What Orthodox Jews can—and cannot—learn from the Amish Rumschpringe
What Orthodox Jews can—and cannot—learn from the Amish Rumschpringe
​ Sitting on the back of a wagon pulled by two beautiful horses in Holmes County OH, I finally had a chance to speak directly to an Amish teenager about the Rumschpringe experience. With the beautiful green scenery passing by us, the young teenager described to us his plans and options and this juncture of his life and how Rumschpringe might affect it. I also realized that some aspects of Rumschpringe carry with them a valuable lesson for Jewish teens, while others do not.

Voluntarism and choice have a profound impact on our religion.
In Amish practice, Rumschpringe, literally translated as "running around" is a rite of passage in which teenagers get to experience the world outside the Amish community. They get to use electricity, travel, drink and do things that would be normally forbidden to them as practicing Amish individuals. After this permissible span of time, the young Amish get to decide whether they would like to rejoin or not. Fascinatingly, about 90 percent of them decide to come back and live as Amish—voluntarily.

This carries a powerful lesson with it. Voluntarism and choice have a profound impact on our religion. When looking at two religious people, one coerced and habituated into religion, and one who chose the religion they are practicing, those who choose their religion are far more likely to last. As humans, we tend to do better when we have a choice.

Should this same logic apply to Orthodox youth as well? yes and no.

While some have argued for a replication of the Rumschpringe experience among the Orthodox youth, this would not be possible or logical for several reasons. First, while the Amish youth enjoy a free-for-all exemption in their late teen years, what most people don't realize is that Rumschpringe is merely an exemption from Amish customs pertaining to technology and simplicity. The teens, however, are still considered to be full Christians and therefore are obliged to follow any law that applies to all Christians.

It is therefore hard to argue that Orthodox teens should be encouraged to explore permissiveness to its fullest extent and secularity to its nth degree. Just as the Amish do not abandon all religious norms when exploring their spiritual preferences, neither should Orthodox teens. Furthermore, the core and foundation of orthodox belief is that certain lines can never be crossed. To tell a teen that working on Shabbat is permitted if you're just checking it out, or that having a non-Jewish girlfriend is ok when exploring but is later an unforgivable breach of community norms, is a hard sell from both a theological perspective and a practical perspective.

Following the model of Amish Rumschpringe, Orthodox Jews should give their teens broader and more diverse choices of how to be orthodox. They should be able—and even encouraged—to taste what it is like to be Chabad, Breslov, Lithuanian, Hassidic, Haredi, Religious Zionist, etc.  this will allow for an element of choice, something which is proven to vitalize enhance the spiritual life of teens.

Let's start seeing teens from all across the Orthodox spectrum participating in a Chabad farbrengen, a Breslav hitbodedut, Lithuanian style learning, and working the Land of Israel. This will enrich their lives and even help foster a better mutual understating among Jews, so desperately needed these days.  

As I gazed at the beauty and happiness surrounding me in Holmes County, OH—America's most densely Amish populated area—I realized the beauty of what choice could do for religion and culture. I realized how much this principle can revitalize our community which whose teens—and perhaps me too—sometimes look too far for things that can be found so close.

Giving Orthodox teens more choices within the framework of orthodoxy, will enhance their spiritual life and commitment to Judaism, and make for a future generation that is happier, more fulfilled, sincerer, and more understanding of their Judaism. It will also help boost orthodoxy's retention rate and prevent some of those who find their current religious state to be unfulfilling and actualizing.  All this should be done while maintaining the broader framework of orthodox observance and not compromising the general framework of observance.