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Are We There Yet?

     Amish communities are typically small and located in rural areas, with each church consisting of two or three dozen families. This rapid population growth leads to the establishment of around twenty new Amish communities each year, often in previously uncharted regions. Currently, thirty-one states have sizeable Amish communities, with the largest in the mid-west states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, and Illinois.

     As with many other things, it is difficult to generalize about the Amish. The primary reason for this is that each community develops its own rules, known as 'Ordnung' (the German word for order). Every church member participates in discussions and agrees on these rules every six months. Since the Ordnung is developed independently, albeit with the guidance of the same Biblical reference book, the specific rules may diverge by community. These variations in interpretation can encompass crucial matters, such as deciding which new technologies to adopt, as well as seemingly less significant issues, such as determining the maximum permissible width of the brim of a hat.

     The second reason generalizing about the Amish is challenging is because there have been numerous schisms driven by differing interpretations of the Bible. In the mid nineteenth century, Amish Mennonites, who, in simple terms, favored some adaptation to technological changes, separated from Old Order Amish. However, in the early twentieth century, Swartzentruber Amish broke away from the Old Order, believing this latter group was becoming too attached to new technologies, such as indoor plumbing and milking machines.

Two further less-conservative breakaway groups also disconnected from the Old Order in the twentieth century. The Beachy Amish preferred speaking English, worshiping in churches rather than at home, and using electricity. A fourth group, New Order Amish, also sought greater use of technology in farming and their homes, were more relaxed about dress codes and beard grooming, but abstained from alcohol and tobacco.

    These Amish/Mennonite churches exist in a continuum, ranging from the most conservative Swartzentruber to the most liberal Mennonites. As outsiders, we can observe that they share many things in common, but insiders tend to focus on their substantial differences.

The most noticeable distinction between the Amish and the broader population is their appearance. Amish communities are readily identifiable due to their plain and uniform clothing. Amish men typically don dark suits, hats, simple shirts with suspenders, and black brogues. Married Amish men sport beards but not mustaches, as they associate the latter with the military, which conflicts with their strict pacifist beliefs.

    Amish women wear bonnets and homemade dresses in uniform colors. They abstain from wearing jewelry, believing that the focus should be on God rather than material possessions. Additionally, women are not allowed to cut their hair. So, that business idea you had for a hairdressing salon in Amish communities may not be lucrative.

The Old Order prohibits what they consider the most dangerous new technological elements: buttons and zippers, both of which are seen as too flashy. Instead, all clothing should be fastened with pins. In contrast, the New Order Amish flaunts its progressive side by allowing its members to wear buttons.

    A second noticeable difference is their language. Although the Amish can speak English, they will typically talk to each other in 'Pennsylvania Dutch,' not actually Dutch but rather an old form of High German (Hoch Deutsch).

A third defining feature of the Amish is their resistance to new types of technology. In truth, this is an area where there can be a high degree of divergence. The Amish do not necessarily see new technology as inherently evil, but they tend to be wary of it due to its potential impact on their community and relationship with God. Hard work is highly valued because it is seen as a way to maintain a close connection with God, whereas labor-saving devices are generally discouraged, following the same principle. As a result, many Amish communities shun electricity, tractors, and motor cars. However, there is a line between hard work and unnecessary suffering. In most Amish communities, electricity may be used to keep farm-produced milk cool or to accommodate individuals with disabilities who require electric wheelchairs.

Anabaptist literally means 'later-baptism.' In keeping with other Anabaptists, church membership begins when someone is christened as an adult. Children can be raised as Amish, but they must make the deliberate choice to embrace the Amish way of life as adults.

Amish children attend Amish schools where instruction is typically delivered in English and takes place in traditional one- or two-roomed schoolhouses. Following a 1972 Supreme Court ruling, almost all Amish children finish school around the age of fourteen. Of course, informal education continues beyond eighth grade, primarily through on-the-job learning.

