Few Smartphones, Some Beer: A Christian Village Grapples With Modernity

It was early afternoon on a sunny winter Thursday, and the Fox Hill community looked like a well-manicured ghost town abandoned in the 1950s. Stately multistoried homes were scattered across a parklike landscape of gently rolling hills and ponds, a bucolic settlement of 60 acres in the Hudson Valley of New York State. But where was everyone?

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Then lunch let out from the communal dining hall. Women in long, loosefitting dresses, some wearing head scarves in muted colors, looked as if they had just stepped out of a Currier and Ives print from the 19th century. The men wore jeans and winter jackets. A band of adolescent boys dashed among knots of sober-seeming elders. Nobody was staring at a cellphone, and there wasn’t a car on the road.

The people were members of the Bruderhof, a Christian pacifist movement founded during the 1920s in Germany. After the Nazis expelled them from their homeland, the Bruderhof (German for “place of brothers”) migrated abroad, ultimately settling in 26 communities on five continents. Today, about half of the roughly 3,000 Bruderhof scattered across the world live in six villages squirreled away in the hollows of the Hudson Valley. Fox Hill is in Walden, an hour and a half northwest of Manhattan.

To outsiders, the Bruderhof share a passing resemblance to the Mennonites and the Amish. Like those groups, the Bruderhof see their communities as refuges from the materialism and inequities of the modern world. They live simply and share their wealth.

But after the lockdowns prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Bruderhof were forced to revisit their longstanding mistrust of digital devices and online communication. It has proved to be a unique challenge that the Bruderhof wrestle with in their families and during community meetings: How does an enclave modeled after Christian communities of the first century engage with the modern world? And will young Bruderhof be able to adhere to the group’s values in the face of increasing exposure to the outside world via the internet, or will it lead them to reject what some regard as an oppressive way of life?

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