Confirmation is a Reform-originated ceremony for teens that is tied to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. It constitutes an individual and group affirmation of commitment to the Jewish people. Confirmation, one of the “youngest” Jewish lifecycle ceremonies, began less than 200 years ago.
Most scholars attribute the creation of confirmation to Israel Jacobson, a wealthy German businessman and a nominal “founder” of Reform Judaism. In 1810, expending more than $100,000 of his own money, Jacobson built a new synagogue in Seesen, Germany. He introduced a number of then radical reforms, including the use of an organ and mixed male-female seating. Jacobson felt that bar mitzvah was an outmoded ceremony. Accordingly, when five 13-year-old boys were about to graduate from the school he maintained, Jacobson designed a new graduation ceremony, held in the school rather than the synagogue. In this manner, confirmation came into being.
At first only boys were confirmed, usually on the Shabbat of their bar mitzvah. Because of the controversial nature of the confirmation ceremony, the earliest rituals were held exclusively in homes or in schools. In 1817, the synagogue in Berlin introduced a separate confirmation program for girls. In 1822, the first class of boys and girls was confirmed, a practice that became almost universal in a relatively brief period of time. In 1831, Rabbi Samuel Egers of Brunswick, Germany, determined to hold confirmation on Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which is the widely accepted practice today.
At its inception, confirmation reflected a graduation motif. After a specified period of study, students were subject to a public examination. The following day, in the rabbi’s presence, students uttered personal confessions of faith. The rabbi addressed the class, recited a prayer, and then blessed them. It was a simple service with no fixed ritual. As confirmation moved into the synagogue and as its ties to Shavuot strengthened, the ceremony became more elaborate.
In the early 1900s, confirmation took on an air of great pageantry, with boys and girls wearing robes, bringing flower offerings to the bimah, and participating in dramatic readings and cantatas illustrating themes of dedication and commitment to Judaism. Preparation for confirmation still included a period of study, but public tests and confessions of faith gave way to more normative exams and papers, as well as speeches reflecting a deeper understanding of Jewish teachings and values. Wide variations exist in congregational practice today, from an elaborate synagogue service to a private individual ceremony with the rabbi. Many confirmation classes undertake social action projects as part of their year of preparation. While 10th grade confirmation remains the norm in Reform Judaism, a number of synagogues now mark the event in 9th, 11th, or even 12th grade. Since the 1970s, adult confirmation programs have existed in many Reform congregations.
The first recorded confirmation in North America was held at New York’s Anshe Chesed Congregation in 1846. Two years later, New York’s Congregation Emanu-El adopted confirmation. The ceremony grew in popularity, and in 1927, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional organization of North America’s Reform rabbis, recommended confirmation as a movement-wide practice.