    After formal schooling, many Amish have a period of Rumspringa, Swabian German for 'jumping around.' This rite of passage is when Amish adolescents decide whether to continue living in the Amish world. In many cases, these teenagers are encouraged to experience the non-Amish world. By the way, the Amish call this outside world 'the English world' and refer to all non-Amish people as 'English.' This is quaint and has the additional benefit of annoying Scottish people.

    This period of Rumspringa may last only a couple of weeks or several years. However, in the end, approximately nine out of ten teenagers opt to become Amish. Some Amish teenagers join less strict sects, which the Amish refer to as 'getting their hair cut.' Ultimately, most Amish are baptized and formally join their church between seventeen and twenty-one.

    The extent to which there is genuinely free choice is a contentious issue. Some argue that free will may be illusory in all societies and that sociological influences often constrain our choices. While our brains may create the perception of conscious choice, the reality is that decisions are frequently made within a limited range of options or are determined retrospectively.

    The most contentious issue in Amish communities—and the cause of many schisms—is the practice of shunning. For British readers, this is akin to 'sending someone to Coventry' or punishing them by refusing to talk to them. For American readers, Coventry is somewhere you don't want to go. It rarely appears on tourist itineraries because the German Luftwaffe bombed it repeatedly during World War II.

Most Amish communities employ shunning as a means to uphold Ordnung, whereby disobedient church members face social isolation until they amend their behavior. In some Amish groups, teenagers who decide to leave the Amish community may face permanent shunning. It requires a strong-willed teenager to sever ties with their heritage and family.

    A second thing that happens when you are an Amish teenager is dating. This starts with Singings, where adolescents sing fast-paced hymns in mixed-gender groups.

    Amish communities have no arranged marriages, as the Amish believe in most tenets of free choice. Instead, many communities practice a tradition called bundling. This practice involves teenagers who are interested in each other lying side by side in separate blankets within the same bed and engaging in conversation throughout the night. Sexual contact is not permitted.

Amish couples typically announce their upcoming marriage a few weeks before the wedding day. It's common for their parents to purchase a bedroom suite as a wedding gift, and their communities become actively involved in preparing for the impending celebration. In certain communities, it is customary to construct a house for the newlyweds shortly after the wedding.

    The Amish excel in various professions. While traditionally known for their farming, with approximately one-third of US dairies being Amish-owned, most now prefer to work in construction and furniture building. Their reputation for honesty and strong work ethic has made their services highly sought after. Additionally, the Amish operate a diverse range of commercial businesses. For instance, my preferred local supermarket, Detwiler's, is Mennonite-owned and still refuses to open on Sundays.

    As you may recall from the film Witness, the Amish do not appreciate having their photo taken. This preference stems from their interpretation of the second commandment, which, as you may recall, prohibits the creation of graven images. It also aligns with their principle of Hochmut, which emphasizes the rejection of practices promoting vanity and individualism. Contrary to some misconceptions, however, the Amish do use mirrors for practical purposes, such as shaving or ensuring their hair is neatly arranged.

Most Amish communities do not permit insurance because it does not show sufficient Gelassenheit, the practice of submitting oneself to the will of God. This embraces health insurance, including government-run programs for Medicaid (poor people) or Medicare (old people).

Within each Amish community, every member contributes approximately $100 per month to a communal fund. When individuals require medical attention, they receive a diagnosis and a treatment plan from their healthcare provider. Subsequently, they consult their community to determine if the communal fund can cover the cost. Conglomerates of Amish communities often negotiate lower rates with local hospitals. These hospitals are willing to do so because they have confidence that, unlike insurance companies, Amish patients will promptly settle their medical bills in full, often within days of receiving the invoice.

    The Amish are nevertheless suspicious of health authorities. The God complex of many doctors often clashes with the God's Will of the Amish. My Ohio judge friend told me that he regularly had to rule on disputes between health authorities and the Amish.

