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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Amish: Shunned

Airs Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Paul Edwards joined the Amish church at 17 but was excommunicated after a falling out.

A poignant and penetrating look at what it means to be cut off from faith and family, "The Amish: Shunned" follows seven people who have chosen to leave their closed and tightly knit communities for the outside world, knowing that they can never return. Each has paid deeply for this decision. Estranged from loved ones, these former Amish find themselves struggling to make their way in modern America.

Courtesy of Jan Edwards

Edwards family photo taken in August 1977. Although the family is dressed in traditional Amish clothing, this was taken a few years before they became members of the Amish church. Jan Edwards is on the left wearing a white cap; Paul Edwards is standing to the right of the buggy.

Courtesy of Joe Keim

Joe Keim in 1987.

Courtesy of Edward Marritz/WGBH

Joe Keim is a former member of the Amish community who now operates the “Mission to Amish People” to support others who choose to leave.

Courtesy of Naomi Kramer

Naomi Kramer at her nursing school graduation from Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, April 2012.

Courtesy of Tim Cragg/WGBH

Levi Shetler is a former member of the Amish community.

Top Ten FAQ

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE asked internationally renowned scholar Donald B. Kraybill to answer our top ten questions about the Amish.

Interwoven with their stories are the voices of staunchly loyal Amish men and women who explain the importance of obedience, the strong ties and traditions that bind them, and the heartbreak they feel when a loved one falls away. Through its sympathetic portrayal of both sides, the film explores what is gained and what is lost when community and tradition are exchanged for individuality and freedom.

Produced, directed and written by Callie T. Wiser, "The Amish: Shunned" premieres on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Tuesday, February 4, 2014 on PBS.

As a producer on 2012’s "The Amish," AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s in-depth look at the history, beliefs and traditions of the insular religious community, Wiser was exposed to the concept of shunning. “This is one of the faith’s defining practices in which members of the community cut ties with those who choose to leave,” says Wiser. “We touched on it in the first film, but I was interested in delving further into the practice, and finding individuals whose stories would portray the breadth and variety of shunning.”

Revealing the pain of those who leave and the suffering of those left behind, the film is the story of people confronted with difficult choices. To the Amish, shunning is an essential tenet of their faith and a way to maintain the strength and viability of a tight-knit community.

While the practice has helped protect them from the onslaught of modern culture, it is an agonizing decision for parents, relatives and friends to sever ties with loved ones whom they believe to be eternally condemned for their decision to leave.

Many who leave face challenging obstacles: no birth certificates or social security numbers, language barriers because English is not their primary language, and the lack of a support network in the outside world.

Young people who leave know that their families will disapprove, and some, particularly from stricter communities, run away without saying goodbye to avoid a painful confrontation. They shoulder the burden of knowing their families will wake up to an empty room and the realization they may never see their children again — in this life or the next.

“The film is an emotional roller coaster through a set of universal experiences that anyone can understand, even if they’re not Amish,” said Mark Samels, Executive Producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. “The longing of a parent for a child, the sadness of a child for the family they have lost, the pain of separation that lasts a lifetime. All of these things are at play in this film.”

Whether out in the world for two weeks or 35 years, the former Amish in the film struggle to create a new sense of community in modern America. The moment of walking out the door begins a lifetime of wondering: “If you are born Amish, must you stay Amish to go to heaven?” Each will spend their days trying to answer that question and to reconcile the life they have lost.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is on Facebook, and you can follow @AmExperiencePBS on Twitter. Past episodes of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE are available for online viewing.

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The Amish: Shunned, Extended Preview

Above: In "The Amish: Shunned," follow seven former Amish people who have paid deeply for their decision to leave their closed and tightly-knit communities for the outside world, as they struggle to make their way in modern America estranged from loved ones.

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American Experience: The Amish: Shunned: "We Had No Idea"

Above: Paul's parents became Amish when he was a boy. He was shunned as an adult. "We had no idea what it meant to be Amish. We thought a clothes change and probably a little more, but we had no idea how much more." "The Amish: Shunned" premiers on PBS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE February 4, 2014.

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American Experience: The Amish: Shunned: "It was Pretty Awesome"

Above: "For me, I wanted to experience a different life. I wanted to go out and drive a truck, or something like that. I just thought that would be cool. Back then, that was everything to us. To have phones, radios and stuff like that - of course our parents, they didn't like that." Levi left his Amish family when he was 17. See his story in "The Amish: Shunned" on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE PBS February 4, 2014.

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American Experience: The Amish: Shunned: "The Good Kid"

Above: "In the dominant culture of America, I would have been the good kid -- putting myself through college and working full time, but to the Amish I was a little bit of a rebel. I don't really know how I would do it differently if I had it to do over, but I wish somehow it wouldn't have to be like that." Naomi left her Amish family to become a nurse.

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The Amish: Shunned, Chapter One

Above: "When we lose obedience, we lose the church. Amen." What is shunning? 2012's "The Amish" only touched on the practice, but this follow up documentary explores shunning more deeply, interviewing both current and former Amish people. "The Amish: Shunned" premieres on PBS February 4, 2014.