Move Confirmation to the 12th Grade Now!
By Rabbi Fred Guttman and Rabbi Andy Koren
If the road to lifelong Jewish learning begins with religious school, then the widespread practice of ending formal Jewish education with tenth-grade Confirmation is a dead end. 10th-grade Confirmation prevents our teens from integrating their religious schooling with other key Jewish teenage experiences including local Tikkun Olam efforts and serving as religious school Madrichim or counselors at a URJ camp.
It gives our youth license not to be Jewishly engaged in synagogue activities during their last two years of high school. Roughly 80% choose to drop out. Two years later, when they enter college, the vast majority are not interested in Hillel and Kesher because their congregations “dismissed” them too early. In short, we’ve consigned our teens to a wilderness of alienation from which few will return, threatening the long-term continuity of our movement.
At Temple Emanuel, we have been doing 12th-grade Confirmation since 2001. In our experience, meaningful learning, compelling trips, and community service, when combined with socializing, keep most students involved with Temple for the entirety of high school. We retain around 80% of our B’nai Mitzvah students though the end of 12th grade. Of those retained, some 75% will travel to Israel prior to graduation.
The solution is readily apparent: move Confirmation to the same year as high school graduation!
It is true that working intensely with teens for another two years means more work for staff and lay leadership. Yet, by doing this we have many more opportunities to interact and build relationships. At Temple Emanuel, the biggest changes we’ve made center around how we as educators and parents look at our teens as learners. We no longer view them as larger, older versions of seventh-graders; rather, they are first-stage adult learners. This has demanded a deeper knowledge of what resonates for maturing teens. For example, teens in our area are interested in service to others. We made the RAC’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar a yearly event open to all high school students. We also created our own service learning trip to New Orleans. We heard from our teens that they want to connect to Jews worldwide so Israel trips are a big part of our approach, and we fundraise to make these trips accessible to everyone.
Our Confirmation service occurs on a Friday night near high school graduation. As such, it has become somewhat of a Jewish “Baccalaureate” service. There is a Torah processional during which the Torah is passed to the eleventh-grade class. The eleventh-grade families also sponsor the Oneg Shabbat that evening. Many high school students from all grades attend, allowing our seniors to model that teen Jewish involvement in our Temple continues through the end of high school.
By the end of high school, our teens are truly young adults. Intellectually, their Confirmation speeches on “What Being Jewish Means to Me” demonstrate a deeper level of connection than their tenth-grade counterparts can even imagine. As graduating seniors, they intertwine what it means to come of age both as Jews and as young adults—the emotional touchstones of graduation and leaving home for college.
As a congregational staff, we have stopped talking about curriculum and instead use the words “engagement” and “learning.” Every month, someone contacts us asking what our curriculum is. This is the wrong question! There is no magical one-size-fits-all traditional curriculum. Moreover, when we are asked about who is eligible for our 12th-grade Confirmation, the only criteria of importance is whether or not that student has remained engaged and involved throughout the years since his or her Bar/Bat Mitzvah. We’ve learned that punitive approaches don’t get us very far. Only those who have dropped out or have disengaged completely from Jewish life are not eligible for Confirmation.
The bottom line is this: psychological research has shown that the last two years of high school and the first two years of college are prime for adult identity development. The unintended consequence of Confirmation at any point before the end of high school is dismissal at precisely the time when teens need the benefits of Jewish community most. Our overall curricular goal must be meaningful engagement throughout high school and not some preconceived idea by adults as to what kids need to learn. Lists of well-intentioned requirements often serve as obstacles that weed out all but the most committed. Our “curriculum” is that, through a variety of activities including learning, we aim to keep our teens involved in congregational and Jewish life though the end of 12th grade. We hope that more Reform congregations will recognize the profound benefits of dovetailing Confirmation with high school graduation. Doing so will go a long way in ensuring the future of Reform Judaism in North America.
Rabbi Fred Guttman and Rabbi Andy Koren serve Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC. They both have expansive backgrounds in the field of teen education and engagement.