the longing of the Jews to find a place to worship God, but also I would pray with them that they are able to have also what is really theirs, what is now the Temple Mount.”

The participants managed to see much of the country during their short stay, finding time to float in the Dead Sea, hike Masada, walk in Jesus’ footsteps around the Sea of Galillee, and even stay on a kibbutz.

The group did not follow the politics of the region closely, and was uninterested in connecting with Arabs in the region. It was specifically the Jews and Israel they came to reconcile with.

Some read newspapers, but not all. One young man said the only book he reads is the Bible, though he does get e-mails from Israeli national security website Debka.

Throughout the trip, it was readily apparent that the group worked with their hands, especially in construction and craftsmanship, as Amish traditionally do. The men asked questions about the architectural details at every site. In the Western Wall tunnels, they were more interested in the construction of the vaulted stone ceiling than they were in the history of the wall. Another member of the group, standing in the City of David, commented on the use of stone in Jerusalem construction, in contrast with the wood and steel they were used to in the US.

Then then they asked if they could have a few minutes for a song. “We heard you all are waiting for the rains to start,” said Stolsfus, “and we’d like to pray for rain here.”

An old farming song from rural America rang out over the ruins of David’s city and the walls of Jerusalem, as the Amish prayed for the start of the rainy season.

It’s raining, it’s raining, it’s raining once again,

The spirit of the Lord is moving like the rushing wind

The holy Ghost and fire is falling on our men

Giving them the power to bring the harvest in.