Conservatives Have No Consensus on when — or Whether — to Confirm

There is no great movement among Conservative congregations to switch confirmation from 10th to 12th grade, but that’s not because Conservative congregations don’t hold the annual commitment ceremony. The Conservative movement may officially disdain it — “We’ve never really ‘owned’ confirmation,” says Serene Victor, national educational consultant for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — but some member congregations still offer it. How many is unknown, but Wendy Light, of the movement’s education department, says it’s “a good number.”

Confirmation was “made up by the Reform movement to keep their students beyond Bar and Bat Mitzvah,” Light says, but Conservative congregations began adopting the practice shortly afterward. Still, “it’s not a movement-wide thing,” she says.

The Conservative movement tries to retain high-school students in other ways than through confirmation.

One way is the Framework for Excellence, a four-year-old movement-sponsored program of self-evaluation for synagogue schools that involves a written commitment to continue Jewish education through 12th grade. Eighty-two Conservative congregations have signed on to it, and half of the movement’s 610 affiliated congregations “are working on it,” Light says.

Light acknowledges that most of those 82 congregations also offer confirmation, as well as some kind of 12th-grade religious school graduation.

“In practice, we now see confirmation at both the 10th and 11th grades, but our movement supports education through 12th grade,” she says.

Rabbi Robert Abramson, United Synagogue’s director of education, wrote in an e-mail that he doesn’t know how many Conservative congregations offer confirmation, or how many Conservative shuls have moved the ceremony from 10th to 12th grades.

“This is not a phenomenon that we have been tracking,” he wrote.

Privately, experts suggest that Conservative congregations that offer confirmation often are located close to popular Reform congregations, and are influenced by a certain spillover effect.

Conservative Congregation Bnai Torah in Boca Raton, Fla., with 1,300 families, holds confirmation in 10th grade. Students who wish to continue their religious education for another two years move to the federation-sponsored CHAI school, which serves 11th- and 12th-graders from several area synagogues.

Judith Stein, Bnai Torah’s executive assistant for education, says the synagogue used to have its own 11th- and 12th-grade religious programming, but began feeding into the community school when it opened several years ago.

But even before that, she says, “we’ve always had confirmation in 10th grade, as far as I know.”

Sinai Temple in Los Angeles also offers confirmation in the 10th grade. Eleventh- and 12th-graders meet once a month with the rabbi, or may study at a community school.

“That’s been the history here, and that’s what we’re continuing,” says Tracy Schatz, interim director of Sinai’s religious school.

But Temple Beth Am, another Los Angeles Conservative congregation, does not offer confirmation. Its religious school ends at Bar Mitzvah, and students then have the option of enrolling in a Jewish day school or continuing supplemental religious education in a community school.

“There are some Conservative congregations that have confirmation and end there, some that have confirmation and graduation, some that have no confirmation and do graduation, and some that have neither,” Victor says. That mirrors the situation in the Reform community.

The Reconstructionist movement “never developed an attachment to confirmation,” says Rabbi Shawn Zevitt, the movement’s outreach director, ” because the Bar and Bat Mitzvah has always been the centerpiece of our movement.”

In the 1950s, however, the Reconstructionist movement developed the “Bnai Torah” concept, which sounds a lot like confirmation.

“It usually takes place a year after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, to confirm the young person’s place in the Jewish people, but it’s not as popular” as confirmation is in the Reform movement, Zevitt says.

Some Reconstructionist congregations also hold a ceremony calling a young person up to the Torah just before he or she begins college.

That, too, is only “somewhat prevalent,” Zevitt says, but demonstrates “an increased recognition for some kind of ritual or communal acknowledgment of the transition from high school to college.”

NEXT STORY