Washington Hebrew Congregation’s main hallway is lined with photographs of each of the Reform synagogue’s confirmation classes going back more than a century. And this month, Washington Hebrew has added the 128th confirmation class photo to its wall.
Confirmation, was created as a rite of passage for Jewish 16 or 18 year olds by the Reform movement in 19th century Germany. The German reformers were looking for an egalitarian ceremony that would supplant the traditional and male-only bar mitzvah.
“In its emphasis on the collective rather than the individual, and on educating teenage girls as well as boys in the fine points of Jewish theology and history, confirmation did the bar mitzvah one better,” Jenna Weissman Joselit wrote in the Forward.
“Nothing if not respectable, it even resembled a high school graduation with all the attendant pomp and circumstance: Banks of flowers, orderly processionals and recessionals, rows of young women in pretty white dresses and young men in handsome suits, and a raft of high-minded recitations about devotion, fidelity and progress characterized the occasion.”
Confirmation spread to the United States. And although the bar (and since 1922, bat) mitzvah had a resurgence here, the confirmation remains a part of the lifecycle of many Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative synagogues.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, who teaches the confirmation class at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, said that a confirmation emphasizes the same principles as a bar or bat mitzvah, but because it takes place when the teen is older, he or she is better able to appreciate the beauty and sophistication of Jewish concepts.
Unlike a bar or bat mitzvah, teens are confirmed as a class. The ceremony usually takes place during Shabbat services around the time of Shavuot (which begins this year at sundown on June 11). Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Like b’nai mitzvah students, confirmation classes study for several months beforehand.
“I teach [what we call the] great books and ideas of the Jewish people,” said Weinblatt. “I’m teaching them an exposure and overview of the great writings of the Jewish people, so they have familiarity of terms [within important Jewish texts].”
Rabbi Susan Shankman of Washington Hebrew Congregation believes confirmation has remained an important part of life there because “there’s a deep connection to our roots as a congregation. People walk down the hallway, point out pictures and reflect on their grandparents who were confirmed at WHC.”
She said that each class selects a theme for the confirmation Shabbat service. This year’s class picked “a holy community.” The choice signals that students understand confirmation is not just a celebration of a milestone, but a recognition that they are a part of a greater community, she said.
While the clergy do sometimes joke with students about having their picture on the wall, Shankman said, “It’s not just a wall of photos. It’s what happens within [each] group. I think the theme they chose this year expresses that beautifully.”
Following confirmation, many classes will have a reception together. WHC’s class wants to do community service work together. Other congregations will celebrate with a Shabbat dinner following the ceremony.
Weinblatt takes his confirmation classes to New York, a tradition he said is common at many synagogues.
David Helfand, director of youth engagement at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, said he has designed a project for this year’s confirmation class. Helfand attended a program hosted by Keshet, a national organization that works toward inclusivity of LGBTQ Jews, and learned about its seven core values, including peace in the home, communal responsibility and respect.
“I decided to base the confirmation materials on the seven [values] and build a mission statement of openness and inclusivity with the kids,” he said.
His goal was to work with students on issues such as inclusivity that they are already tackling. With one more meeting left before the ceremony, the students will write a statement of openness and inclusivity, which the synagogue will use as a mission statement.
That’s something that would not likely come out of a bar or bat mitzvah, but out of a more mature consideration of Jewish text. Said Weinblatt, “If we are the people of the book, then I want the students to make sure theyknow what book.”