Image: Rabbi Beryl Epstein, center, explains the process of baking matzo
Julie Jacobson  /  AP
Rabbi Beryl Epstein, center, explains the process of baking matzo for Passover to a group of Pennsylvania Amish Tuesday, March 31, at a matzo factory in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
updated 3/31/2009 8:36:03 PM ET 2009-04-01T00:36:03

The city's ultra-Orthodox Jews took the Pennsylvania Amish on a walking tour of their world Tuesday, saying their communities are naturally drawn to each other with a commitment to simpler lifestyles.

"It's reinforcing to the Amish community to see us Jews living the way the Bible says Jews are supposed to live, and have lived since the time of Moses and Abraham," said Yisroel Ber Kaplan, program director for the Chassidic Discovery Center in Brooklyn.

"The Amish are also living their lives as the Bible speaks to them."

Dozens of Amish residents from Lancaster County, Pa., toured a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn's Crown Heights to learn more about their culture.

'Living Judaism'
Rabbi Beryl Epstein called the experience "living Judaism."

The neighborhood is home to an ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher sect born about 200 years ago in Russia.

Today's Lubavitchers wear the black hats and beards of their 18th-century forebears, speak Yiddish and refrain from turning on electricity or driving cars on the Sabbath.

The Amish get around in a horse and buggy, living off the land.

However, both groups use one modern amenity — cell phones that kept ringing as they wandered through Crown Heights. And the Hasids ironically operate the famed B&H electronics retail store in Manhattan that serves customers from around the world.

At a workshop where a young man was touching up a Torah, a scroll of the holiest Jewish writings, Epstein told the group how a Jew in wartime Germany had rescued the sacred scroll by wrapping it around his midriff under his clothes as he fled to safety.

The Amish listened, commenting to one another in Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect of the German of their ancestors.

When Epstein, a native of Chattanooga, Tenn., had first greeted the Amish with the Yiddish "Zei gazunt!" — "be healthy" — they understood. After all, the expression is derived from the German word "sei gesund."

Double-takes in Crown Heights
As the two groups walked side by side on Brooklyn streets, Crown Heights residents did double-takes; the Amish could be mistaken for Lubavitchers at a quick glance. But their hats are more square and their ruddy complexions from working outdoors contrast with the pale faces of the studious, urban Lubavitchers.

Hasidic children in Crown Heights begin their formal schooling at age 3, and by age 5 are studying many hours a day. At the headquarters on Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway each day, dozens of men gather to pore over religious books, with little boys dashing around as their fathers fervently debate fine points of the texts — sometimes sounding more like spirited poker players than religious faithful.

John Lapp and his wife, Priscilla, brought their three children on the tour. John Lapp said the ties to the communities might be more surface than substance.

"In some things we are alike, like our clothing and our traditional beliefs," he said. Priscilla Lapp added, "And in some things we are not. The biggest thing is that Jesus is our savior."

The groups also toured a Jewish library and a "matzo factory," where round, unleavened bread was being made for the Passover holiday.

There, a cross-cultural misunderstanding caused one of the Jewish men to look at the Amish, and ask, repeatedly, "Are you from Usbekhistan?"

An Amish man, also confused, asked, "Afghanistan?"

Finally, as they were leaving, another Amish man announced to the matzo-makers: "We're from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania!"

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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