I can gear a book talk towards correcting the misconception about Rumspringa, yet inevitably one of the first questions posed to me from an audience member will be about that time when young people get to leave the culture and decide whether they want to come back and join the Amish.
Last night was no exception. My first question from a gentleman in the audience was: “What about your sabbatical?”
I try not to let my heart sink when this question comes up. It feels so daunting to repeat my answer to every single audience. Sometimes it feels so futile. This myth is so implanted in people’s minds, they equate it with the word “Amish.” I know some people don’t even believe what I have to say about this misconception, and some may even disbelieve other things I have to say because they just “know” this to be true. Maybe I wasted my breath last night, but I gave the answer I always do.
This morning I opened an email from one of the German teachers at Smith, who sent me a link to an article from Der Spiegel that was entitled: Leben als junger Amish (The Life of Amish Young People). It was a story about two Amish girls from Lancaster: one who chose to stay Amish and one who left the Amish.
Here is one paragraph, followed by my translation.
“Rumspringa”: Zeit für Sex, Drogen, Führerschein
“Es gibt aber eine Zeit, in der diese Grenze durchlässig ist, in der junge Menschen ab 16 aus dem Korsett der Gemeinde ausbrechen dürfen. “Rumspringa” heißt sie. Diese Zeit dauert, solange sie eben dauert, und endet erst mit der Entscheidung für ein Leben mit der Gemeinde. Oder ohne sie.”
“Rumspringa: A Time for Sex, Drugs, Driver’s License
“There is a time, however, in which the limits are permeable, when young people turn 16 and they are allowed to break out of the corset of the church. “Rumspringa” is what it’s called. This time lasts as long as it lasts, and ends only with the decision for a life within the church. Or outside it.”
This was the paragraph that really did make my heart sink, because I realized this misconception is even bigger than I thought… now there are people in Germany who think this is the gospel truth about Amish culture as well. I wonder how many people will see the contradiction, right there in the same article.
Esther Schmucker, the young woman who decided to leave, describes how her mother broke off all contact with Esther as soon as she left home. They didn’t communicate for more than two years. Here is my question: How can you believe that Amish parents give their young people a conscious choice about staying or leaving, when the parents cut off all contact with their sons or daughters if they do leave?
One can ask why it matters to me whether people know the truth about “Rumspringa” or hang on to their misconceptions. It is a fair question and one that I will answer.
At the heart of many other misconceptions about the Amish is the one that young people are given a conscious choice about whether to stay or leave. This is central to being able to hold the Amish on a pedestal and believe many other romanticized things about them, such as the notion that they eat only natural foods or wear clothing made of natural fibers — that what is true about one group or family of Amish is true of them all and that they live in harmony, free of the pitfalls of the rest of society.
Some Amish eat wholesome foods and are conscious of eating healthy, while others eat sugared cereal (with more sugar added) and white store-bought bread; some Amish may prefer cotton material, but others like the convenience of synthetic fabric for their clothing and make most of their clothes from polyester material; there are as many ways to uphold the Amish traditions as there are bishops (more than 1,900), which means there are very few things we can say about “the Amish”; and the Amish are human, which means they have as many problems as those that plague the rest of society.
This is the reason I feel so passionate about the “truth” about Rumspringa. I find it central to understanding who the Amish are as a people. And so I give my answer, like a mantra, yet again.
The Truth about Rumspringa
The Rumspringa years are basically the time in Amish young people’s lives when they join the young people’s gatherings and begin dating and ends with marriage. In many communities, the young people begin dating before they become members of the church, so they are in between the supervision of their parents and the supervision of the church. This can be a time of ambiguity and young people may exhibit rebellion of the Amish ways as they “sow their wild oats.” The parents may look the other way as their young people do things that are not usually allowed in the church. It varies a great deal from one family to the next, and from one community to the next how much the parents will tolerate the “wild” ways. There are some communities in which the young people are required to become baptized members before they are allowed to date and other communities in which young people are permitted to live at home even though they drive cars or dress in “English” clothing. Most communities are somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum.
In my community at the time when I was growing up, the wildest young people would visit bars and drink alcohol, play music, dance, or have cameras or radios on the sly. These things were not as bad in the eyes of the parents and elders as showing signs that they were unzufriede, (discontent) with the Amish ways. The telltale signs that the parents and elders watched for were: taking a course at a college, taking trips far away from home alone, dating someone outside the Amish, or deciding to go out for dinner on dates instead of dating the traditional way. These telltale signs would result in the parents and elders of the church admonishing that young person that he or she should make a commitment to “follow the church” and become a baptized member.
The expectation that Amish parents and elders have is that their young people will become baptized members of the church. Parents are told that if they raise their children right, they won’t leave the Amish. The parents are also told that it is better to lose a child through death, than to lose a son or daughter “to the world.” Children are taught from the time they can understand the concept that because they were born Amish, God wants them to stay Amish and if they leave, all hope of their salvation will be lost. In other words, they will go to Hell if they leave. This belief is reinforced with fire and brimstone preaching in church. The guilt trap is set — for both the Amish parents and the young people.
There is something else in the ways of the Amish that contradict the idea of the parents giving their young people a conscious choice about staying or leaving. The Amish were granted an exemption from compulsory education in the 1972 Wisconsin v. Yoder Supreme Court Case. The arguments in favor of this decision centered on the survival of the Amish culture. The claim was that if they were compelled to educate their children beyond the eighth grade, the culture would not survive. Think about that. The survival of the Amish culture rests on barring their children from having more than a basic education. Therefore, the Amish (and in this case, I can use the term “the Amish’) educate their sons and daughters only through the eighth grade. The first step in giving children a choice about their future is to provide them with an education that allows them to do so.
I certainly did not feel like I had a conscious choice. First came subtle hints, then outright suggestions, and finally admonishments that I should “follow the church” and become baptized the summer I was turning nineteen. I was unsure about becoming an official member because I questioned my ability to be a “good member” of the church, which is one who does not question the ways of the Amish. I have always had an insatiable desire to ask fundamental questions, and as I was taking instructions for baptism, I still could not stop these questions from boiling up from within. I lacked the conviction to join the church, yet I lacked the courage to leave altogether. I took the middle road and joined the church without conviction.
The “choice” Amish people have about leaving the culture is much like the one about committing suicide — we know our whole lives that we have that choice, but the only time we think about it is when we are tempted to do so.
So, if you see an Amish young person blatantly defying Amish rules know that these are acts of rebellion — a far cry from being granted a free choice. I can assure you the parents or elders of the church are not encouraging this behavior.
Perhaps there are reasons I don’t understand why people want to believe that the Amish give their young people a choice about staying or leaving. If so, I should save my breath next time this issue arises and simply say, “If that had been true, believe me, I’d have taken that road out.”