One consequence of the limited Amish gene pool is the increased prevalence of genetic health issues within their communities. While it's true that many Amish marriages now occur across distant communities to mitigate these concerns, serious genetic conditions can still occur. Most Amish individuals accept these conditions as part of Gottes Wille, and any child born with a disorder is embraced by the community and provided with tasks that align with their abilities. It's worth noting that other symptoms of Gottes Wille include a reluctance to install smoke alarms and a low rate of Covid vaccination.

    Contrary to common misconceptions, the Amish do pay taxes but are exempt from social security, since they do not utilize its benefits. Additionally, they choose not to claim unemployment and welfare benefits. Addressing another misconception, some people believe that the Amish don't vote. However, my friend, the Judge, informs me this is inaccurate, particularly on local matters.

Historically, the Amish have refrained from using courts to settle disputes among themselves, aligning with their interpretation of God's Will. However, the significant increase in accidents involving speeding vehicles crashing into their slow-moving buggies has prompted a shift in their approach on disputes with ‘the English.’ Many Amish individuals now choose to pursue legal action against the speeder, using any financial compensation to support the establishment of new communities.

    Amish cuisine is known for its wholesomeness though it can be quite calorific. Dining at an Amish restaurant offers excellent value and is undoubtedly a worthwhile experience if you happen upon one. In Amish communities, it's not uncommon to spot a horse-drawn buggy at a McDonald's drive-thru. However, you will never see them at a Taco Bell—not for religious reasons but because the Amish have standards.

In the 1920s, a few Amish and Mennonite families moved to Sarasota to grow celery, a crop they use instead of wedding flowers. Regrettably, this agricultural endeavor proved unsuccessful, and an Amish vacation town was created instead.

    Around ten thousand Amish people visit Sarasota every year for vacations, resulting in Pinecraft becoming a melting pot of different Amish groups who intermingle in a relaxed manner. Some have dubbed it the 'Amish Las Vegas,' and, to that analogy, what happens in Pinecraft stays in Pinecraft.

    It's not uncommon for some Amish elders to spend their winters here, effectively becoming Amish 'snowbirds.' At the other end of the age spectrum, many youngsters enjoy Rumspringa in a controlled manner. In this vibrant seasonal community, everyone will enjoy playing shuffleboard, listening to bluegrass music, and consuming ice cream from the excellent Big Olaf's Creamery.

    After breakfast, we strolled through the local community. Each mailbox sported German surnames such as Yoder, Hochstetler, and Stoltzfus. Everyone we came across would exchange friendly greetings with us. Depending on their age, many would be on rented bikes, electric bikes, or tricycles. Others would be sitting on their front porch, cleaning something, finishing some needlework, or just talking.

You could see that this was a mélange of different communities. While they may have appeared similar at first glance, closer observation revealed subtle distinctions. Women wore bonnets and pinafores of varying colors, while men sported shirts of different hues and exhibited varying degrees of beard grooming.

    I talked to a few Amish people as I had done elsewhere. Their American accents seemed incongruous with their dress. They seemed content to indulge this 'English,' but, when I left, they returned to their conversations in Pennsylvanian Dutch.

The businesses here were either Amish-owned or Amish-friendly. The local laundromat was bustling, like a bee on caffeine, and its distinguishing feature was the availability of outdoor drying lines. Meanwhile, we patronized Big Olaf's Creamery, which was celebrating its twentieth anniversary and offering its ice creams at 2001 prices.

    On another of our visits, we had the good fortune to witness the arrival of six buses packed with Amish vacationers hailing from Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, judging from the vehicle tags. These newcomers, wearied by a grueling twenty-hour bus ride, were warmly welcomed by the entire community. Among them, I spied three teenage Amish boys, set apart from the others, diligently examining each bus for potential future spouses. Much like teenagers at a disco, they would giggle and share their preferences with their Amish friends when they saw someone they liked.

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