Some Reform Temples Find Success in Raising the Age for Confirmation

As part of ongoing efforts to stem post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah dropouts, some Reform congregations are delaying confirmation, traditionally held at Shavuot, from 10th to 12th grade. This does more than keep adolescents involved in religious school longer, adherents say: It also makes a qualitative difference.

Rabbis who have made the switch say that high school seniors take the commitment ceremony more seriously, and those two extra years allows for more sophisticated and intellectually rigorous Jewish learning.

In fact, two such congregations have seen 80 percent of their Bar Mitzvah classes stay through 12th grade, and a third synagogue retained more than 60 percent of its students. That’s far above the usual numbers.

“The 11th and 12th grades are the most important years for developing a sense of who I am, for developing morals, ethics, and relationships,” says Rabbi Fred Guttman of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C., which moved its confirmation to 12th grade four years ago. “Once you realize that only a few thousand kids nationwide are getting Jewish education during those years, you know we’re in big trouble.”

Guttman is referring to a 2004 United Jewish Communities study on part-time Jewish education, which looked at 46 Jewish communities representing 75 percent of the nation’s Jewish population. The study collected data from both non-Orthodox and Orthodox religious schools, but did not consider full-time day schools.

The study found that whereas 126,800 students are enrolled in supplemental Jewish education until they are 13, that number drops to 23,800 for post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah ages, and drops again to 3,600 students older than 16.

“Those numbers are appalling,” Guttman says. In the Reform movement, he estimates, “if a congregation bar-mitzvahs 50 to 60 kids, then maybe they have five or six kids graduating high school.”

In contrast, Guttman notes that his congregation confirmed 14 young people over a recent weekend, 80 percent of this year’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah class. And he says other congregations that have made the same move are seeing similar success.

Moving confirmation to the end of high school is not a new idea; some shuls have been doing it for decades.

But increased interest in lifelong Jewish learning, along with a rash of new surveys like the recent UJC study, seems to be inspiring a groundswell of rabbinic interest in finding creative ways of keeping Jewish youth engaged longer and at a deeper level.

The Union for Reform Judaism doesn’t keep tabs on how many member congregations have made the switch. Rabbi Jan Katzew, director of the URJ’s department of Lifelong Jewish Learning, questions whether it’s even a definite trend.

“The situation is remarkably fluid, and there are contradictory trends,” he says.

Some Reform congregations have extended high-school religious programming to the end of 12th grade. Some hold confirmation in 10th grade and a graduation ceremony in 12th grade, some just have confirmation in 12th grade and still others have kept to the traditional schedule.

Reform movement surveys indicating that 50 percent of teenagers stop religious education within 18 months of their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs are “informal,” Katzew warns. But he acknowledges the basic reality they illustrate.

“There is a precipitous decline in Jewish engagement” during adolescence, he says, and strengthening that link demands “doing what it takes to keep them involved.”

One of those ways, he says, is extending formal Jewish education through 12th grade, so that it becomes the norm and “it’s no longer just the extraordinary students who continue.”

Another way is to extend the boundaries of religious school to include service learning, tikkun olam projects and participation in youth-group activities.

Two years ago, the URJ created the Kavanah program, he says, “to encourage congregations to support a multidimensional learning structure” by offering credits toward a certificate for extracurricular Jewish learning.

“This is all to recognize that we can’t just focus narrowly on an adult agenda imposed on adolescents, and say, ‘If you don’t fit within that very narrow band we don’t have anything for you,’ ” he says.

This has nothing to do with when — or even whether — a congregation holds confirmation, he adds.

Some cling tenaciously to tradition. Temple Emanu-El in Dallas is one of the nation’s largest Reform congregations, with 2,700 member families. It sees no reason to change its 10th-grade confirmation, which this year was scheduled for May 22.

“It’s a strong part of the Temple Emanu-El culture,” says Rabbi Barry Diamond, its director of education.

But Emanu-El may be in a stronger position than smaller, struggling congregations.

“There’s a growing number of us trying to come up with the right solution,” says Rabbi Jordan Parr, spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano, Texas, an eight-year-old congregation with 200 families that moved confirmation from 10th grade to 12th grade two years ago.

“I think the reason it’s starting in small congregations is that we don’t have that many teenagers and we need to find a way to keep them involved,” he says.

Parr hasn’t held confirmation in the two years since Adat Chaverim made the switch. He expects to graduate “two or three” high school seniors next April in a ceremony he’s calling “bagrut,” after the Israeli high-school matriculation exam, to further distance it from the traditional concept of confirmation.

“I made a deal with the kids and their parents, that I could have them for two more years, but we’d do it on their terms,” Parr says.

That means, he says, recognizing the increased pressures juniors and seniors have on their time, and developing a flexible curriculum that allows students to earn “credits” toward graduation by taking part in youth group conventions, doing mitzvah projects and acting as teaching assistants in the religious school.

Like Guttman, Parr says most of his teenagers are staying involved through 12th grade. And, he adds, they’re learning at a more serious level: “What they’re getting in 12th grade is light years ahead of what they’d get in 10th grade.”

Some Reform congregations have done away with the term confirmation altogether, recognizing that it was created as an alternative commitment ceremony at a time when the Reform movement didn’t celebrate becoming B’nai Mitzvot.

Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, N.J. got rid of confirmation more than 30 years ago, when “a group of kids came to us and said confirmation is artificial, and it’s done at the wrong time,” Rabbi Bennett Miller says.

Since then, the large suburban Reform congregation has held “graduation” at the end of 12th grade.

“It’s not done with a lot of pomp and circumstance,” Miller says. “It’s usually on a Friday night, and some of the kids speak in a reflective manner about their temple experience.”

The 10th- and 11th-grade curriculum is set, Miller says, but during 12th grade the students meet once a month at his home to talk freely “about choosing a college from a Jewish perspective, what does it mean to be in love, Israel in our lives, and the meaning of God.”

Anshe Emeth also claims a high retention rate. It will celebrate 40 Bar and Bat Mitzvahs this year, and 17 young people will graduate from its religious school in June.

Like Parr and Guttman, Miller says the way to combat teenage drop-off is to treat high school students like the young adults they are.

It’s not just about moving the ceremony two years later, but developing a more flexible attitude and challenging curriculum that takes these older adolescents seriously.

“A lot of congregations set the bar of excellence low, and then choose not to meet it,” he notes. “At one time, confirmation was seen as a real affirmation of faith. My question wouldn’t be, why move it to 12th grade, but why have it in 10th grade in the first place?”

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