The Truth About The Jewish Rite of Passage That Fails Our Teens

Outdated Confirmation rites

The Confirmation Ceremony Might Not Be Relevant Today


What were you thinking about when you were in 11th grade? 

Were you thinking about succeeding in school, wondering where you’d go to college, or what your major would be?
Did you think about whether your high school friends would be ‘keepers’ for life, if you’d get along with your roommate, or maybe about college finances and loans?

I doubt you were wondering about your relationship with God. Or what it would mean to be a Jewish adult.

Now that Shavuot is over, I can share what I think Confirmation is in its current form: an irrelevant ceremony, that might even be borderline dangerous. I’m probably not the first person to write about this, but I feel an obligation to do so. I was one of those kids who couldn’t wait to be ‘done’ with Hebrew School.

My parents however, had other intentions. They firmly said that I had to attend Confirmation class for two years! I was not inspired by the class and admit that I was pretty bored, spending quite a lot of time with my girlfriends in the synagogue lounge area (located in the women’s restroom at the time). In 10th grade, I participated in a Confirmation ceremony, held on Shavuot, where everyone in my class had to read something (I don’t even remember if we had to write what we read) to the synagogue community from the Bimah (podium).

This was when my Jewish high school education school stopped. Today, it is a rare synagogue or community program that engages teens beyond the 10th grade, and the one I attended back then did not. Finito. No more formal Jewish education for me. It’s as if I was being told by my synagogue that I knew it all…(really?).

At last, my parents would finally stop bugging me about going to Hebrew school and I could focus on my real school work and getting into college.  Little did I know then that I would later become enamored with our traditions, history, and rituals–proving the point that I was not of an age to complete my education, nor was I in a position to decide not to continue if the opportunity presented itself. (Please read here, or here for why Jewish education in the teen years is so crucial)

Confirmation is a man-made ceremony

Briefly, Confirmation (the name was borrowed from the Catholic faith, and is one of the seven sacraments), is a created ceremony originating in the 1800’s, adopted by the Reform movement  and later by other non-Orthodox movements to have students individually and as a group, affirm (confirm) their commitment to the Jewish people, which is why it’s connected to Shavuot.  The goal also was also to retain students past Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

What is my problem with this?

This ceremony confuses so many people, is it a ritual? Law? It is not connected to any developmental stage. But it is tied to synagogue membership and it does artificially creates a second cut-off for an entire group of teens (if there are no options for them beyond the ceremony) who are, perhaps for the first time, engaging with Judaism in a more adult manner. It creates yet another decision point for parents and teens, who at this point, are usually among the most committed. It offers students a congratulatory award for maintaining a connection with their people, history and heritage. Accomplishment of this often offers an entitlement to go on a Confirmation trip to Israel.

Just think of the opportunities we would have to discuss issues with teens as they approach driving, voting, drinking, and college age.  We are missing out on this, in favor of what?

We have to look at the evidence research provides. In a study conducted by the Jewish Agency’s Jewish People Policy Institute, the authors found that “In terms of predicting adult Jewish connection, statistical studies show that every year past the bar mitzvah year “count” more than the year before.” This is stressed even further: Receiving formal Jewish education from age 16 to 17 more accurately predicts adult Jewish connectedness than receiving formal Jewish education from age 15 to 16.”

So, what do studies accomplish if not to drive change? What is the purpose of research if not to inform present practice?   Now, when there are months of planning time ahead we have to wonder what the real reasons are for holding onto this ceremony.  We have to ask ourselves the difficult questions about what are our the true goals. What do we gain? What do the teens gain? What do we need to change? What life stages do we want to recognize? What would be the most relevant ceremony if we had to re-invent one? When we have the answers, we can then work on creating new opportunities for our teens, making sure we involve them in the process.

Perhaps then we can confirm for them, and for us, the purpose of a Jewish education.

About Ruth Schapira

As a Jewish educator, I hope to broaden opportunities for learning and offer new ideas. If my posts inspire you to hold conversations and motivate change within the Jewish community, that would make me very happy. I'm interested in making a difference. View all posts by Ruth Schapira

2 responses to “The Truth About The Jewish Rite of Passage That Fails Our Teens

  • Sara Greenberg

    Disclaimer: “Orthodox” view below:
    I think the very name “confirmation” is a travesty. It comes out of the notion that Jews are “just like everyone else” and a feeble attempt to emulate the nations of the world. What, we don’t have enough of our own G-d-given rituals that we have to invent more? The name, in and of itself, adds confusion, particularly to kids who are exposed to other religious practices and are not thoroughly grounded in Judaism. To me, the essence of Judaism is not a once-in-a lifetime, “life-cycle” event; not “confirmation” and, I would argue, not even bnei mitzvah. We are Jewish in our souls. It has to permeate who we are, every day, with every action – both in relation to how we relate to “religion,” i.e., in our relationship with G-d (e.g., prayer), and in our treatment of fellow humans: v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, this is a fundamental precept of Judaism. We have to find ways to instill pride rather than obligation, curiosity rather than boredom, facts instead of perception. These kids are going off to college,, most lijkely, where it’s becoming rougher and rougher to sustain a Jewish identity and support Israel. They don’t need ceremony, they need an unshakeable foundation. They need to learn the difficult concept of “mesirat nefesh,” giving ourselves over to G-d’s will – a very, very difficult concept to imbue in anyone, let alone today’s teenagers. And they need role models to emulate – they need the inspiration from within, not an imposition of someone else’s values from the outside.
    OK rant over. Thanks for reading. You might recognize that I am very passionate about this subject.
    S (mom of 11th grader and Jewish educator)

    • Ruth Schapira

      Sara. your passion is what I’m sure inspires your students! Thank you for posting your thoughts about this, it might help open eyes to working on the very issues you mention here, and the ones I’ve written about on this blog. Jewish teens need to have opportunities to engage with Judaism on their intellectual level, now…before they get to college. Often, students spend precious time attending a program, rehearsing for a ceremony that may be leaving them flat, instead of spending the time connecting on a personal level with Judaism and what it has to offer them.

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