By: Aviv Yarimi | Opinions  | 

Have You Experienced Rumspringa? — On the Jewish Cultural Parallels to an Amish Custom

What if Jewish adolescents had the option to experience a similar version of the Amish practice of rumspringa? If you know what the obscure tradition is, then you are probably interested in finding out what I have to say.

But for those of you who don’t have any Amish friends to tell you about this riveting experience, rumspringa is a time when young adults from the strict Mennonite sect get the chance to experience a world outside of the quaint community they live in. It is a rite of passage during adolescence that hopefully leads to a rejuvenated, wholesome Amish life as an adult. For the Amish adolescent who has been enclosed in an insular, technology-free environment his or her whole life, rumspringa is the opportunity to be exposed to the world outside of horse-and-buggies, candlesticks, plows and chickens. It’s that exciting time to explore romantic relationships, alcoholic beverages and social media, amongst other modern activities.

Rumspringa is a time to leave the idyllic harmonious community where individualism is decried and collectivism is treasured and enter an individualistic world where a myriad of philosophies and attitudes exist. The Pennsylvanian-German noun rumspringa is derived from the German verb “rumspringen,” or “to jump around or about.” Many of the Amish youth take advantage of their rumspringa time to party heavily and, well, go crazy. These young adults begin their — what Modern Orthodox Jews might dub — “gap year(s)” anywhere from age 16 to 21.

At the end of a few years spent “jumping around,” perhaps with a beer in one hand and an Instagram-running iPhone in the other, the adolescents decide whether they would like to leave the church or not. If they are not interested in leaving the community and starting a new life, they stay for adult baptism into the Amish church. The alternative is marriage which officially marks the end of rumspringa.

The return rate for those who have left? More than 80 percent. Sometimes, over 90 percent.

So why do Orthodox Jews not have a similar system? Well, for starters, Orthodox Jews and the Christian Amish have very different belief systems. Intuitively, it seems rather obvious why Jews do not practice rumspringa: it is not consistent with Jewish theology and thought. Also, Jews do not believe any rumspringa-like ritual would actually yield a long-term appreciation for Jewish lifestyle and routine. To simply drop one’s values for an extended period of time is antithetical to the daily, and ultimate, goals of Judaism.

But for some, Judaism actually does have a concept of rumspringa. Caution: read the previous sentence again, but with a humongous grain of salt.

Consider, for example, a fairly common Modern Orthodox situation: the case of a Jewish upbringing “gone wrong.” A child raised in a sheltered suburb largely populated by American Jews makes the (sometimes conscious and other times subconscious) decision of bursting forth through the transparent bubble known as his community, synagogue and school or yeshiva.

On the other side of the bubble, he sees a restriction-free world offering various philosophies and — more excitingly, one can argue — physical felicity and gratification. Since birth, the bubble has set, at least what is perceived to be, limitations and restrictions on his life. Similar to an Amish young adult, he embarks on a divergent journey, one that is often stocked with alcoholic beverages and illicit substances; one that may include socially harmless sensual indulgence — or maybe none of that at all. The action may just consist of lighting a cigarette on Shabbat and puffing it with rebellious pleasure. This type of experience of going “off-the-derech” usually transpires during one’s years in yeshiva high school. Empirically, the numbers are uncertain. We do not have an exact log of temporarily “off-the-derech” teens in yeshiva high schools, but it has become almost a cliché in various streams of modern Jewry.

Perhaps — just perhaps — the four years of high school for many teens in the Western world is just a watered-down, debilitated, lengthened version of rumspringa. Of course, many times students are not consciously aware of this. Some students do in fact make the conscious decision to be apathetic and passionless in their years of high school because they do not feel spiritually driven during that time. But many, if not most, are apathetic by default and do not feel motivated to get their religious, spiritual journeys on wheels until after their high school graduation parties.

So what happens next? Think about it: yeshiva and seminary. The students are aware that they will go to Israel, like most of their friends and peers, and undergo an enlightening experience through which they will realize that they actually appreciate the standards to which they were held in religious life. Many students prepare to engage in rigorous, passionate Torah study for a whole year, sometimes two or three. They reconnect to their Jewish roots which for some amount of time had been covered with several layers of soil throughout the years.

This idea is not exclusive to Modern Orthodox high school students. It can be applied to secular Jewish students in college who enjoy themselves until they meet a rabbi later in their college experience who changes their religious life. Or a handful of the Haredim in Israel breach through the wall of Ultra-orthodox restrictions and find themselves taking detours during their religious journeys. On a different plane, the trajectories of baalei teshuvah follow the course of secular values sprouting into faithful spiritual growth — although it is generally not a conscious life itinerary for most.

Rumspringa is experienced by many. We just don’t know it sometimes. Needless to say, it is unwise to judge anyone who experiences their own customized form of a temporarily observance-free lifestyle.

Some of these experimenting individuals return to their original philosophies, more often than not with a more intense passion for the religion. Others either remain on the new path or naturally modify it sightly in an attempt to adjust their immature, adolescent approach as they grow older.

Is rumspringa the proper course of action? According to Orthodox Judaism, no, it is not right; it is far from ideal. However, is it a reality? Sometimes, yes. Ideally, life would function in a way such that one does not need rumspringa, which essentially is a way to look at one’s religion or cultural identity through the negative component thereof — a lav, if you will, as opposed to an asseih. It is experiencing the world of don’t’s, in the hopes that one will appreciate the unique value of the do’s.

It’s always healthy to look at a religious situation as it is and to reassess a culture. Non-Amish people sometimes practice rumspringa. It’s not proper, inherently valuable or in any sefer halakhah, considering Orthodox Jews’ set of beliefs. But this comparison allows us to reflect on our values and our belief system and reevaluate what we are doing as we carry our identities with us through the outside world.

We have to ask ourselves: what are some of the reasons that Judaism has not and will not mandate a rite of passage that imitates rumspringa? Why is it not a tenable idea within Jewish thought? Why is it not an ideal avenue towards greater appreciation for Judaism? In other words, why do we fundamentally disagree with the Amish?

We’ll share the top hats with brims and most of the beard. But we’ll sit out rumspringa.


Photo Caption: Some Amish sects take rumspringa.

Photo Credit: USA Today