The Sensible Jew

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The Rumspringa Series: What We Need to Learn From Amish Gone Wild

Posted by sensiblejew on October 27, 2009

The Amish are best known for their ascetic lifestyle and their shunning of modern technology.

Less well known is their mechanism for retaining their young folk.

In theory, a religious grouping like the Amish that is so at odds with the modern world, should find it very difficult to convince its kids that the way they grew up is preferable to the freedom and plenty in wider America.

So it’s quite surprising that so few young people choose to leave the fold permanently. It’s even more astonishing that there the Amish even have a period dedicated to youthful rebellion, called Rumspringa, in which communal rules are relaxed and Amish kids can let loose, often venturing into the wider world, drinking, drugging, fornicating, and even driving (a car – as opposed to a horse-drawn buggy).

They are given the freedom to do this on the understanding that they can choose to return to their communities to be baptised and become full members, or to leave their sect if they so wish. Once a young Amish person undergoes baptism, he or she is held once again to the rigorous standards of the community.

There is something familiar in all of this.

Indeed, we might say our young people start their Rumspringa at the beginning of high school and continue it well into their 20s. Purely anecdotal evidence suggests that many of our young people “return” eventually as well.

The only question is, what damage has been done in the interim, and is the current model serving our kids and our community as best it could?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that when a Jewish kid starts to go off the rails, there is no word or concept like, “Rumspringa” to explain the behaviours or to calm frantic parents.

So often I have seen parents of kids who are busy “experimenting,” panicking quietly, desperate to keep the extent of their child’s behaviours out of the public realm.

Because all these parents’ peers have been in exactly the same situation, it was often the case that individual families were convinced that they were alone in experiencing such problems.

This was even more acute when it came to young people and mental illness. Often the link between drugs, alcohol, and mental illness is blurred. What is cause and what is effect? What is the source and what is the symptom? What is more shameful – substance abuse or mental breakdown?

I began to wonder if the shame of it all that seems to engulf and corrode so many families is perhaps more destructive than the behaviours or illnesses that cause it.

There is nothing quite like isolation for intensifying and exacerbating an already difficult situation. And there is nothing like shame to motivate the secrecy necessary for such isolation.

Whereas the whole concept of Rumspringa provides a framework for understanding and dealing with difficult adolescent behaviors communally, Australian Jews are forced to go it alone.

I should point out that this is not a call to parents to advertise their children’s problems in AJN notices. It is simply an observation about how our community currently works… or doesn’t work.

A brief examination (not to mention, generalisation) of the average non-orthodox Jewish Australian path to adulthood can give us a clue to how we might begin to tackle this issue.

1) Childhood: often, this is the stage in which key Jewish values are inculcated.

2) Adolescence: for the sake of argument, let’s say this begins at age 12 and finishes somewhere in a person’s 20s. This is when drugs, sex, alcohol, and often a deep animosity towards aspects of the Jewish community become an issue. Because there are so few ways at the moment to channel adolescent energies and tendencies to rebel, the destructive behaviours often have no check, and the animosity isn’t effectively challenged.

This period also needs to be broken up into two parts:

The first period is the time in which young people exist within Jewish structures, whether they are Jewish schools, or youth movements. Such structures do not seem to limit destructive behaviours necessarily, but they do provide an antidote to isolation.

The second period involves graduation – either from schools or movements. Young people are rarely older than 22 when they discover that communal organisations that are a natural extentions of the rest of their lives no longer exist.

In order to find new organisations that might suit them requires a level of motivation – not to mention faith – that might not exist. Indeed, so many kids are desperate to escape the community upon graduation – if only temporarily – that the idea of hunting for new Jewish organisations to join is often anathema.

3) The Come Down: this is a period at the end of adolescence which varies in severity and intensity from person to person. Some people have to contend with full blown substance abuse problems or mental illness, others are able to make the transition to adulthood with less trauma. The come down is also characterised by an absence of communal involvement.

4) Early Adulthood: Many young, non-orthodox Jews enter the period of settling down (less travel, serious job, starting a family) with very little organised Jewish connection. The nature of adulthood is that demands on one’s time from various quarters means that throwing oneself into communal groups or institutions is very difficult.

Obviously, the Jewish Australian way of life is very different from the Amish at a practical level, so there is limited value in examining the nuts and bolts of how the Amish implement their Rumspringa.

Because Australian Jews are far more integrated into mainstream Australia, because we are more diffuse, and because the duration of our adolescence is far longer, we need to establish our own response to the Rumspringa challenge.

This series will examine issues and ideas for reorganising and reinvigorating the connections people have to the community.

Among many, some of the topics that will be examined:

– The twin issues of shame and Schadenfreude

– reconciling liberal democratic values with our religion

– creating an environment in which cultural expression is made easier

– ideas for communal organisational structures that stop duplication of services, and cannibalisation of membership, and instead foster the sharing of resources and talent.

– removing the notion of sub-community as the only path to Jewish identity

– reorienting concepts of academic success

– informal interfaith/intercommunal activity

3 Responses to “The Rumspringa Series: What We Need to Learn From Amish Gone Wild”

  1. meika said

    5) silently wishing one had listened more when younger,

    6) wishing not everyone had died in the interim (2-5)

    (Don’t forget that the Amish would’ve started with someone gone ‘rumspringa’ and never went back to whatever it was they left.)

  2. sensiblejew said

    Hi Meika.

    I’m not sure if you’re referring to people who have passed away in their youth during the “experimental” period of Jewish adolescence. If so, I send you deepest sympathies. One person in my own crowd did not survive, and the experience probably – though I wasn’t exacly conscious of it of the time – impelled me to flee the community for a while. The death of someone close under those circumstances is utterly harrowing.

    But your point about the likely beginnings of Amish Rumspringa is probably spot on. The only question is when – or even if – our community can accept that the same thing is going on with us before too much more damage is done.

  3. Erma said

    Very interesting concept. I first heard of the idea while visiting an Amish community and saw a book–that I bought–that was entitled “Messing Around” which is the common term for Rumspringa. There are some Biblical indications for this kind of concept. Ps 25:7 Remember not the sins of my youth… Ps 89: 45 The days of his youth have you shortened… And was not Adam immature in his creation for he lacked experience and was he not given two choices, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil?

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