Change in Amish Education? A Mennonite Ponzi Scheme, and a New Venture

I came across a story last night that I’m hoping is a sign that some Amish are beginning to think about educating their children through tenth grade instead of the traditional Amish eighth-grade education. The Elkhart Truth published an article about a bill passed in the Indiana House of Assembly that is helping to accommodate the Amish students with earning two years of high school.

It is uncertain how many Amish students will take advantage of this opportunity if the bill passes the Indiana State Senate. One education official said, “It will probably be a few in the beginning. Maybe more will come from the Amish schools later.”

I think this is fabulous. I have for a long time advocated for the Amish to continue their children’s education, even if it is for two more years. Over time, I think this could make such a difference in their culture over time. As has been discussed on this blog before, many Amish people are comfortable in their ignorance of the wider world, and of all things scientific. If the next generation is allowed to educate themselves beyond the eighth grade and learn critical thinking skills, perhaps this will slowly change this attitude. I’m certainly hoping so.

Photo by Saloma Furlong Amish schoolhouse where I attended as a pupil and where I later became a teacher.

 


A major media story in the media this week is how the four Mennonite owners of a creamery that went belly up in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania ran a Ponzi scheme that ate up the life savings of many Amish and Mennonite families who had “loaned” the money to owners of the dairy. The most recent owners of the dairy are Philip Riehl, Gerald Byers, Elvin Martin and Dale Martin. The exact amount of money they lost is unknown, but is believed to be around 60 million dollars.

The most detailed account of what happened that I’ve found is the report in The Washington Post. The report starts out with this:

When Trickling Springs Creamery suddenly shut down operations in late September, the owners lost more than their 18-year-old business dedicated to organic milk, butter and cheese. They lost their respect and standing in the conservative Mennonite communities of Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Later in the article it was explained as to how this could happen by remarks made by Norman Greenspan, the defense lawyer for the four men when he said his clients “simply did not know that the notes could not be sold without first registering with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. There was no intent on their part to mislead or to cheat anyone.”

The investment cash funneled into Trickling Springs, Greenspan added, “is but an extension of what they do almost on a day-to-day basis within the Mennonite community, and that is they loan money to each other. They look out for each other. They help each other.”

My experience of living in a tight-knit community is that those who are close to you can help you, but they can also hurt you. From this article, it isn’t clear whether the owners were purposely bilking their fellow Mennonites of their life savings, or if they were merely taking advantage of the trust their community members had for one another. Either way, the community reacted, according to the article:

Many, if not most, of those investors were Mennonites, and the religious community’s judgment has been swift: Three of the owners have been excommunicated. A fourth, Byers, apparently asked to be excommunicated to share in the suffering of his former partners.

What did Riehl, Byers, Elvin Martin and Dale Martin do to merit excommunication? According to interviews with half a dozen members of the Mennonite church, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their relationships in the community, in broad terms, the owners turned away from God. But in practical terms, they betrayed the trust of the community by selling promissory notes without fully revealing — or perhaps without fully realizing — the company’s financial struggles.

Philip Riehl apparently launched a loan program within the Mennonite community in 1995, long before he became an owner in Trickling Springs in 2007. He was an accountant, so in my mind he should have known, which raises the question, “Is he incompetent, or is he unethical?” I hope the courts will be able to sort that out, and I also hope there is a way to compensate those who are left destitute by their misfortune as a result of trusting someone who wasn’t trustworthy.


On a personal note, I am starting a new job tomorrow. I took on the position of office manager at Park View Mennonite Church where David and I are members. It feels right for where I am in my life right now, and the community is welcoming me warmly as I step into that role.

I don’t yet know what this means in terms of my writing. I will have less time to write, but then again, I may be more committed to writing in the time I do have. This is a part-time position, so I’m hoping I’ll have creative energy left over when I return home each day.

If you don’t see another blog post in the near future, you’ll know my energy is needed elsewhere as I transition into this new position.

Thank you to all who have been supporting me through this blog. I am grateful to you.

