LANCASTER, Pa. — Leaving a highly traditional religious community can exact a high price, but for many participants in a recent conference, the costs of remaining were even higher.
Although most of the stories focused on the Old Order Amish, representatives from Ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Muslim traditions also spoke of challenges their members face when they choose to leave their communities.
The Amish Heritage Foundation organized the conference, “Disrupting History: Reclaiming Our Amish Story,” Sept. 28-29 at Franklin & Marshall College.
Torah Bontrager, conference organizer and executive director of the Amish Heritage Foundation, has recounted her story in a recent autobiography, An Amish Girl in Manhattan. At the age of 15, traumatized by emotional, sexual and physical abuse and frustrated by the lack of educational opportunities, Bontrager fled her small Amish community in Michigan in the middle of the night, only to end up in equally abusive situations when she sought refuge with ex-Amish uncles in Montana and Wisconsin.
Today, she is an advocate for others who have left the Amish community, speaking out against the “rape culture,” patriarchy and oppression she regards as deeply embedded in traditional Amish life.
Along with co-founder Elam Zook, Bontrager organized the symposium to address a wide range of problematic themes she identifies in Amish culture and identity, especially educational restrictions and cultural isolation that enable abuse, limit choice and make it difficult for young people to transition into mainstream culture if they choose to leave the Amish church.
One focus of particular critique was a landmark legal decision in 1972 by the U.S. Supreme Court that exempted Amish children from compulsory education beyond the eighth grade. Although scholars of the Amish, along with Amish leaders and social conservatives, have long regarded Wisconsin v. Yoder as a victory for religious liberty, University of Pennsylvania professor Marcie Hamilton characterized the ruling as a form of child abuse, “the single worst decision by the Supreme Court regarding the ‘free exercise’ clause in the First Amendment.”
Deprived of exposure to critical thinking, Amish young people often lack basic skills to thrive in a world outside the Amish community. While Hamilton framed the problem in terms of human rights, other speakers argued that Amish restrictions on education and free inquiry violated the Anabaptist principle of voluntary baptism.
Oppression of women
Zook, along with Franklin & Marshall professor of anthropology Michael Billig, also implicated Mennonite scholars in the problems facing the Amish community, particularly abuse and oppression of Amish women. Scholarship on the Amish, they argued, has been dominated by sympathetic advocates who depict Amish life as idyllic, orderly and peaceful. Scholars have romanticized Amish communal life while ignoring or rationalizing dysfunctional and oppressive elements. Conference organizers sought to “disrupt” that history and “reclaim” the Amish narrative.
Brian Young, a Navajo filmmaker, echoed similar concerns in his critique of the misrepresentation of Native Americans in popular culture, particularly Hollywood’s sexualization of Native American women.
Included alongside more formal presentations were numerous personal stories by ex-Amish, or, as Zook and Bontrager prefer to say, “noncompliant Amish.” Bontrager shared her story of surviving sexual assault and subsequent graduation from Columbia University.
Galen Guengerich, who grew up in Arkansas, recounted his exodus from the Conservative Mennonite Conference and the spiritual journey that led to his current role as senior minister at the All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City.
Mary Byler spoke about the repeated sexual abuse she suffered in her Swartzentruber Amish community, and the intense pain of seeing that community mobilized in public support for her perpetrators when she brought her case to court.
Barbra Graber, an advocate for sexual assault survivors in the Mennonite community, described the rationale behind her efforts to publicly name perpetrators on the “Mennonite Abuse Prevention” list.
Several who attended the conference were mental health professionals or counselors working primarily with the Amish. Others, such as Emma and Noah Zook, who both left the Amish in their early 20s, came out of interest in hearing others’ accounts. Neither doubted their decision to leave, nor did they regard the lack of high school education as a significant barrier to life outside the Amish community. They did, however, note the challenge of “sorting out new information” in light of what they were taught in the Amish context.
Sarah Haider, founder of an organization that supports ex-Muslims, spoke of the significant obstacles many Muslims face, even in North America, if they choose to leave their community.
Nearly a dozen former members of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects, mostly Hasidic, were also present at the conference. Joel Engelman — a survivor of sexual assault and graduate student in psychology at Bowling Green State University — summarized his research on the health costs of “religious disaffiliation.” His studies suggest those leaving “high cost, covenantal religions” report higher levels of depression and anxiety than those leaving “low-cost religions.”
“I’ve never been to a conference like this,” said Pesach Eisen, a New York City resident and former member of the Hasidic Jewish community where education for males was limited almost exclusively to religious studies. “There are so many similar experiences in our stories and yet important differences as well.”
Questions raised by the symposium invite further consideration. Bontrager argues on the Amish Heritage Foundation’s website that because of their resistance to change, the “heritage and culture” of the Amish “is at risk of becoming extinct.” Yet sociologists of religion have identified the Amish as among the fastest-growing religious communities in the U.S., doubling in size every 20 years over the past century, with a total population of nearly 300,000 baptized members.
The critique of current scholarship of the Amish overlooks attention these studies have given to the dynamic nature of Amish life as it adapts to new cultural and economic contexts. Scholars of the Amish have long recognized significant differences among various groups. And, more recently, those same scholars have acknowledged the reality of internal conflict, mental health issues and sexual abuse. More study on the experiences of former Amish members is needed to test the assumption that they are, as a group, significantly disadvantaged as they adapt to life outside the Amish community.
Bontrager described the event as the inaugural conference of what she hopes will become an annual symposium.
“I’m hoping desperately,” said Elam Zook, “that this gathering will spark more conversations.”
John D. Roth directs the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen (Ind.) College.