Posted on May 7, 2018 by Jay Lavroff, President, 2017-2019
Years ago, when Pam and I first joined a Reform congregation, I noticed that the walls of the synagogue were adorned with pictures of young women and men in robes, usually accompanied by the rabbi and cantor. A small engraved plaque identified each photograph as the “Confirmation Class” of some year. The photos stretched back to the 1950s. I was intrigued by the caption “Confirmation Class.” What was this confirmation? Being the product of a Conservadox upbringing, I was unfamiliar with the notion of Jewish confirmation. As far as I knew, confirmation was something that my Catholic friends experienced.
When we came to Temple Beth-El, I saw the same kind of pictures, so I began to investigate this concept of which I had no knowledge. I wanted to know who the confirmands were, why they were being confirmed and what exactly they were confirming. I did some research and found the answers, which I’d like to share with you.
In Germany in the early 1800s, leaders of the Reform Movement began questioning whether 13 (i.e., bar mitzvah age) was an appropriate age for a young person to affirm their Jewish identity. It was decided that a somewhat older teenager was better equipped for the task, and so the confirmation ceremony was instituted. This coming of age event enabled young Jewish adults to publicly “confirm” their commitment to Judaism. The first documented confirmation ceremony in the United States took place in Albany, New York in 1846, and the presiding rabbi was none other than Isaac Mayer Wise. By 1900, the practice had become commonplace in American Reform congregations.
As time passed, the confirmation ceremony evolved from a substitute for bar and bat mitzvah to a completely separate Jewish life cycle event. The modern confirmation practice celebrates the completion of a level of formal Jewish study (at Temple Beth-El it is, in effect, graduation from Confirmation Academy). Confirmation occurs at the end of the 10th grade. The confirmands lead a service on erev Shabbat, during which they address issues of significance and affirm their commitment to leading a Jewish life.
This year’s confirmation will take place on Friday, June 1. I recently caught a glimpse not only of what the confirmation service will be like, but what the next steps our young women and men take along their Jewish journey may yield. I really like what I saw.
During the April 20 erev Shabbat service, Rabbi Gluck invited the soon-to-be confirmed onto the bimah to answer a series of questions about God, about their Jewish experiences to date, and about how they have grown personally. Our entire community should be proud of how these beautiful examples of Jewish adulthood have made their mark. They are intelligent, studious, conscientious, funny and insightful. They see the world around them and within them, recognize that there is room for improvement, and express their desire to make those improvements. But most of all they are committed: to their Judaism, their Jewish values and their Jewish identities.
And there is another message that came through clearly as I watched and listened to those who will carry our tradition forward. At a time when parts of the world seem to have lost their moral compass, and Jews and Judaism are under attack from many different angles, it is particularly important and appropriate that the education of our young people continue beyond their bar or bat mitzvah. As they get older, they have a greater capacity to understand and appreciate what is going on around them and how best to deal with it. This is true whether they are advocating for themselves or on behalf of others. We are truly fortunate to live in a community where our clergy and educators enthusiastically nourish the growth of young Jewish souls through high school, and where our young folks emerge from their Jewish studies with a strong and confident sense of their own Jewishness.
A 1980s party song by the new wave group Timbuk3 reminds us that “the future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.” While few of this year’s confirmands may be familiar with this cult classic, I think that it nicely describes how we should all feel about the confirmation process at Temple Beth-El, and the delightful people who pass through it. I’ve got my shades on, and I look forward to peering through them at many more confirmation class pictures on the Temple walls.
Originally published in the May-June 2018 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.