Some members of the Anabaptist community - including a group of local Amish men - have a message for the Jewish people.

They're sorry.

They expressed their sorrow in words and song during a visit to Israel over Thanksgiving week. It was part of an ongoing mission of reconciliation between people of two essentially disparate faiths.

"This was our third trip," said Steve Lapp, of Ephrata.

About a dozen Anabaptists from Lancaster and Lebanon counties - as well as nearly two dozen more Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites from Ohio, Indiana, Montana, Idaho and Canada - returned Dec. 1 from the latest effort in a process that began three years ago.

"In 2010, the mission was to go and apologize to the Jews and Israel for rejecting Israel and (for) the atrocities that they went through during the Holocaust," Lapp said.

"Our people were silent during that time," he said. "We didn't speak up against it."

There was even some residual anti-Semitism among the Anabaptist community, added Jonas Stoltzfus, of Paradise. Lapp described the sentiment as: "The Jews crucified Jesus and thereby missed the mark."

Many Christians felt they had replaced the Jews as God's chosen people, he said. "But the Scriptures say God has made an everlasting covenant with Israel," he said. "And an everlasting covenant cannot be broken."

That realization might be coming late in the game, he conceded. "This generation seems to have a greater awareness of forgiveness."

"It's about reconciliation," Stoltzfus said. "God in his sovereignty ... is able to bring about a revelation. This is the time. This is now."

Friendship grows

The first visit in 2010 was greeted "with a lot of skepticism," Lapp said. "It was like, 'OK, we'll meet with you, but what is this about?' This trip, there was much more openness, more friendship."

The mission statement for the journey says the Anabaptist people "turned away from the Jewish nation, while they were in their darkest hour of need. ... 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."

But the trip to Israel was about more than just reconciliation, Lapp said. It also was a spiritual journey for the Anabaptists, who were able to visit places they'd only read about before in the Bible.

"It was about experiencing the land - the Bible come to life," he said. "We were able to see the places that we've read about many times. They're real places."

They were able to "walk where Jesus walked, where David walked. It made it very real," he added. "It has broadened my perspective on what life is about, what our walk here in life is about."

"We spent some time at the Dead Sea," Stoltzfus said. "We visited the Masada. We took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. There were baptisms in the Jordan River. We visited Nazareth village and the City of David, and we walked in the Old City in Jerusalem.

"We also went to the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum."

It was "extra cold" back home in Lancaster County, Lapp noted - but in Israel temperatures were in the 70s and 80s, nice enough for a dip in the Dead Sea.

Lazar Berman, writing Dec. 1 for The Times of Israel, described a scene during a visit with Jewish religious leaders. More than 30 Anabaptists gathered, "some with arms raised, many with eyes shut," Berman wrote. "As they did at every opportunity on a weeklong mission to Israel, they were singing religious hymns, in English and German, in perfect pitch."

Berman also noted that many of the men - builders and craftsmen at home - were curious about the architectural details of the places they saw.

Much in common

Although at first glance the similarities between the Amish and Jewish cultures might seem to begin and end with a shared "ish" suffix, Lapp said they have much in common.

He and his fellow travelers rattled off several key elements of both societies, including a traditional style of dress, a focus on the Old Testament, family and community values, and a respect for hard work.

Members of both faiths exchanged blessings, said Aaron Lapp Jr., of Gordonville, who has gone on two of the three mission trips to Israel.

"There was a deep love coming from both parties - more than there was before," he said. "The relationships between us are building."

Stoltzfus said relationship-building so far has been limited mostly to extending an olive branch to Israel - although, he said, a group of local Anabaptists toured the Hassidic area of Brooklyn in New York City in 2008 and met with some of the Jewish population there in a similar mission of outreach.

There hasn't been much contact with Jewish people in Lancaster, he said, although he expects that will occur in the future.


There also are some repairs to be made in their relationship with their own church.

As Berman noted in The Times, some of the Anabaptists on the mission are at odds with their faith leaders - largely for challenging the strict requirements of the Anabaptist traditions.

The flight to Israel alone was a violation of a ban on modern technology.

"It was different," Steve Lapp said, recalling his first flight. "In another way it was exciting, too."

Some members of the group have questioned biblical interpretations accepted by the Old Order Amish community.

Some were shunned or excommunicated by the church, although they still consider themselves Amish.

Stoltzfus, who was excommunicated three years ago, told The Times his separation from the church was painful, but necessary.

"I had to make a choice between compromising my belief or being put out," he said.

Even so, Lapp said there is much interest among members of the broader Anabaptist community in this move toward reconciliation with the Jews.

"A lot of people are watching the process, and asking questions," he said. "It's maybe a little new yet. Maybe too new. But people are engaged, and they're watching."

He expects his group will schedule another mission trip to Israel in the next year or so.

He believes the Amish and larger Anabaptist communities are taking new steps toward their place in the world.

"There are a lot of changes that are happening right now," Lapp said.

"The Amish community is evolving."