By Rivka Neriya ben Shahar
I had spent a period of time living with an Amish family to conduct research that compared consumption of mass media by Old Order Amish Women to that of the Ultra-Orthodox women. I grew close to this family and learned a lot about their culture and ways of doing things. Once I was back in Israel, I made plans to visit the U.S. again and wrote to “Anna,” not her real name.
I asked her, “What I can bring from the Holy Land?”
At first she told me she didn’t want anything, just to see me with my “hands empty and my heart full.” But, finally, she agreed to let me to bring her some water from the Jordan River. This is about two hours drive for me from Jerusalem and I asked some friends who were going there to bring back the water. Some suggested I just bring any water, that no one will know the difference. But I knew the difference and wanted to do it properly. I got water from the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River and made a nice package for her, hoping these bottles would not break when I traveled.
When I presented the water, I was glad I had done it all properly. Anna and her family were so thrilled. I could see they were awed. “Jesus walked on this water,” she said to me over and over again.
As we talked, I explained that these bodies of water are really like streams, ponds or small lakes, that they are nothing like the Atlantic Ocean. That was when Anna told me that she had never seen the ocean. She was 56 years old and lived in Lancaster County, Penn., not far from the Atlantic, but she had never been there.
“I have a car. We will go. I will take you there,” I said.
Since they live in a near blackout of information from outside their community, none of the women in this family knew the closest beach. We asked some of the boys who worked for construction companies. They told us the nearest beach was Atlantic City, N.J. or Ocean City, Md. We drove to the public library. It would be her first time seeing “the Internet.” I researched that Atlantic City was closest so we went.
I didn’t know anything about Atlantic City and neither did Anna. In my mind, it translated to “the city of the Atlantic,” so it must be a bountiful and clean beach. When I look back on this, I wonder why I didn’t Google it from the library. I think the reason is because I got into Anna’s mindset.
During the nice two and half hour ride with Anna and her daughter, we had very good conversations. I started wondering why, when we came close to the city, we saw many billboards about gambling with immodest pictures, but we didn’t think that had anything to do with us. When we arrived, we parked at a hotel garage and press “C” on the elevator thinking it was the way outside. The other options were just numbers. The elevator doors opened and we were in the level of the casino!
“What did you do?” she asked, again and again. I could see that she was terrified. “I don’t know!” I answered. “I thought that this is the way to the ocean!”
I am a modest woman and I had no idea what I had done or where we were. Anna told me that if anyone were to see her in such a place she would be excommunicated for at least six months.
Then, a kind person recognized from their clothes that Anna and her daughter were Amish. This stranger understood my terrible mistake. I asked this kind person to take us to the ocean and she led us out of the casino and toward the beach.
Everything changed in the moment when she saw the sea. As the waves washed in and out, Anna and her daughter watched in awe. There were still billboards all around selling things, advertising things we did not want to look at, but there was also a good feeling from the heart.
As she watched the waves wash in and out, she asked, “How do they do that? From all the pictures I have seen, I didn’t know they could move. How can you not believe in G-d when you see this?”
We sat together, our legs in the water, and sang religious songs. They thanked God again and again for the opportunity to see the creation. When we sat there, I called my spouse in Jerusalem.
“Hi, we are at Atlantic City.”
“Are you crazy? He asked. “This is the east coast’s Las Vegas! You should know that this is a casino and immodest place.”
“I grew up as a ‘good Jerusalem’s girl,’” I answered.
In the end, the Amish women and I had the same knowledge about Atlantic City.
Dr. Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar is a lecturer at the Sapir Academic College in Sderot, Israel, and was a Fulbright Post Doctoral Fellowship recipient for the year of 2011-2012 and a scholar-in-residence, at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.