Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen, 2014 Twersky Award Winner
Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen was born and raised in Maryland. She attended the University of Michigan, graduating from the Honors English Program. After working in Washington, DC at various public interest groups including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Cohen studied at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and New York. She was ordained in 1997 and has served congregations in Cary, NC, and Cherry Hill, NJ, before coming to Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, MD, as Director of Congregational Learning. Rabbi Cohen has published six children’s books, a teen novel, a Purim shpiel based on Shakespeare and two teacher manuals. She has received numerous literary prizes, including a National Jewish Book Award. Rabbi Cohen and her husband David, a journalist, are joyfully raising three children: Arianna, Jesse, and Ezra.
Confirmation: Joining the Legacy
Lesson Plan for 10th grade Confirmation students using original source materials
Congregation Har Shalom, Potomac, MD
Written and submitted by Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen, Director of Congregational Learning, Congregation Har Shalom, Potomac, MD
- Students will learn key aspects of the history of Confirmation, how Confirmation rituals changed and developed over the course of time, and the basis for Confirmation in the Jewish tradition.
- Students will understand how societal forces molded the history and development of Confirmation, including the lack of Bat Mitzvah, a desire for girls to receive a Jewish education, increased interaction with the non-Jewish community, and university education.
- Students will develop a sense of connection to Confirmands in the past and thus see their Confirmation as connected to Jewish heritage.
- Students will make decisions about their own Confirmation service and write creative elements for this service, based on models studied.
- Students will no longer view Confirmation as an “add-on ritual” but rather as an important link in their Jewish journeys.
- Students will discover and create their own source material marking this milestone.
Timeframe: Four one–hour class sessions, plus approximately an hour of independent time at home.
Background: My Jewish Learning has a good overview article on the history of Confirmation which teachers may want to read to prepare for these lessons.
Class Session 1
- Using a computer projector or hand-outs, study photo 1, photo 2, photo 3, and photo 4. Each shows a Confirmation class and progresses chronologically from 1869 to 1926.
Ask the students to describe the pictures: dress, age of people, ratio of girls to boys, etc. What re-occurring customs or trends do they observe? What differences do they notice between the pictures? Have one or two students record the answers on the worksheet entitled Confirmation: Yesterday and Today. Possible answers: White dresses, more girls than boys, very formal, flowers, a variety of ages, American flag
Some of the pictures will elicit giggles. This adds to the enjoyment of the lesson and can be easily redirected.
- Review the list with the students and provide background and explanation.
- 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.
- Expand with Jewish Text: Consider the quotation on slide 6 from Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael comparing revelation at Mt. Sinai as a wedding. How do the Confirmation traditions reinforce this idea? Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael is a classic collection of midrash. It contains commentary on a large part of the Book of Exodus (chapters 12 to 23). In Sephardi communities, the Shabbat before Shavuot is called “Shabbat Kallah”. The Torah is likened to a bride, and the Jewish people to a bridegroom coming to meet his bride. Thus the poets composed wedding songs and instituted a special version of a ketubah that is read out in the synagogue, when the Sefer Torah is taken from the Ark, just as the ketubah is read under the wedding canopy.
- 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.
- Expand with Jewish Text: Consider the quotation on the slide from Mishnah Berurah 494:10. Moses goes up Mt. Sinai alone. The Torah says that not even sheep and cattle were allowed to graze on the mountain. The midrash understands the restriction on grazing to mean that flowers had burst forward. Why would our tradition connect flowers with Mt. Sinai? Why is it significant that even the animals changed their patterns?
- 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. It is telling that the American flag is so prominently displayed in one picture.
- 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.
- Expand the Discussion by considering Document 1: The Confirmation Certificate of Hannah Desola, 1844, and An Early Confirmation Certificate for the Island of St. Thomas, Dutch West Indies. Hannah Desola’s Confirmation is the first documented one in the Western Hemisphere. As the second half of the document explains, she was confirmed on the Shabbat after her 13th birthday. It was an individual, rather than class ceremony, leading to the conclusion that Confirmation was seen as a girl’s substitution for Bar Mitzvah. 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?
- 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.
- As a class, study the Confirmation photos. What do the students observe about the photos? Some questions to ask:
- How long has Confirmation been a custom at the 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?
- Does the picture take place 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?
- Do the students recognize anybody in the pictures? Ask them to point out family members, friends, teachers and other familiar people in the pictures.
- 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. When they get Confirmed, they will be joining the legacy of confirmation in the Jewish community and their own synagogue. You might choose to take a group picture in front of the Confirmation wall to emphasize their connection to the classes before them. Note: Make sure to collect the worksheet Confirmation: Yesterday and Today to use during the next session.
Optional activity: The teacher might share his or her own Confirmation picture or the Confirmation picture of the congregation’s rabbi, cantor or education director and talk a little about his or her Confirmation experience.
Class Session 2
- Examine Photo 5 as a class. What is similar or different about this picture and the other Confirmation photos that they examined? The students may struggle to come up with differences; it is a “trick” photo and this is the point.
