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Amish youth experience a rite of passage called Rumspringa. It’s not what you might think

A group of Amish people in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 2022. Mike Segar/Reuters
A group of Amish people in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 2022. Mike Segar/Reuters

The idea of “Rumspringa” has a specific spot in the American imagination. A rite of passage for young people in some Amish communities, Rumspringa is seen by most outsiders as a wild time away from strict Amish rules, when teenagers can experiment with the modern vices of the world.

While that may be true for some Amish communities, Rumspringa is actually a much more general — and generally more tame — term for an important time of discernment in an Amish youth’s life.

Like so many cultural practices, the specifics vary from group to group. This in turn reveals another truth: Amish culture itself is far from a monolith.

The basics of Amish culture

Before understanding what Rumspringa is, one has to understand the basics of Amish communities in America. The Amish are described by some historians as an ethnoreligious group, meaning their identity is tied to both their religion and their common culture and ancestry. In this case, the Amish are traditional Anabaptists (a specific type of Christianity) with German, Swiss, Dutch and other European roots who are living in the United States.

Amish beliefs originated in Switzerland during the Protestant reformation, a time of great change in Christian religious practices during the 16th century. In the early 1700s, Amish people began emigrating from Europe to the United States, settling mostly in the state of Pennsylvania before eventually inhabiting nearby states and parts of southeastern Canada.

Amish communities share general beliefs, but their practices may differ depending on region, levels of religious and cultural conservatism and the specific heritage of different communities. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has the largest Amish population in the US, numbering around 30,000. Among this population, there are roughly 229 different Amish districts, each with their own subcultures.

Generally, their lifestyles are characterized by simple living inspired by an interpretation of the Bible that teaches a rejection of worldly goods and comforts. Amish communities are built around rural activities like farming and handcraft, and the family unit is of utmost importance. It’s not uncommon to see large families living together and sharing community responsibilities.

Amish people value traits like obedience, pacifism and humility. Their clothing is plain and they do not wear jewelry or other ornamentations Famously, Amish people also maintain a limited relationship with modern technology like cars, phones and computers. Some communities completely eschew these tools, while groups with more contemporary views may allow things like battery-operated radios or even telephones used for specific purposes like work.

What Rumspringa actually looks like

The word “Rumspringa” itself is of Pennsylvania German origin, borrowing from the German word “herumspringen,” which means “to run/jump around.” The rite of Rumspringa starts for teens around 16, and is considered a time between childhood and adulthood.

During Rumspringa, these teens are usually subjected to fewer rules than younger members of the community, and may partake in activities that would usually be discouraged.

Contrary to documentaries and pop culture references that paint Rumspringa as a free-for-all for Amish teens, it doesn’t necessarily mean leaving home for spring break-style partying. In the broadest sense, Amish people use the term to simply describe adolescence.

Richard A. Stevick, a professor at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, has been an expert on Amish culture for 40 years. He says many teenagers going through the roughly two-year period of Rumspringa don’t leave home or significantly change their behavior during this period.

“The public interest in Rumspringa would be a lot less if books and documentaries didn’t focus on the most extreme examples,” he says. “For most Amish teenagers, Rumspringa is a time to explore Amish life without being considered under the rule of their parents. Because remember, family and hierarchy are extremely important.”

Some young people may take part in sports and social gatherings, or attend functions typically reserved for adults in their community. It’s also, Stevick says, a time for courting and, depending on the community, setting up future marriages.

During this time, an Amish teenager may also join a social group of peers within their community. Their Rumspringa experience, then, would be heavily influenced by the type of group they join.

The point of Rumspringa, Stevick says, is for young people to make an informed decision about whether they want to commit to the Amish lifestyle as an adult.

“Just being born into an Amish community doesn’t qualify one for entry into the Amish lifestyle,” Stevick says. “Adults have to freely choose to be baptized into their communities, and the rite of Rumspringa is the time for that discernment.”

The modern challenges of Rumspringa

Stevick is particularly interested in how social media and modern thought have influenced the concept of Rumspringa, both for Amish teens and for those curious about this seemingly mysterious rite of passage.

“Most youth who move through Rumspringa will go on to enter fully into their communities as adults, but the amount they can learn about the outside world has grown a hundredfold over the last few decades,” he says.

“Those who choose to leave could be swayed by modern technologies, but they could also be swayed by what modern technology allows them to learn — namely, other ways of living or other, more progressive styles of faith.”

While it’s hard to find numbers for exactly how many Amish teens leave their communities after Rumspriga, Stevick estimates the numbers overall are low. The stricter the community, he says, the better the retention rate.

“The ones that are in the greatest danger of leaving are the ones that carry phones or somehow get access to phones, because it opens up so many possibilities of understanding the world outside of their tradition,” Stevick says.

While this may seem like a recipe for tension and unhappiness, Stevick says, in his decades of working with Amish people, he is continually moved by their strength of spirit, the caring they show toward each other and the overall sense of satisfaction they seem to have in life.

“All groups have people with problems, or people with little conscience,” he says. “But they live a life full of challenges and joys.” Top Stories

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