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Young Center at Elizabethtown College Focuses on Plain Families

There are some 60,000 members of the Plain community in Lancaster County. They have a unique heritage and way of life that has remained remarkably traditional for generations. Lancaster County attracts some five million visitors to the area each year as well as adding thousands of dollars to the local economy. Most come to learn about the Plain community and its heritage.

And despite the frantic pace of the 21st century, these families have been able to maintain their culture in the midst of a whirlwind society dominated by the latest labor saving device, the newest car or latest restaurant all studied on social media on their smart phone.

At Elizabethtown College, the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies has served as the nation’s leading resource for scholarship and interpretation of these groups in an increasingly materialistic society. The center will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2019 in a refurbished building expected to open next year with a new educational interpretive center giving visitors a closer look at this unique heritage, a reconfigured classroom and additional office space.

The center has always been an academic research hub on the Anabaptist and Pietist movements with visiting scholars and educational programs but will expand its outreach to the community and visitors with the interactive, interpretive center on this important movement in American history. The interpretive center will include rotating exhibits and artifacts from center archives with a special emphasis on the Amish.

Right off the center lobby entrance, in a building which will have a third more space, the interpretive area will introduce visitors to the Anabaptist and Pietists traditions, their origins, and their history. Steven Nolt, the Young Center senior scholar, said, “We will be including the Brethren, Amish, and Mennonites, as well as the Ephrata Cloister. Some aspects of the interpretive center,” he explained, “are still in design, but it will include visuals, some artifacts, and some audio.”

Jeff Bach serves as the Young Center’s director. Recently, he and Nolt talked about the Center’s mission and plans for the future from their temporary quarters across College Avenue from construction on the original 1990 Young Center building.

Bach has been the center director since 2007. An ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren, he came to the center from the Brethren Theological Seminary in Indiana. Bach did his doctoral dissertation and research on the Ephrata Cloister.

Nolt was a Young Center fellow studying Amish businesses in 1995 for founding director Don Kraybill. He received his Ph.D. at Notre Dame University and did his dissertation on the Central Pennsylvania German Lutherans. He joined the Young staff in 2016 from his alma mater ― Goshen College in Indiana ― where he taught in the history department.

The Young Center was built through a grant from trustee Galen Young and wife, Jessie, who wanted to document the religious traditions that gave rise to Elizabethtown College in an academic setting. The college was founded in 1899 by members of the Church of the Brethren who were interested in establishing an institution of higher education for their denomination in eastern Pennsylvania and was run by the church until 1993 when the college became independent.

In an interview with The Elizabethtown Advocate, Bach and Notl were upbeat about the center’s near and long-term future. The center, according to Bach will continue with two main goals: academic research that encompasses visiting fellows and scholars as well as outreach to the community through lectures and programs that provide the community with insight into the Anabaptist and Pietist traditions. Both Bach and Nolt teach courses at the college on the Anabaptist movement for Elizabethtown College students.

Center scholars working with the academic community and research fellows interpreting the life of Anabaptist and Pietist groups ― including Amish, Mennonite and Church of the Brethren ― through a number of outreach programs.

A long-standing monthly lecture series during the academic year will continue in temporary quarters on campus until the reopening of the Center and its Bucher Meetinghouse lecture site.

A number of visiting fellows will study at the Center during 2017-18 as has been the tradition since its founding.  This fall, Professor Rivka Neryia-Ben Shahar from Israel will study Jewish Orthodox women and Amish women and their use of technology in the 21st century. In the spring, retired Professor Tony Walsh, from Ireland, who is a scholar on Old Order Brethren, will be in residence. And, according to Director Bach, a couple from Nigeria ― Samuel and Rebecca Dali ― who live in a community in the African nation close to the militant Islamist group Boko Haram will be in residence during the spring semester and share their experiences of the Christian community under siege in their homeland as Boko Haram has unleashed a wave of bombings, assassinations, and abductions in an attempt to overthrow the government.

The Young Center also has a cooperative arrangement with Johns Hopkins University Press to publish its scholar authors. Founding Director Kraybill’s book, “The Amish,” was published by JHU Press in 2013. Recently, Center scholars helped edit a JHU Press book titled “Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia” and Nolt’s new book “The Amish: A Concise Introduction” will be published later this year.

Despite operating from temporary quarters, the Young Center has planned five upcoming events for the including three lectures, a panel presentation and a heritage festival.

The first lecture will be by 2016 center fellow Claire Marie Mensack on Tuesday, Sept. 19. Mensack, who now teaches at Liberty University, will give a glimpse of life in the Dawdi Haus. A Dawdi Haus is part of a Plain family home where elderly parents live when they turn over household leadership roles to adult children. Mensack is an instructor in public health and interested in how the Plain communities care for elderly members.

Founding Young Center Director Kraybill will talk on Thursday, Oct. 19, about the quiet rivalry between Elizabethtown College and Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia and some of the reasons that the Church of the Brethren founded a college in Lancaster County but the Mennonites did not.

Visiting Fellow Neriya-Ben Shahar will explain how Amish and ultra-Orthodox Jewish women cope with the new media and the contradiction with their communities’ values and practices on Thursday, Nov. 16.

The center also will host a Brethren Heritage Festival on Saturday, Oct. 21, as well as a panel presentation: “Three Views of Reform: Luther, Calvin, and Swiss Anabaptists” on Tuesday, Nov. 14.

All events are open to the public. Anyone who wants more details including times and location of events may access the center’s website.

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