Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen

Deborah is Director of Congregational Learning at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, MD. Her winning lesson plan, “Confirmation: Joining the Legacy”, teaches students about the history of Confirmation.

Confirmation: Joining the Legacy

Through learning key aspects of the history of Confirmation, students will develop a sense of connection to past Confirmands, and thus see their Confirmation as connected to Jewish heritage.

Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen, winner of the 2014 Twersky Award.


Enduring Understandings

  • Confirmation is an experience that Jewish youth today share with Jewish youth from the early 19th century forward, and this connects current youth to their past
  • We are part of a larger historical narrative that predates and will outlast us
  • The Confirmation ritual has changed and developed over time

Essential Questions

  • What is Confirmation and how has this tradition developed since its inception in the early 19th century?
  • What is the role of the individual and individuality in the scope of Jewish tradition and the larger historical narrative?
  • What does Confirmation mean to you in the context of your own Jewish journey?

Notes to Teacher

  • The full unit consists of four lessons (correlating to Parts 1-4 in the lesson plan below), each of which can be taught in sessions of an hour over the course of four classes
  • Some possible supplemental activities::
    • Have artistic students in the class design a Confirmation certificate for your class to use, both based on the historic examples and also the class conversations about Confirmation customs
    • Create a song for the Confirmation service based on the class pledge, the Hannah DeSoto reading , or the members of the German Confirmation class who had to flee from the Nazis soon after their Confirmation (see “Document Studies” below for both the DeSoto piece and the information about the German Confirmation class)
    • Write an introductory piece about the history of the Confirmation to go with the reflection pieces
    • Create the program book for Confirmation, including artistically displaying the reflection pieces
    • If your class likes to debate, here are some suggested topics:
  • Borrowing the concept of Confirmation from Christian examples does not lessen its significance as a Jewish ritual
  • The addition of Confirmation was a reasonable compromise between advocates and critics of allowing girls to become Bat Mitzvah
  • The age of Confirmation has gradually increased. B’nai Mitzvah should also take place at an older age
  • Explanation of symbolism in Photographs 1-4
    • White dresses: Confirmation is seen as a time of purity and new beginnings. It is also connected to Shavuot, symbolically viewed as the marriage of God and the Jewish people.
    • Flowers: Confirmation is connected to Shavuot, which occurs in the Spring and celebrates the barley harvest. Flowers remind us of the harvest. In addition, according to Midrash, Mt. Sinai was covered with flowers when Moses received the Torah.
    • More girls than boys: Confirmation started before Bat Mitzvah ceremonies began. Part of the impetus for creating the new ritual of Confirmation was giving girls the opportunity to study Judaism and to have a coming–of–age ceremony.
    • American Flag: Confirmation was originally borrowed from Christian tradition. In some respects, it began as a way to “fit in” with Christian neighbors.
    • Variety of Ages: Confirmation began as a ceremony done closer to age 13, as it was seen as a substitution for Bar Mitzvah. The age of Confirmation varied between congregations and communities, but gradually increased to the later teen years.
  • Information on Henrietta Szold’s Confirmation program
  • German: Half of the program is written in German. Confirmation originated in Germany in the early 1800s and was brought to America by German Reform Jews. Henrietta Szold’s program indicates a community and a tradition in flux.
  • Shavuot: This Confirmation took place on Shavuot, which is the most traditional time for Confirmation, although not the only time. Ask the students: Why might Confirmation be connected to Shavuot? Answers: Shavuot falls near the end of the school year. Shavuot celebrates God giving the Torah and the Jewish people accepting the Torah. Confirmands make a pledge to accept Torah and Jewish life as their own. Shavuot, unlike the other pilgrimage holidays of Sukkot and Passover, has fewer customs and rituals associated with it.
  • Shabuoth versus Shavuot: This is a great time for a side observation about the development of Hebrew. In Henrietta Szold’s time, Jews of German and Eastern European descent read Hebrew with the Ashkenazi pronunciation (Shabuoth) but, with the founding of the State of Israel, the Sephardi pronunciation (Shavuot) became the dominant for all Jews.
  • Hanover Street Temple: Oheb Shalom’s original building was located on Hanover Street in Baltimore, near the current Baltimore Orioles Camden Yards stadium. It was a custom, at that time, to refer to synagogue buildings by their street location.
Lesson plan

