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Shavuot Feature Since 1800s, Confirmation Ceremony Guides Jewish Teens to Commitment

June 2, 2006
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Confirmation — n. English. A group ceremony, held on Shavuot, that recognizes high-school students who are completing a religious curriculum. When Reform Jews in Germany introduced the confirmation ceremony in the early 19th century, they planned to replace the bar mitzvah. They were guided by a belief that a 13-year-old is not mature enough to fully grasp the religious principles of Judaism.

Confirmation was seen as the opportunity for older teens, who had gained more social, intellectual and religious maturity, to “confirm” their commitment to live a Jewish life.

Theirs was a radical idea in two ways. First, the ceremony gave an equal role to girls, who were being educated with boys in the secular world but not in the Jewish world. Also, the concept of confirmation was based on a German Lutheran church practice where, after a period of study, a confirmand would make a formal declaration of faith.

The first confirmation on record took place in 1803 in a synagogue in Dessau, Germany. The ceremony caught on in Europe and arrived in America in 1846 along with Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a German immigrant who founded organized Reform Judaism in the United States.

As years went by, the bar mitzvah ceremony regained popularity among Reform Jews. By the 1970s, the women’s movement for equal rights helped popularize the bat mitzvah ceremony, which had been introduced in 1922.

Today, many Jewish teens at Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues celebrate both rites of passage. Confirmation usually takes place at the end of 10th grade.

The confirmation ceremony generally is celebrated on Shavuot, the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah.

Confirmation students help lead the service. They may read from the Book of Ruth, the traditional reading on Shavuot; get called up to the Torah for additional readings or brachot; and express their personal commitment to Judaism before the congregation.

Some synagogues publish the names of confirmands in a congratulatory ad in the local Jewish newspaper. Aside from allowing family and friends to be proud of their children, the list serves as a public declaration of the teens’ dedication to Judaism.

Some say the event is symbolic of the Israelites, who after fleeing Egypt assembled as a group to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. According to Rabbi Steven Wernick, spiritual leader of Adath Israel, a Conservative synagogue in suburban Philadelphia, receiving the Torah at Sinai was crucial in transforming the Israelites from a group of newly freed slaves into a nation.

“The Israelites were ordered with a divine mission to bring ethics, justice and fairness into the world,” he said. This, perhaps, is the same charge given to each confirmand: to accept the tenets of Judaism, which include teachings about ethics, justice and fairness.

Many confirmation classes give a gift to their synagogue or complete a collective mitzvah project.

Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic are co-authors of “The JPS Dictionary of Jewish Words” (Jewish Publication Society 2001). The second edition is due out in September.

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