March 26, 2011

Leaving the Amish life behind

Moses Gingerich, who left his simple farm world for modern America, helps others do the same.

By JANESE SILVEY The Columbia Tribune

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Moses Gingerich surveys the Joe Machens dealership in Columbia, Mo., after preparing a vehicle for a customer. Gingerich, who left an Amish community in Wisconsin, works as a car salesman and mentors other ex-Amish who are trying to adjust to the modern world.

The Associated Press

Modern luxuries such as vehicles and radios were no-nos there -- thought to be the devil's tools to lure the unsuspecting into wickedness.

Farm work was required from sunup to sundown, except for Sunday, the day reserved for church and Bible reading.

By age 6, Gingerich was manually plowing fields. It didn't take him long to figure out his English neighbor was getting the job done a lot faster using a tractor. He started asking questions.

"Questions were not popular," he said.


His rebellious streak continued, and at age 15, someone on the outside sneaked Gingerich a battery-operated radio. For months, he spent Sunday afternoons hiding out listening to Garth Brooks and dreaming of becoming a country star.

Then he got caught.

Gingerich leaves out most of what happened next, other than to say the church made an example out of him and his battery-operated radio.

Hurt, confused and rejected, the 16-year-old Gingerich ran away from home. He went to a nearby farm where he worked in exchange for room and board for six months before returning home.

At that point, Gingerich decided to make a sincere effort to settle into the Amish lifestyle. For the next seven years, he worked as a schoolteacher in his hometown, relocated to the Amish community in Clark and ultimately landed in Yoder, Kan., where he found an Amish community much more liberal than he'd known before.

There, the community let its youths experience rumspringa, which lets young Amish experiment with the outside world before deciding whether they want to live as Amish for the rest of their lives. Not all Amish communities participate in that rite of passage.

Gingerich spent his rumspringa on television.


On one side of his cubicle in the Joe Machens Toyota salesroom, Gingerich displays typical office trinkets. Next to family photos and Green Bay Packers memorabilia, he has hung thank-you notes from people saying they actually enjoyed their car-buying experience.

The other side of his small office -- the side most customers don't face -- shows off another time in Gingerich's life. That's where he displays a poster of the cast of "Amish in the City," a one-season reality series on UPN in 2004 that paired Amish youths with urban roommates.

Gingerich was among the five Amish who agreed to spend rumspringa in Hollywood, letting film crews capture their reactions as they tasted certain foods and experienced activities for the first time. In one episode, Gingerich nearly drowned while trying to swim in the ocean.

The show received a lot of attention, and Gingerich was considered one of the more popular cast members. He appeared on "Live With Regis and Kelly" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and landed on a list of breakout stars of the year a few slots under actress Rachel McAdams.

Although the TV show didn't make Gingerich a country music star, it did have lasting implications. The show's producers called Gingerich when they wanted to film documentaries on Amish lifestyles. In addition to "Amish: Out of the Order," Gingerich co-produced "Amish at the Altar," a documentary about the religion's ideas about courtship and marriage.


Before giving up his construction business last year and taking his current job, Gingerich was working out details of another TV series. That program was expected to feature Gingerich showing Amish building techniques using manpower only, no power tools. Plans for the series are on hold, but Gingerich indicated he also has pitched the idea of profiling his new life as a car salesman on TV.

Producers call on him because he's willing to share a glimpse of the private Amish culture, a society where cameras and film crews are not welcome.

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