Part 1

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  • Using a computer projector or hand-outs, study photo 1-4.
  • Ask the students to describe the pictures: dress, age of people, ratio of girls to boys, etc.
    • Discuss. What re-occurring customs or trends do they observe? What differences do they notice between the pictures?
  • Explain some of the symbolism of certain aspects of the photos. Information can be found in “Teacher Resources”
  • Consider The Confirmation Certificate of Hannah Desola and An Early Confirmation Certificate for the Island of St. Thomas, Dutch West Indies
  • Discuss. Do you see Confirmation as a fair substitute for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? How are the experiences similar and different? Do you think that Hannah Desola felt like a “trail-blazer” at her Bat Mitzvah? Would you?
  • Discuss. How long has Confirmation been a custom at your congregation? Has it been observed since the beginning of the congregation’s history?
  • What are the students wearing? How does it change over time? What about tallit and kippot? Are there any other customs of note in the pictures? (Flowers, flags, etc.) Do these change over time?
  • Are all of the pictures in the same sanctuary in the same sanctuary or did the congregation move, renovate or build a new sanctuary over time?
  • Are there more girls or boys in the photographs? Does this change over time?
  • Do the classes grow larger or smaller? Which is the largest Confirmation class? What might this trend say about the congregation’s general history?
  • When did the current rabbi/cantor/education director/Confirmation teacher begin appearing in the pictures?
  • Many congregations have a wall of Confirmation pictures prominently displayed. If your congregation has such a wall, take an “in school” field trip to visit it. If your synagogue does not display its Confirmation pictures, see if a collection of such pictures can be found in the congregation’s files or archives.

To conclude the session, point out the empty space next to the last picture and remind the students that their picture will be hanging on this wall

Part 2

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  • Examine Photo 5 class
    • Discuss. What is similar or different about this picture and the other Confirmation photos that we have examined?
    • Explain.  This is a church Confirmation photograph. The Confirmands in the picture were German–Russian immigrants who settled in Portland, Oregon. Explain that the photograph shows how closely Jewish Confirmation customs matched their Christian neighbors
    • Discuss. What do the similarities between Jewish and Christian Confirmation customs tell us about the liberal European and American Jewish community in the early years of Confirmation?
  • Present the Program from Henrietta Szold’s religious Confirmation at Oheb Shalom Congregation, Baltimore, 1875
    • Explain. Give the students a brief summary of Henrietta Szold’s life and contributions
    • Discuss. What do the students find interesting about this document? What might it tell us about Confirmation, its rituals and history?
    • Ask the one or two students to record any relevant historic customs on the worksheet entitled Confirmation: Yesterday and Today
    • Explain: For additional information about Szold’s Confirmation program, refer to “Introductory Essays”
    • Share Photo 6 with the students
    • Explain. Pforzheim is a small city in southwestern Germany. This picture was taken in 1936 at Pforzheim’s synagogue. In 1938, on Kristallnacht, the synagogue was destroyed (Photo 6). By 1940, all the girls in the picture had immigrated to the United States, and their Cantor was able to immigrate to India. That year, all remaining Jews of Pforzheim were deported to the concentration camp in Gurs (France). Only 55 of the 195 deported persons survived the Holocaust
    • Explain. As we prepare for Confirmation, we bring with us a rich history. We will be adding to the legacy set by these earlier Confirmation classes and adding our own individuality to it
  • Ask one of the students to read the list of historic customs listed on the worksheet Confirmation: Yesterday and Today
    • Explain. Based on the customs listed on Confirmation: Yesterday and Today, the class will be making decisions about their own Confirmation ceremony
    • Discuss. Discuss each custom listed. Is it something that we should include today? Why or why not? How might we reinterpret it for today?
  • Discuss. Develop a class plan for their upcoming Confirmation. What will they wear? How will they decorate the space? What about flowers and kippot? How do their decisions connect them to past Confirmation classes? How are they uniquely their own?
  • Assignment. Ask the students to bring one or more pictures to the next class that represents an important moment in their Jewish journey

Email the parents explaining the class decisions concerning Confirmation customs and the process for reaching these decisions

Part 3

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  • Begin by displaying Photo 7, 1948 Confirmation at B'nai Jeshurun
  •  Recite or display the following quotation from Nancy Wolkenberg Greenberg:
    • “1948 was a seminal year for me. I was one of 15 girls who were the Confirmation Class of 5708. Amazingly, I can identify more than half in the photograph. We decided to continue as the Confirmands League, meeting for regular study on Shabbat afternoons at the home of Rabbi Panitz. It was a wonderful and enlightening experience to see my rabbi as a family man in his home environment. (I remember his eldest son, Jonathan, who became a chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy, as a baby in the crib!)”
    • Discuss. What were the most important elements of Confirmation to her? How did being part of a synagogue and global Jewish community impact her Confirmation year?
    • Discuss. What do the students expect to remember most about their own Confirmation?
  • Ask the students to share the pictures that they brought to class. Make a connection between their pictures and the pictures that we have been exploring; each gives insight into Jewish life and Jewish journeys
  • Discuss. What have been their most formidable Jewish experiences thus far? What do they think that they will remember most when they look back on their Jewish upbringing?
  • Explain. Just as Confirmation has a rich history, they each have a rich history that they will bring to Confirmation. In the service booklet for Confirmation, each confirmand will have a reflection piece about their Jewish journey and the opportunity to share their original photographs of this journey
  • 1 to 3 paragraphs about one of the topics discussed in class. Students can also propose a different topic
  • The reflections should be personal and discuss their experiences and thoughts.
  • The reflection pieces can either be read out loud during the service or simply included in the service program
  • The reflections pieces should be written at home, emailed to the teacher or brought to the next class session. (Alternatively, class time can be used for the students to write their reflections)
  • Assignment. Students will be creating their own “source materials” about what brought them to Confirmation. The parameters for the reflection pieces are as follows:

