When I myself had the opportunity to be confirmed by my synagogue on Shavuot, admittedly, after the first class I decided to drop out. Like other teens, I was faced with so many choices, not the least of which was a lucrative lifeguarding shift that opened at the same time (for a teenager, $6.25 an hour!). I made the choice to take money over studying with the rabbi. Somewhat irreverently, I told my parents that I “confirmed” my Judaism and was moving on.
I do not envy teenagers today. I constantly watch those in my community struggle with how to make good choices and balance in their lives between high educational standards, extra-curricular activities and Judaism. As a teenager, I did not have the distractions of YouTube and social media, nor did I have as many mechanisms for making poor ethical choices.
This is why, over time, I have come to understand just how important it is for synagogues to hold a confirmation ritual on Shavuot.
The ritual of confirmation first originated in Germany among reform-minded Jews as a graduation ceremony to replace the bar mitzvah. However, since that time it has become commonplace for students in the 10th grade in America to study alongside their rabbi and to celebrate a confirmation ceremony on Shavuot, in addition to bar or bat mitzvah.
Confirmation can be a very important ritual that speaks to the struggles of the contemporary American Jewish teenager making Jewish choices. Somewhat ironically, I made the bad choice as a teenager to drop out of just the class that was geared toward helping me learn how to make better Jewish choices. In Pirkei Avot (5:21), we learn that the age when we are responsible for making the right choices and the following the mitzvoth is 13.
However, very few b’nei mitzvah are ready for that type of responsibility. My synagogue confirmation class (like I suspect most in the country) included opportunities to chat with the rabbi about contemporary Jewish attitudes toward “hot topics” (sexuality, drugs, peace in the Middle East, etc.). Having the confirmation ritual at 15 or 16 helps guide our students toward making good choices at a much more appropriate age for these discussions.
Shavuot is also an ideal holiday to frame these kinds of discussions because it speaks to this idea of choice. The Israelites chose to receive the Torah and enter a covenant with God on Shavuot, and we have been sustained by its guiding wisdom ever since. The story of Ruth, considered to be the ideal Jew by choice, is the Megillah that we read on Shavuot. Ruth is a character who, like so many of our teens, struggled with making choices. Yet Ruth, who was probably not much older than many of our confirmands, chooses despite her struggles to live a Jewish life, much like we hope our confirmands will do as a result of their studies.
Years ago, I remember a parent questioning my motives for teaching about issues of sexuality with teens in a Jewish classroom. She felt uncomfortable that a rabbi would be talking about these kinds of issues in synagogue with children. I finally turned to her and said, “Would you rather they learn about how best to make these choices from me, or what they can find on YouTube?”
Each time we are called to the Torah, Jews say a blessing that acknowledges that we are God’s chosen people. But how will we, let alone our teens, choose to receive the Torah in return for that honor if we don't convince them that Torah speaks to the very choices and serious life issues they are grappling with? This is why I believe holding confirmation on Shavuot must continue to be such an indispensable part of the American Jewish lifecycle experience. Confirmation on Shavuot reminds us that holding healthy, Jewish discussions on “hot” issues at this critical age can only help further guide our teens toward making healthy, Jewish choices.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. Follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.