A coming-of-age rite to keep them coming
Confirmation for teens remains a potent tool for temple educators
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
At Temple Shalom in Aberdeen, the secret to confirmation success is treating teens like the young adults they are, according to Rabbi Laurence Malinger.
“They have to be treated as young adults rather than children, enabling them to explore and learn on their terms,” he said. “Success is dependent on having student input on their studies, allowing them to direct the areas they wish to explore.”
He must be onto something — 80 percent of Temple Shalom students continue on after they become b’nei mitzva, and “almost all” of the confirmands go on to graduation at the conclusion of their senior year, he said.
On June 3, 10 sophomores will take part in Temple Shalom’s annual confirmation service, joining hundreds of their peers across New Jersey.
Confirmation was introduced in the early 1800s in Germany during the inception of Reform Judaism. It was conceived as a replacement for the bar mitzva ceremony, on the theory that age 13 was too young to consider a boy a “man.” Usually taking place two or three years after bar mitzva age, it was often held in schools and homes, but not in synagogues.
By 1822 girls were also participating, and it wasn’t long before confirmation took hold as a kind of religious school graduation ceremony, often held on Shavuot. The ceremony was held for the first time in North America in 1846; it was recommended as a Reform movement-wide practice by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1927.
Today, confirmation is still held on Shavuot, or on the Shabbat preceding the late spring holiday, which marks the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. While it has not replaced b’nei mitzva rituals, it has become a milestone of post-b’nei mitzva education, held anywhere from ninth through 12th grades.
As confirmation season approaches, NJJN wondered what keeps teens tethered to confirmation, when there are so many other activities competing for their attention. The answers ranged from giving the youngsters control of the curriculum, to treating them as adults, to feeding them.
For some, what worked was an open learning environment where nothing is taboo. At Temple Beth Miriam in Long Branch, Rabbi Cy Stanway offers post-b’nei mitzva students the opportunity to discuss and learn Jewish texts that deal with subjects like date rape; respect for the aged; tattoos and piercings; and attitudes toward gay people, intermarriage, and Israel.
Stanway divides students into two sections, grades eighth-10 and 11-12. He describes it as “a safe environment to explore how Judaism fits into their everyday and real life.” He holds class only a couple of times a month to accommodate the many demands on teenagers’ lives, and he recognizes other adolescent needs, like socializing and food. “We feed them a terrific breakfast at each class,” he said.
With 47 students enrolled, he said, “I am astounded at these teenagers’ growth and maturity.”
Clergy also noted how the success of a teen program depends on buy-in from the congregation leadership. Stanway noted that at his temple, leaders are fully supportive of the Teen Academy, of which confirmation is one segment.
Trips don’t hurt either. “We take our students every year to Washington, DC, to attend the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism’s L’Taken Seminar,” said Malinger. This year, the visit took place in February. “It is a requirement and an important part of our educational goals — learning Jewish values as they apply to the world that we are living in, then teaching others our beliefs to work on creating a better world for all of us.”
Confirmation students at Temple Shalom also participate in tzedaka programs with the larger community — sometimes joining with peers at other synagogues, other times taking on an interfaith effort. “Students appreciate hands-on lessons and seeing their Jewish values in action,” said Malinger.
Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Congregation Beth Chaim in Pennington said it took several years to persuade his congregation to embrace confirmation. When he arrived there 37 years ago, most of the members had never even heard of the ceremony. “To most of them, bar mitzva — most didn’t even know of bat mitzva! — was the goal of religious school. The idea that children needed to understand more than a few blessings was unheard of,” he wrote in an e-mail to NJJN.
But today, he wrote, “Most congregants accept that bar (and bat) mitzva is only a stepping stone on the way to Jewish adulthood.”
On June 3, 17 students, down from a high of 40, all 10th-graders, will help lead the service. They will also commit themselves with a pledge, written by French-Jewish writer Edmond Fleg in the 1920s, to “consecrate my life to Judaism. With all my heart, with all my soul, with all my might.”