Confirmation: Past, Present, and Future

Confirmation and b’nai mitzvah have been front and center on this blog for the past few weeks, what with 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 Abraham.

As I commented on Rabbi Balin’s post, the early Reformers deserve high marks for the institution of confirmation as a replacement for bar mitzvah, even though over the long haul their innovation did not “take.” Mr. Shainker pointed out confirmation extended, typically by two or three years, the years of Jewish education a youngster received. More important, it was applicable to girls as well as to boys; and it was a communal event rather than putting a spotlight on an individual.

And by making the wondrous connection between the acceptance of Torah at Mount Sinai on Shavuot and the acceptance of Torah by teen-agers at confirmation on Shavuot, those prescient rabbis even found a way to fill seats in their sanctuaries on the least observed of the shalosh regalim, the three festivals. (At least some did. In my once Classic Reform congregation, to the consternation of those who believed that confirmation on Shavuot had been proclaimed at Sinai, confirmation had often been held on the nearest Sunday morning, which at that time was the best-attended of the weekend worship opportunities.)

Today, confirmation is a shadow of what it once was. When my son was a religious school student 35 years ago, not all the boys in his religious school classes were aiming at observing a bar mitzvah, and none of the girls. But by the time I became president of that congregation, some 15 years later, both bar and bat mitzvah had become virtually universal.

As president, I was approached by Associate Rabbi Donald Rossoff, now Senior Rabbi at B’nai Or in Morristown, NJ, and religious school principal Barbara “Cookie” Gross, soliciting my support in implementing the radical proposal  that we move confirmation from 10th grade to 12th grade. They pointed out that all of the kids in the high school/youth group (you couldn’t be in one without being in the other) had had b’nai mitzvah ceremonies; and those that didn’t drop out immediately after tended to stay until high school graduation, and thus couldn’t see any relevance or significance to an intermediate ceremony.

What was Temple Sholom’s secret weapon that kept those teens throughout high school? Don and Cookie tied it to the youth group trip to Israel, which was held every three years. To be eligible to go on the trip, you had to be in the high school program. If you had just missed a trip, you hung on the extra years so you could go; if the trip’s timing let you go early in your high school career, you bonded so much with your traveling companions – both adults and peers – that you wanted to keep the connection.

Although I understood and liked the idea, I foresaw it as being potentially very contentious and divisive. Accordingly, the three of us sat down with Senior Rabbi Fred Schwartz z”l to map out a strategy to make it happen. What we did was to make everybody a stakeholder, and thus have the proposal examined not just in the Religious School Committee, but also in the Worship Committee (because of its presumed impact on Shavuot services) and in the House Committee (because of its presumed impact on facility utilization) and by the Sisterhood (because of their role in gifting each confirmand). By the time we actually brought the proposal to the Board for action, everyone had been exposed to the issue, had had time to geet used to it, think about it and discuss it, and we believed we had the votes to move forward with it.

We were right. The motion passed almost unanimously, but two members of the Board asked to be recorded as having been in opposition.

I would not have been surprised by opposition from those whose mantra was “this is the way we’ve always done it.” But the two naysayers were both people I considered as Jewish education maximalists, and thus their opposition was a puzzlement. However, after the meeting, each came over to me to explain himself. Ed said originally he had favored the motion, until someone pointed out that the idea of adding two years to the confirmation process had originated with the students. He didn’t want it thought in the community that policy was being made at Temple Sholom by teenagers. Norman’s negativism came from a totally different direction. Confirmation, he said, is a very goyish (gentile) concept, and we shouldn’t be moving it, we should be getting rid of it altogether!

In actuality, Norman’s position came to pass; after a year or so, the term “confirmation” was dropped, along with the Shavuot connection, and the high school graduation ceremony became part of a Shabbat evening service toward the end of May. That’s also the minhag at Beth Emet, my current congregation, where the Friday night ceremony for 12th graders is called Kabbalat Torah (receiving Torah). Being a relative newcomer, however, I don’t know when 12th grade was established as the terminal point, nor when the C word left the congregation’s vocabulary, nor if and when a separation from Shavuot took place. (I know the congregation had confirmation, because class pictures are on display in the religious school corridor.)

