Jerusalem — Amish preacher Roy Yoder normally marks Thanksgiving the traditional way in his Montana home. But this year, he celebrated Hanukkah instead — in Israel.
Instead of tucking in to a turkey meal, he feasted on falafel, and instead of reflecting on the pilgrims, he spent the day learning about the story of the Maccabees.
Yoder isn’t the only American Amish person who exchanged customs and countries for the holiday. He traveled to Israel with almost two dozen others, who came with the express aim of apologizing to Jews for failing to protect them in the past, and for what they consider the undertone of anti-Semitism among those who practice Anabaptism, the branch of Christianity that the Amish come from.
“The Anabaptists have developed over many generations an anti-Semitic attitude, not that you could tangibly see it, but it was underneath the culture, and when the Lord opened my eyes to the fact that the Jews are still his people I realized that we owed them an apology,” said Ben Girod, bishop of an Amish community in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
In the process of apologizing, the Amish have become enamored with the Hanukkah story of the Maccabees stubbornly refusing to adopt the cultural practices of their day’s dominant culture, as a source of inspiration for their past and present challenges. The group honored the holiday of light by presenting every rabbi they met with a traditional low-tech Amish oil lamp.
“People are always trying to change us,” complained Yoder as he waited for his falafel, and then said pensively: “We’re not thinking about Thanksgiving but we are thinking about Hanukkah.” In the aptly chosen Hasmonean Room next to the Western Wall, the group listened attentively to Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the site, talk about Hanukkah. Girod then declared to Rabinowitz: “I believe we understand in some way from our own past how we can’t exist if our values are taken away from us.” Other rabbis who received apologies from them during the 10-day mission included Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, Rabbi Roberto Arbib, who leads a Conservative congregation in Tel Aviv, and the only U.S.-born Knesset member, Rabbi Dov Lipman.
The trip split up families for Thanksgiving, and incurred a cost of thousands of dollars to participants and the few donors from their communities who supported them, despite the Jerusalem-based Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism being so inspired by their story that it organized the itinerary at cost price. But the families said it has been worth it to express regret and “bless” Jews at every opportunity.
“We didn’t stand up during the Holocaust and we want to say that we will stand up for Jews now,” said Verna Yoder (no relation to Roy Yoder), a mother of six from Girod’s community.
For her, the trip is about giving the next generation of Amish a different message about Jews from the one that her generation grew up with. “It’s Thanksgiving and my children see the sacrifice that I’m here instead of at home, and that speaks volumes to them,” she said.