Lancaster’s Jews Open Their Hearts To Amish


For Lisa Wright, one of the few Jews of Lancaster County to live in a rural area with Amish neighbors, what stands out about the past two weeks are mostly the contrasts.

Living where she does, on farmland about six miles from the city of Lancaster, Pa., offers "a certain sense of security" from the chaos and uncertainty often associated with urban life, she said. "Most of my neighbors here have lived on the same road for more than 20 years. We’ve aged together, done errands for each other, watched our children grow together and even babysat for each other’s children."

That sense of peace and serenity was shattered Oct. 2, the day many Jews observed Yom Kippur, when a local truck driver, Charles Roberts, entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse, tied together 10 trembling girls and gunned them down before killing himself. The slaughter, in which five girls died, shocked the area’s residents, as well as other Americans. It also capped a week of violence in the nation’s schools, including one other hostage-taking and two homicides.

The other contrast ingrained in Wright’s mind is between the reaction of her Amish neighbors to last week’s tragedy and her own response.

One of her closest neighbors, an Amish farmer in his 20s, said he believed the gunman was "full of the devil" and that he "couldn’t fathom why he did it," Wright recalled. But, like other members of his faith, the neighbor said he had no hate for the killer and was able to forgive him, seeing the tragedy as somehow part of God’s plan. Wright, on the other hand, said in a phone interview Sunday that she remains angry about the murders, a response that may be closer to Jewish notions of forgiveness. Although Wright works as a speech pathologist in the Lancaster School District, she did not know any of the girls killed or their families.

Wright discussed last week’s tragedy and her family’s friendship with Amish neighbors as Lancaster residents opened their hearts and, in some cases, their wallets to those directly affected by the killings.

As in other houses of worship, leaders of the area’s three synagogues, all in Lancaster, had either begun collection drives for the families of the 10 girls or were steering members to where they could make contributions.

Rabbi Stephan Parnes of Temple Beth El, the city’s Conservative synagogue, sent an e-mail to members of his congregation two days after the killings, suggesting they recite the 23rd Psalm and asking them to reflect on the event. The 23rd Psalm, beginning with the words, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," offers comfort at times of deep distress. The e-mail also listed several efforts, such as the Amish School Recovery Fund, to which members might donate.

At Temple Shaarai Shomayim, a Reform synagogue, the Tikkun Olam Committee decided that donations to the congregation’s tzedakah fund would go to the Amish families. Meanwhile, Rabbi Jack Paskoff, the synagogue’s leader, met with religious school students and their parents last week to discuss the episode and how Jewish theology might address it.

The city’s third and oldest congregation is the Orthodox Degel Torah, where members approached Rabbi Shaya Sackett to facilitate their contributions.

Nevertheless, little interaction exists between the county’s Amish residents and members of the area’s Jewish community, which numbers about 1,500, said Andrew DeWitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Lancaster. DeWitt, whose agency combines the functions of a Jewish federation and a JCC, said nearly all the area’s Jews live in the city while the Amish are mostly farmers in rural parts of the county.

One of the few exceptions to that (and perhaps the only exception) is Lisa Wright, who lives on nearly 10 acres of land with her husband, Jeffry, and their two children, Nathaniel, 14, and Benjamin, 16. Their tract is in West Lampeter, a township about six miles from Nickel Mines, the site of last week’s killings.

Wright, in fact, formed part of what appears to be a rare and enriching friendship: one between her, a Jewish woman raised in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and an Amish woman, roughly the same age, who had never before left Lancaster County.

Wright and her friend, Barbie King, met shortly after Wright and her husband moved to the area 21 years ago, recalled Wright, now 48 and a member of Shaarai Shomayim. The friendship took off after Jeffry Wright volunteered to help the Kings stack hay on their farm, a gesture the Kings returned by baking a pie for the Wrights.

Between those moments and two years ago, when Barbie King died of cancer, the two women watched each other’s children, shopped together, sampled each other’s food and even traveled together. (Although they don’t own cars themselves, the Amish allow themselves to ride in other people’s cars.) They also engaged in deep conversations, some over their vastly different lifestyles and some over theology.

The Wrights today are still close friends with Barbie King’s daughter and son-in-law, Mary and David Blank, who live in the same farmhouse the Kings once inhabited. It’s a rural life based partly on neighbors helping neighbors, said Wright, whose husband is an attorney.

"A week doesn’t go by when I don’t pick up a tractor part [for the Blanks] or go on an errand or when Mary doesn’t bring over tomatoes or homemade bread." Wright said that, although she has encountered anti-Semitism from Mennonites and other Christians in the area, she has never heard an ill word from any of the Amish, who she calls nonjudgmental. "They don’t proselytize," she added. "They have no desire to convert you, and they wouldn’t convert you, and I’m very comfortable with that."

Meanwhile, in light of last week’s tragedy, she professes both respect and amazement for the Amish concept of forgiveness: a concept that differs greatly from the idea held by most Jews, according to two area rabbis.

"Our first emotion is that we’re not ready to forgive somebody in that situation," Rabbi Parnes said. Most Jews believe deeply that individuals make choices and, therefore, have a responsibility for their actions, he continued. "We feel there shouldn’t be forgiveness at least until the individual does repentance."

The Amish community, on the other hand, believes that God has a plan for the world: a plan, said the rabbi, that although they might not understand, they feel they must accept. "So they are ready to forgive and not bear that hatred within themselves as time goes on."

Rabbi Sackett, the area’s Orthodox rabbi, said forgiveness for Jews "is not spontaneous or instantaneous. It has to come about through hard work and resolve and changing one’s being." Moreover, among Jews, "it’s not the family’s place to offer forgiveness, but the person who’s most directly wronged"- and, in the case of homicide, that person is no longer there.