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