Email the parents explaining the reflection assignment

Part 4

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  • Divide the class into small groups and distribute the text of  Prayer for Confirmation
    • Read Rev. Dr. Max Lilienthal’s biography to the students.
    • The handwriting of this prayer is very difficult to read. Have the students work in groups to copy the prayer over in clearer writing. This will help them to become more familiar with the words.
    • Reconvene as a group and work through the prayer together
      • Discuss. What do the words say? What does the prayer mean? What themes are important to Rabbi Lilienthal? Are these themes still important today? Would Rabbi Lilienthal’s prayer be a pledge that the students would want to read at their Confirmation? Why or why not?
  • As a class, compile a list of themes, ideas, words, and images that they would like to include in their pledge
  • Divide back into small groups. Each group should work together to write their own pledge, based on the ideas on the board. A representative from each group should read their pledge out loud. The different pledges should be merged into a single pledge for the service
  • Incorporate this prayer into the Confirmation service
Document studies

Photographs 1-7 (in order)

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First Confirmation Class, Vine Street Temple, 1869

The first confirmation class of the Vine Street Temple in 1869.

Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Hebrew Sunday School Confirmation Class, Temple Israel, Columbus, Ohio, 1888

Hebrew Sunday School Confirmation Class, Temple Israel, Columbus, Ohio, 1888.
Courtesy of the American Jewish Archives.

Beth El's Confirmation Class, 1915

Beth El's Confirmation Class, 1915.

Photo courtesy of Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.

Beth Israel's Confirmation Class, 1926

Beth Israel's Confirmation Class, 1926.

Photo courtesy of Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.

Free Evangelical Brethren Church Confirmation Class, 1920

The Volga Germans in Portland at a Free Evangelical Brethren Church Confirmation Class, 1920 .

The class members are Peter Mueller, Georg Krieger, Johannes Wilhelm, Heinrich Mueller (Henry Miller), Heinrich (Henry) Lehl, Elisabeth Wacker, Lillian Wacker, Emma Gebhart, Maria Wacker, Paulina Giebelhaus, Lena Hoelzer (Helser), Mollie Spieker, Cristina Traudt, Catherine (Emma) Sittner, Paulina Albert, Anna Wacker, Cristina Krieger and Lena Hahn. Elder Yost (center) is seated with the class.

Courtesy of Steve Schreiber.

Destroyed Pforzheim Synagogue

Pforzheim is a small city in southwestern Germany. This picture is of Pforzheim’s synagogue in 1938, on Kristallnacht, when the synagogue was destroyed.

Confirmation Class of 1948 at B'nai Jeshurun

Confirmation class of 1948, including Nancy W. Greenblatt, at B'nai Jeshurun

The Confirmation Certificate of Hannah Desola

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Hannah Desola's Confirmation Certificate, 1844

Hannah Desola's Confirmation Certificate, 1844.

Courtesy of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.

An Early Confirmation Certificate for the Island of St. Thomas, Dutch West Indies

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An Early Confirmation Certificate for the Island of St. Thomas, Dutch West Indies by Rabbi David Philipson D.D. (Page 1 of 3)

An early confirmation certificate for the Island of St. Thomas, Dutch West Indies by Rabbi David Philipson D.D.

Page 2, page 3.

Courtesy of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Program from Henrietta Szold’s religious Confirmation at Oheb Shalom Congregation, Baltimore, 1875

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Henrietta Szold's Religious Confirmation at Oheb Shalom Congregation, 1875

The English and German on Henrietta Szold's program indicate the mixture of cultures and languages at Benjamin Szold's Oheb Shalom congregation which had been founded by German-speaking immigrants. Confirmation was introduced as a Jewish ritual by early nineteenth-century German reformers seeking to modernize Judaism. Confirmation services became a feature of acculturated nineteenth-century American congregations whether Reform or Orthodox. June 9, 1875.
Institution: Jewish Museum of Maryland


Henrietta Szold’s biography

Rev. Dr. Max Lilienthal Biography

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Rev. Dr. Max Lilienthal Biography

Rabbi Lilienthal was born in Germany in 1815 and was one of the leading Reform leaders in Europe and the United States. Side note: You might ask the students how his title “Rev. Dr.” represents the outlook and goals of the early Reform Jews. Possible answer: It was a movement that emphasized university education and integration with non-Jewish neighbors. Rather than yeshivot, the lead Reformers studied often in secular institutions.

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Mazel Tov


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen." (Viewed on April 25, 2024) <http://jwa.org/twersky/deborah-cohen>.