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11 thoughts on “Change in Amish Education? A Mennonite Ponzi Scheme, and a New Venture”

  1. I, too, saw the article about 10th grade opportunities for Amish young people. As always, I wonder if this is a grassroots movement or is it coming externally upon these Amish communities? I don’t see any indication in the article where this came from. It seems to me this will make a significant difference whether or not anyone will take the opportunity. Obviously, it won’t be compulsory. It’s up to the individual which may be an issue in itself. I know there’s got to be talk about this in that area, and I wonder what it is.

    1. Vi, I’m thinking it was because some Amish youth have been attending high schools until the tenth grade, which has an effect on the schools’ graduation rates. This measure would have not effect on the graduation rates. It seems to me it’s coming from within the Amish… perhaps the more elite in the community are pushing for more schooling for their children. If that is the case, it will affect the whole community… “if the Yoders can do it, why can’t I?”

      I noticed the author of the bill has the last name Stutzman. Perhaps she came out of the Amish? I wondered…

      But you are right, there has to be talk… and I’m as curious as you are about what that is.

  2. Does the article say how these students will be taught? In public school or in the Amish schools with uneducated teachers or is the state offering them teachers?

  3. I’m not Amish, but I do have an Amish friend – a young woman not too much older than my granddaughter. She used to help her dad with their stand at a local market, and surprised me when she gave me her telephone number. She said “things are changing, even among the Amish” which is a bit of a surprise, to me at any rate. They have solar panels on their roof, and all of the power comes from those. No more Dewalt batteries! She keeps her blender and other appliances out of sight – “No point in getting too lazy” – but she gladly accepted my gift of a HUGE box of disposable diapers when she was expecting her third child. I wouldn’t be too shocked to learn that a certain amount of “book learning” isn’t creeping into their lives. Certainly, with the amount of medical problems from inbreeding more scientific education can’t be amiss.

    1. Amen to that… the genetic issues they have can only be helped by more education.

      Yes, things are changing in terms of technology in the Amish. My concern has always been that their education practices have not changed in forever. I love it that there are signs of perhaps….

  4. Elisabeth H. Keener

    Saloma, this “belly up” that was described at the beginning of the article, did not take place in Berks County. It took place in Chambersburg, Franklin County, PA. I know because I have lived here my entire life, traveled to the Trickling Springs Creamery weekly to buy eight half-gallons of milk, usually having an ice cream cone (chocolate cookies) before making my way back home to our farm. One of the farmers who supplied milk for Trickling Springs lives about one-half mile down the road from where I live. The last time my husband and I bought milk there, several of the workers came to say good bye with tears in their eyes, saying how much they would miss us. These men are beyond disgusting.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth, for that correction. I did wonder about that when I read it, but I didn’t check it, and I should have. I’ve made the correction.

      Your subsequent comments will go up instantly. The first one by an author are approved, and then any new comments go through automatically.

  5. Elisabeth H. Keener

    Not living in this are, I can easily understand how that mistake could have been made, for Riehl is from Berks County. Our local paper, the Public Opinion, had a one-and-one-half page article on this very sad situation. Sad on so many fronts: that it even happened, initially; that the Amish and Mennonite families were duped into supporting this scheme, sad for the community that had grown to love the dairy products from Trickling Springs and finally for the former employees. Thankfully, all the farmers found buyers for their milk, but oh, how I miss Trickling Springs Creamery!

  6. Denise Ann Shea

    I’ve often wondered if, with more Amish having to find work outside of traditional family farms, the educational system would adapt. I can see an extra two (or maybe three?) years of education to gain the skills needed in a changing world. Advanced critical thinking, decision making, basic accounting and finance skills perhaps wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for the Amish leaders to approve?

    Congratulations on your new job!! I was a parish adiministrator (full-time) for a few years and it was the best job I’ve ever had. Never a dull moment.

    1. Never a dull moment… that describes it. I feel like I’ve learned a lot in three days, but I certainly have a lot more to learn.

      I agree with you about Amish education… three or four years are better than two years of high school. But two years are better than none. One has to start somewhere, and I think any changes are going to have to come in stages.

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