Beliefnet
When the UPN network announced earlier this year that it was creating a new program called Amish in the City, the public was immediately fascinated. The premise of the show is that five Amish youth leave home on what they call Rumspringa, the Amish community's traditional flirtation with freedom. Their time in Hollywood forces them to make a choice: return to Amish life or make a new one in the outside world.

Critics protested loudly: Members of Congress, TV affiliates, and scholars denounced it as a new low in "humiliation TV." But once television critics saw a preview last week, they were more laudatory. The show, which premiers July 28 at 8 p.m. EDT, has elements of fantasy--11 Amish and non-Amish men and women live together in a Hollywood Hills home decorated with straw hats, a photographic mural of a cornfield, and brightly colored Amish-style quilts. Each day, the group goes on an expedition, from bumper-car racing and clothes-shopping to a day at the beach. Despite these elements, say TV critics, the show portrays the Amish sensitively.

But many others still disagree--including Donald Kraybill, one of the nation's leading scholars of the Amish. Beliefnet interviewed him last week.

Are the people in this show actually Amish?

It seems very clear from the description that these are five Amish youth who were raised in Amish homes but have left the community. A construction worker, Randy, has a pierced ear; a factory worker, Ruth, has died hair and smokes cigarettes, her family calls her very bad and she only sees them about twice a year. Construction worker Jonas is a self-described bad-boy; Mose had left the flock in his teens, returned to be baptized and now left again;, he's considered very rebellious and a bad influence.

My impression is that these are basically very worldly-wise Amish, likely young adults who have decided they're going to leave the church, and they're angry at the church. So they're not even technically in Rumspringa. These kids have decided they're leaving the community. They're the wildest of the wild.

And that was a major criticism I had of this whole program initially--that they will not be able to recruit typical Amish kids that reflect and represent typical Amish teenage life. Anybody that they're going to be able to seduce into this and pay them off is someone that is very marginal and for all practical purposes has already left the community. In a sense these are ex-Amish.

Could you tell us more about Rumspringa?

One of the falsehoods that has been part of this story over the last several weeks, and it's been repeated again and again, is the statement that during this period Amish youth leave their homes and leave their community and move away and decide if they're going to come back. That's simply not true. What happens is that, typically, when they're 16, they can go out on weekends with their friends. They may go to singing events, or Amish volley ball games. Before that, they don't go out in the evenings on the weekends. So when they're 16, often the young males will get a carriage, and then at that point they can go out and socialize with their friends. And they often join an Amish group of maybe 100 kids. In Lancaster County, there are over 25 of these Amish youth groups.

How do they hook up with these groups?

They have friends who join the group, or somebody in the group recruits them. It's somewhat driven by geography--for example, someone in southern Lancaster County is more likely to join a group nearby, but someone from Elizabethtown might go to New Holland to a group that meets more frequently there. And the groups sort of move around. They may have a singing in Elizabethtown one night, and two weeks later in New Holland.

Do the groups have names?

Yes, one is called Antiques, one Eagles, one Chickadees. Those are three that come to mind quickly. But they all have little downhome names that come and go. Some of them will persist for a number of years, and then sometimes they'll divide and a new one will emerge.

Do almost all the teenagers join these at one point or another?

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