What is Confirmation?



By Barry Shainker

Confirmation, a fundamental part of Reform Judaism for more than a century, is, I must admit, a topic I knew little about until I was a sophomore in high school. Although I knew early on that Confirmation was a special ceremony held three years after bar or bat mitzvah for those students who chose to continue in religious school, I knew nothing of its significance on the Jewish calendar, its place in Reform, or the symbolism it represents. Both my parents were confirmed, and they told me about the beauty and power of the occasion, but walking down the hallway of the synagogue lined with Confirmation class pictures, I wondered why teens would want to wear fancy robes and engage in intense study.

During that 10th grade year, I learned much about the milestone and all that it represents. As early as the 19th century, Reform rabbis believed that 13 is too young for a child to affirm a lifetime commitment to Jewish tradition and practice, and thus the Confirmation service was developed. It usually is held when young people reach 16, and are considered more mature in their understanding of a truly Jewish lifestyle. Using this reasoning, it is easy to see why Confirmation initially took the place of bar or bat mitzvah in Reform synagogues. Over time, of course, that position was modified, and today many teens have the distinct honor of becoming both a bar or bat mitzvah and a confirmand.

The year I was confirmed, the service was held on a Friday morning in early June. At first this meant nothing more than a day off from school. But after a year of study, I understood the significance of holding the Confirmation service on Shavuot. In class, we’d talked about Shavuot as the final holiday—following Sukkot and Passover—of the shalosh regalim, the pilgrimage festivals. Like its predecessors, Shavuot was a time when the ancient Israelites brought a part of their seasonal harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem. As Rabbi Peter Knobel notes, modern Confirmation echoes the symbolism of the ancient observance of Shavout: “Today…young people are the first fruits of each year’s harvest. They represent the hope and promise of tomorrow. During the service [they] reaffirm their commitment to the covenant.”

Shavuot also marks the end of counting the Omer, which began 49 days earlier on the second day of Passover, and matan Torah, the giving of Torah to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Reading the Ten Commandments as the holiday text reminds us of their central place in Jewish tradition and in our lives. At 16, our teens can see this connection and understand that although bar or bat mitzvah is an important ritual at which they declare their Jewish identity, Confirmation solidifies their connection to our sacred texts.

Confirmation services often include the reading of the Book of Ruth, a story from the Ketuvim (Writings). Widowed and devastated after the death of her husband and two sons, Naomi tells her daughters-in-law that they are not obligated to stay with her. One, Orpah, chooses to leave, but the other, Ruth, famously stays with Naomi, saying, “Wherever you go, I will go, and your people, shall be my people.” (Ruth 1:16-17) Often used in a conversation with a potential Jew-by-choice, this text exemplifies an individual with a small connection to Judaism who may want a deeper Jewish life. Ruth wishes to remain connected to her mother-in-law, and, perhaps, to develop a more meaningful connection to her. As teens re-affirm their Jewish identities as Confirmands, Ruth can inspire them to cultivate a deeper relationship with Judaism.

I vividly recall my own Confirmation: the preparation and rehearsals, the floral offering, the white robes, the presentations and speeches, the reading of the Ten Commandments and Ruth, the blessings bestowed upon me by the clergy and my family (and, of course, the dairy feast that followed). Just as the creators of Confirmation intended, at that moment I knew much more about Jewish life and tradition than I had three years earlier. Today, I am always excited at Shavuot to see empowered teens take their seats on the bimah at this special milestone. Like Ruth, their first commitment to Judaism at 13 has developed fully into a deliberate and meaningful life of Jewish fulfillment.

Barry Shainker is an education student at HUC-JIR in New York. He teachers at several institutions including Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners, NY and Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, NY.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah

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5 Responses to “What is Confirmation?”

  1. avatar
    Rabbi Justin Kerber Reply May 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Thanks for this concise but powerful synopsis, Barry. I’ve never seen anyone express such a thoughtful defense of confirmation.

  2. avatar

    Another Shavu’ot approaches and another article has appeared lauding the current state of Confirmation in our movement. With all of the out-of-the-box thinking we should expect from a movement dedicated to reform, this is one area where we are still thinking and behaving like it is the early 20th century.

    The sad fact is that by the time our kids graduate from High School, more than 80% are no longer involved in Temple or synagogue life. Many of us have maintained and that one of the reasons for this disturbing fact is that 10th grade Confirmation provides a convenient way out or exit point from Jewish religious life.

    Therefore, here at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro we have moved 10th grade Confirmation to the 12th grade. Other congregations have done away entirely with Confirmation and have replaced it with 12th grade graduation.

    Research in adolescent psychology shows that time of the greatest amount of adult ego-identity development occurs in the 11th and 12th grades and the first years of college. It is evident to us that moving Confirmation/Graduation to the end of high school is only a partial solution to a much greater problem.

    Unfortunately, the Reform Movement in particular, and the Jewish world in general, have yet to fully appreciate the significance in this research. By the way, our Christian neighbors would never consider providing such an exit point in the 10th grade! Usually what they call Confirmation is done in the 6th or 7th grade and is somewhat parallel to a communal Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

    Providing students an early exit point with 10th grade Confirmation is only part of the problem. Our educational programming, both formal and informal for 11th and 12th grade students needs to be improved. We need to stop looking at them as children and look at them as young adult learners who need guidance as they find their way into the Jewish community.

