A Year Of Living Dangerously


The ranks of Orthodox rebels, despite being a tiny percentage of a small part of the Jewish community, are drawing a major share of notice in recent days. Books and magazine articles, documentaries and Off-Broadway plays tell the stories of young men and women — products of chasidishe and yesivishe upbringings that shield them from the outside world’s secular values — who step outside what they see as narrowly drawn circles.

The story is usually the same: curious or adventurous or rebellious, they start with a small step, a cigarette on Shabbat or a bite of unkosher food. Some, in time, shed their black hats and modest dresses as well as their commitment to a lifestyle governed by halacha. Some, in the argot of the Orthodox community, go frei, free of the boundaries that conventionally define an Orthodox life. Others stay closer to home, choosing affiliations with less-demanding, non-Orthodox branches of Judaism.

For families who identify with the so-called fervently Orthodox segment of Jewry, each child who leaves the fold, even for another corner of the Jewish community, is considered a loss.

No haredi parent asked Tom Shachtman for advice, but here is what he would say: Lighten up. Let the kids experiment. Let them taste the forbidden. Let them see what the wider world — a world that frequently earns little but scorn in haredi homes and haredi schools — is like. Let them do all this before they commit to leading lives of traditional behavior and communal norms.

Shachtman just wrote a book about this subject.Shachtman, 64-year-old native of Manhattan, is the author of “Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish” (North Point Press), which describes the period of “running around” (the literal meaning of the Amish Dutch German word) that many of the isolated Christian sect’s teenagers in the United States practice when they turn 16.

A little-understood Amish institution, rumspringa has been the focus of a documentary film and a UPN reality show in recent years.

Before they agree to be baptized and to conform to the Amish community’s wide range of biblically based regulations and restrictions, the adolescents, with the understanding, and the tacit blessing, of parents who may have been rumspringa (it’s pronounced ROOM-shprin-gah) participants a few decades earlier, become theological free agents, with the liberty to experience the behavior and lifestyles they will have to eschew once they officially join the church.

Shachtman watched this, as a rare outsider who was granted insider status, on and off for three years. A Jew from a “very liberal background,” he had access to conservative Amish homes and Amish lives, watching their teens making life-changing decisions.

For people who view the Amish as isolated, quaint, buggy-riding anachronisms, his book paints a surprising picture: Shachtman’s Amish teens have active libidos and hip-hop vocabularies; they like money and have favorite pro sports teams; they’re not as square as they may appear.

Just like many frum kids.The cover of Shachtman’s book shows a young Amish lady, bonnet atop her head, in the back seat of a car, a cigarette in her mouth, lighting up. For the Amish, that image epitomizes a flouting of Amishness. It’s what rumspringa is all about. Sometimes living at home, sometimes moving into their own apartments, the teens take on the trappings of the English, the Amish term for the non-Amish. This can mean driving a car, reading secular books, learning about sex and drugs, tasting other forbidden fruits. For those doing rumspringa, the guidelines are their conscience and their strict Amish upbringing.

In other words, the Amish, an agricultural-based religious group that recognizes the choice-limiting features of their no-driving, no-electricity, no-higher education lifestyle, allows, or encourages, its young people to sow their wild oats.“The Amish way of life is very demanding and constraining,” Shachtman says. “They can’t go into this thinking they’re missing the boat.”

One caveat: if the teens return to the Amish word, then go English afterwards, they are subject to shunning, an extreme form of excommunication that makes continued contact with Amish friends and family virtually untenable.

Rumspringa works.

According to most estimates, about 90 percent of Amish youth, after rumspringa periods that often last up to three years, return to their community. They become baptized, get married, raise families and lead lives of quiet, unquestioned if not unquestioning piety.

Model For Orthodoxy?

Would rumspringa work in the Orthodox community?

Would a period of sanctioned license to do what is otherwise banned, making the unknown known, take away the allure?

Would a Jewish version of rumspringa keep haredi kids, who balk at the limits that their families’ brand of religion imposes, from leaving the fold entirely? Should the affected part of the Orthodox community take this risk with at-risk teens?

Absolutely not, say some members of the Orthodox community.

Maybe, with adaptations that reflect the unique character of haredi life, say others.

Interviews with several men and women, including spokesmen for Orthodox organizations, and rank-and-file people who identify themselves as Orthodox, brought a variety of answers.

All, however, agree that the problem of young Orthodox Jews who find it difficult to find their place in their community of birth is a growing phenomenon. Articles in the Jewish media report about a sports camp for Orthodox teens at risk, a “youth village” for Orthodox youth who have gone astray, an academic seminar devoted to at-risk Jewish teens.