The important point, however, as others have said, is that whenever the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony takes place, and whether it is an individual or a group event, our challenge is to make it a beginning and not an end point. I’m proud of having been part of possibly the first congregation to institute 12th grade confirmation, and to have done so by recognizing that retention is relationship-based. We used to call ourselves “the people of the Book.” But at any age, our Jewish connection to the Book is tied to our connection to people; and the way we foster Torah is by fostering community.

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Larry Kaufman

About Larry Kaufman

Laurence (Larry) Kaufman, z"l, was a member of Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue, in Evanston IL, where he coached b'nai mitzvah candidates on their divrei Torah. A long-time Reform Movement activist, he served on the North American Board of URJ, the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Board of ARZA, and was a past president of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Even while semi-retired, he consulted with an Israeli technology company on its U.S. public relations and marketing communications.

4 Responses to “Confirmation: Past, Present, and Future”

  1. William Berkson
    William Berkson Reply May 16, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Larry, I completely agree. Confirmation at high school graduation make total sense. I heard an account from a Rabbi in North Carolina of how successfully it has gone for him. Congratulations on being the first!

  2. avatar
    Jordan Friedman Reply May 17, 2012 at 9:48 am

    The attitudes of “Ed” and “Norman”, and the prevalence of similar attitudes today, reflect the chronic immaturity of the Reform Movement in the past few decades. We just can’t stop shooting ourselves in the spiritual foot in an effort to avoid “chukkat hagoyim”. It doesn’t matter that something WORKS–if we can be more “Jewish” according to an external (read: conservadox) standard of authenticity, then almost anything can be cut out or changed to that end, whatever the substantive or aesthetic consequences. I wonder when RJ will grow a pair and embrace its own authenticity.

    Confirmation at 16 is better than B’nai Mitzvah, and confirmation at 18 is better still. At that age, a higher percentage of students will actually care about forming a lasting Jewish identity and commitment, especially if it constructed on a spiritual, rather than ethno-cultural foundation.

    • Larry Kaufman

      Jordan, the attitudes of Ed and of Norman are diametrically opposite of one another. Ed’s position was square on with the pre-occupation of early and mid-20th-century Reform with ma yomru bagoyim, what will the nations say, in this case about the presumed emasculation of the adult Board by the school-kids.

      Norman’s position does represent what you claim it does; he claimed for Reform an authenticity that was Jewishly authentic and didn’t rely on the vocabulary of the surrounding Christian society. I salute his memory for that insight.

      I toss back at you the concern about when Classic Reform will grow up and concede that Reform Judaism’s 19th century approach of accentuating the spiritual and eliminating the ethno-cultural appeals today only to a tiny niche, most of which is probably more attracted to its aesthetic than to its ideology. Even the cathedrals of Classic Reform, Emanuel and Sinai, now offer the once-rejected bar mitzvah. Our temples have learned to follow the teaching of that great theologian Marshall Field: Give the lady what she wants.

      • avatar
        Jordan Friedman Reply May 17, 2012 at 9:24 pm

        The attitudes of Ed and Norman may be diametrically opposed to one another, but I’d charge that neither is in line with CR principles. Some aesthetic decisions, on the most shallow level, may have been partially made in order to “impress” or “not alienate” random non-Jewish visitors to services. That must be what you refer to with the (groan-inducing) phrase “ma yomru bagoyim”. I don’t see how that applies to the issue of the Temple board being influenced by the requests of young people. It’s not the goyim who would care, it’s the rest of the Jewish community, and I don’t see what in CR values prohibits the valuing of thoughtful requests on the part of young people, particularly in this case when they were asking for MORE education! In what universe does it make sense to ignore the educational thirst of children (which they should have been PROUD of) in order to avoid the appearance of (gasp) giving them what they want? Unless I’m misunderstanding your post, the children WANTED to extend the confirmation process by two years. That is so unusual and unlike children to request–I don’t see how any sane person would think it would be bad for the Temple’s reputation to grant the request, since it should be a point of pride for the education program to have turned out children who would make such a request in the first place. It’s nonsensical. How many kids today would say “we want MORE years of Jewish education”? Not even at Sinai or Emanu-El.

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