    We need to realize that as Reform Jews we have terrific programs out there which really work with this age group. However, we need to stop patting ourselves on the back so much for the numbers of participants in these programs and dedicate ourselves to finding a way to dramatically, and as soon as possible, provide the necessary funding to support and expand these programs.

    Three such programs come to mind:

    The first is our KUTZ camp for teens. Our congregation frequently provides a scholarship to one of our teen leaders to attend KUTZ. The results thus far have been very significant. These students have come back from KUTZ and have really been instrumental in helping us grow our youth group and expand the content of its programming.

    The second is the L’taken Social Justice seminar run by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. This is an absolutely fabulous program. It attracts 2000 students per year (9th to 12th grades) and stretches the RAC staff beyond belief. Each session is full and the demand exceeds the available spaces.

    Third, our NFTY programs in Israel are very well run. This year, NFTY’s summer programs will have more than 600 students. My experience has shown me that with greater funding for these programs from local Federations, congregations and the URJ, there could be a tremendous increase in the number of students participating in these programs.

    Finally, the very best program for this age group, the semester EIE in Israel is flourishing. It combines touring in Israel with academic learning. However, we need to look at a ways to significantly bring down the cost of this program.

    The Birthright Israel program has now taken more than 300,000 young adult Jews worldwide to Israel (a large portion of them from the US). The cost of this program is completely subsidized. This subsidy has proven that cost, not just security concerns, is a factor when it comes to sending students and young adults to Israel. Our experience in North Carolina has shown that the middle class is much more stressed financially now than ten years ago.

    As good as Birthright is, psychological research has shown that in terms of identity development, there would be a greater “bang for the buck” from sending people to Israel at 16-18 years of age as opposed to 22-26 years.

    The problems with education for 11th and 12th graders within our movement are indeed severe. They will only be solved by an increase in our dedication to providing meaningful educational experiences for such students and by providing the necessary financial resources to support and expand our high quality programs which already exist.

    Moving Confirmation to the 12th grade and, in essence, making it a Jewish Baccalaureate Ceremony for our students would help us to be less prone, psychologically, to writing off this age group. The numbers of participants are very important here because without talking about numbers of involved teens, the future of the Reform Movement is not a bright one. Moving Confirmation to the 12th grade would constitute an important first step towards significantly increasing the numbers of teens involved in Reform Jewish life.

    Consequently, we would urge those involved in the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement to as it were “bite the bullet” and call for the elimination of 10th grade Confirmation by the year 2020.

    Rabbi Fred Guttman and Rabbi Andy Koren
    Temple Emanuel
    Greensboro North Carolina

    • avatar

      I think it’s a great idea to move Confirmation to the 12th grade, but it would be a horrific mistake to eliminate it entirely. If 16-18 are the more impressionable years according to psychologists, then by all means let us attempt to keep young people in the Jewish fold by educating them in a vigorously American Jewish context rather than attempt to brainwash them into forming a vicarious, nationalist identity through Birthright or some other similar program. I would argue that young American Jews should first cement in themselves a coherent idea of what it means to be a modern American non-orthodox Jew before being immersed in the complexities of Israeli society and identity.

      On a similar note, I wish the HUC year-in-Israel program were not the first year, but rather in the middle or at the end of the course of study for the very same reason. Young, impressionable people, whether they’re teenagers or enthusiastic young rabbinical students, can be changed in ways that are not entirely desirable if they are just immersed headfirst in Israel without a firm grounding or context in Diasporan Progressive Judaism. Some recent programming initiatives at the HUC campus in Jerusalem, thanks to the SCRJ, are ameliorating this problem somewhat by inserting awareness of American progressive minhag into the year-in-Israel curriculum.

  3. avatar

    Dear Fred,

    With respect, I think your premise of Confirmation providing an easy exit point at 10th grade is a red herring. If it were the case, then the movement average 80% drop off would occur post-Confirmation, rather than post-Bar /Bat Mitzvah.

    While I agree we must always look at things with fresh eyes, continue to be self-reflective and to Reform ourselves, there is still a place for the tradition of Reform. My Confirmation students (who in our worst years 80% of their Bar/Bat Mitzvah class) are taught about the long and storied history of Reform Confirmation and most of them stay involved in our Post-Confirmation curriculum through 12th grade.

    Why? Your students and mine are evidence there is no magic bullet. What keeps them involved is the respect they are shown and the dedicated time that they are given by Jewish adults. Yes, I would heartily second your endorsement of programs like Kutz, NFTY, EIE, L’taken (and I would add NFTY-GER’s 40+ year Mitzvah Corps program), but those are only a piece – one place for them to find meaningful (Reform) Jewish interaction.

    As my congregation approaches its 100th year in 2013, I look forward to a Confirmation reunion next Shavuot. And, as we have done every year for the past decade, our Confirmands (reaching back to the year 1943) will pass the Torah from one to the other, to the newest to joint their ranks, symbolically standing at Sinai.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Confirmation: Past, Present, and Future | RJ Blog - May 16, 2012

    [...] Rabbi Carole Balin’s post on the 90th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah, Barry Shainker’s appreciation of the role of confirmation in Reform Judaism, and then the thoughtful comments on Shainker’s post by rabbis Fred Guttman, Andy Koren, and Joel [...]

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