“While many secular Jews return to Judaism, thousands are casting off their religious upbringing for an alternative way of life,” Faranak Margolese writes in “Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism,” a new book by Devora Publishing. “More and more yeshiva-educated children from classically observant homes are abandoning their tradition. This phenomenon, which in the observant world is referred to as ‘going off the derech’ (going off the path), worries us. If it does not, it should.”

While this problem affects teens from across the Orthodox community, including the Modern Orthodox, the parallels between the Amish and the haredim are the closest because of both groups’ attempts to maintain their distance from threatening aspects of general society by avoiding the secular media, college education, and such high-tech sources of information as the Internet.

While Orthodox life offers no de jure explore-the-world option like rumpringa, several de facto options are available, members of the Orthodox community say. They point to the year in Israeli yeshivot many American students spend after high school, the service in the Israeli army that many Israelis from Orthodox families do, and the studying at yeshivot away from home, living in dormitories, which is a common part of Orthodox education in both countries.

In all those settings, students come under a lesser degree of religious supervision, and a greater freedom to conduct themselves as they see fit, than they had experienced at home.

“Even at yeshivot with mashgichim,” spiritual counselors who offer counseling for personal and theological issues, “can they know exactly what the students are doing 24 hours a day?” Rabbi Eitan Eckstein, founder of the Retorno addiction treatment and prevention center in Israel, asks rhetorically. “Every kid can use his cell phone and explore the Internet,” which religious authorities fear will expose the students to inappropriate influences.

Rabbi Eckstein says he recognizes in theory the value of a religious society granting its adolescents the right to make vital choices based on full knowledge, but disagrees in practice with the Amish for institutionalizing a practice that condones behavior that the society considers sinful if not actually harmful.

“It’s a crazy thing to do,” he says.“The danger of the Amish thing [rumspringa],” the rabbi says, “is when you give the kids the option to do everything, they might find a ‘solution’ they never knew existed.” In other words, the teens from sheltered backgrounds might succumb to drugs or alcohol or other temptations they are not emotionally prepared to handle. “They are not ready. They are too young.”

Rabbi Eckstein says a Torah perspective allows latitude to learn life lessons from trial and error. “You can close one eye” when see your kids exploring, he says of parents and educators – but they shouldn’t “push” children in that direction. “Everything within the framework of halacha.”

Representatives of other Jewish organizations echo his words.

“A parent has to be sensitive to where their children are. If [children] feel very restricted, you have to look for ways to loosen the restrictions. Of course, it must be done in consultation with a rav,” says Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, associate director of the National Jewish Outreach Program.

“Some children certainly may need a less restrictive environment than others. Some young Jews may stray, of course, and the community has a deep obligation to do what it can to help the young person find his or her place within it,” says Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, the nation’s largest umbrella haredi organization. “But the essence of chinuch [education] is showing the right way, not giving a hechsher [seal of approval], even for a short period, to the wrong one. What is proper is proper, and what is wrong is wrong. And so, even informally granting license for bad behavior is not a Jewish solution.” Rabbi Shaye Sackett, spiritual leader of Degel Israel Congregation, an Orthodox congregation in Lancaster, Pa., the heart of Amish country, says he questions both rumspringa and reports of its success. “I don’t think it’s a valid concept,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a successful model. I come into contact with people who say, ‘I grew up Amish,’ who do not continue” as part of the community past rumspringa.

A rumspringa-like system might keep some potential defectors from leaving the chasidic community, those who object to its social restrictions, but probably would not benefit those who have developed philosophical reservations about Orthodox beliefs, says Hella Winston, author of “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels” (Beacon Books, 2005).

Winston, a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, interviewed about 100 people from chasidic background, both those who have left the community and those leading “double lives” inside. “Every person I spoke to said, ‘I know this guy,’ three or four people I didn’t meet who were struggling with wanting more freedom.

For the chasidic Jews who wish to remain chasidic, but without the onus of going to movies or asking challenging question in classrooms, “more freedom in general would help,” she says. “If those things were more open, they wouldn’t be sneaking around doing these things.” Winston says she has heard occasional references to rumspringa since her book came out. “People outside [the chasidic community] would mention this, when I do book readings.”

After a few years watching rumspringa up close, Tom Shachtman says other self-isolating cultures, including segments of Orthodox Jewry, hesitate to duplicate aspects of rumspringa “because they’re afraid of it. They’re afraid that [participants] won’t come back.

“Our young people have to go out and experiment,” with or without community sanction, he says. “They’ll do it anyway.”