After a few minutes of discussion, disclose to the students that 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. 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? You may want to emphasize that Confirmation developed in the Reform and Conservative communities. Possible answers: The liberal Jewish community had enough contact with their Christian neighbors to know about their rituals. The liberal Jewish community valued acceptance by their Christian neighbors; they wanted to be viewed as similar in customs and lifestyle.
- Present Document 2: Program from Henrietta Szold's religious Confirmation at Oheb Shalom congregation, Baltimore, 1875.
Give a very quick overview of Henrietta Szold’s life and contributions.
Focus on Document 2. What do the students find interesting about this document? What might it tell us about Confirmation, its rituals and history? Provide explanations and engage the students in conversation as they bring up different points. Ask the one or two students to record any relevant historic customs on the worksheet entitled Confirmation: Yesterday and Today.
- 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: A student may ask why the photo says both “Oheb Shalom” and “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.
- Share Photo 7 with the class and explain a little bit of its background. 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 9 & Photo 10). 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. Photograph 7 shows a vibrant community with meaningful traditions, right before the brink of destruction. Our Confirmation is an extension of one of these traditions.
- Explain to the students: 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 work sheet Confirmation: Yesterday and Today. Explain that, based on these customs, the class will be making decisions about their own Confirmation ceremony.
As a class, discuss each custom listed. Is it something that we should include today? Why or why not? How might we reinterpret it for today?
Alternatively, make several copies of the worksheet. Break the class into small groups and have them discuss the list and then report back to the rest of the class.
- By the end of the class, develop a class plan for the 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? Make sure that all decisions are recorded on the work sheet: Confirmation: Yesterday and Today.
- Homework: Ask the students to bring one or more pictures to the next class that represents an important moment in their Jewish journey.
- Follow Up: Email the parents explaining the class decisions concerning Confirmation customs and the process for reaching these decisions.
Class Session 3
- Begin Class session 3 with the slide of Photo 11, 1948 Confirmation at B'nai Jeshurun and 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!)”
- Talk about the quotation by Nancy Wolkenberg Greenberg. 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?
- Engage the students in conversation about what they expect to remember most about the Confirmation experience.
- 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. Give each student a chance to share a favorite picture or two and talk about the significance of what is happening in the picture. Engage the students in a larger conversation.
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?
Possible answers include: family celebrations, B’nai Mitzvah, youth group, Jewish camps, trips to Israel, religious school, volunteer work, Jewish pre-school, services at the synagogue, influential adults like rabbis and camp counselors, friends made at synagogue, retreats. Compile a list on the board.
- Return to the list on the board. Explain to the students that, just as Confirmation has a rich history, they each have a rich history that they will bring to Confirmation. Explain that 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. They will be creating their own “source materials” about what brought them to Confirmation. Give the parameters for the reflection pieces:
- 1 to 3 paragraphs about one of the topics listed on the board. Students can also propose a different topic.
- The reflections should be personal, discussing their experiences and thoughts.
- The reflection pieces can either be read out loud during the service or simply included in the service program. If the teacher chooses, the decision to print or read the reflections can be decided as a class.
- Homework: 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.)
- Follow-up: Email the parents explaining the reflection assignment.
- Supplemental Activity: Share with the students The Restoration Confirmation Shavuot Service at Touro Synagogue as an example of reflection pieces written by Confirmands. Focus on the Katrina experience and how it impacted these students’ Jewish identity and journey. Have there been events in their lives that made a difference in their Jewish identity or outlook? (A move, a hard time at home, the death of a loved one, visiting Israel, a national or local event.)
Class Session 4
- Explain to the students that, in additional to their personal reflections, the students will also recite a class pledge during the Confirmation ceremony. This pledge serves as a class statement on the importance of Confirmation in their Jewish journey. The students will first study one of the first Confirmation pledges and then write their own as a class.
- Divide the class into small groups and distribute the text of Document 2, Prayer for Confirmation, written in April, 1881 by Rev. Dr. Max Lilienthal.
Background: 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.
The handwriting of this prayer is very difficult to read. Have the students work in groups to copy the prayer over in clearer writing. Through this process, the students will become more familiar with the prayer’s words and themes and also develop a more personal connection to the author. Looking at the original text emphasizes that a real person wrote the words.
- Reconvene as a group and work through the prayer together. 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. Write this list on the board. The suggestions can be borrowed directly from Rabbi Lilienthal or be based on his prayer but rewritten in more modern language or be completely of their own making.
- 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. This can be done in several ways:
- Together as a large class group, the students can decide what to include.
- A small group of volunteers can combine the pledges and report back.
- The teacher can take the model pledges, combine them, and then share the combined prayer during the next session.
- Incorporate this prayer into the Confirmation service. It will serve as a culmination of the students’ investigation and examination of historical Confirmation customs and how they relate to their own ceremony.
Alternate and Supplemental Activities
For an Artistic Learner: Share a variety of Confirmation certificates with the students. Document 4: Confirmation Certificate 1851 is one example. Have an artistic student 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.
For a Musically Inclined Learner: Ask him or her to create a song for the Confirmation service. Ideas include:
- Putting the class pledge to a melody.
- Writing a song about Hannah DeSoto and her feelings about being Confirmed.
- Writing a song about the members of the German Confirmation class who needed to flee the Nazis soon after their Confirmation.
For a Student Who Likes to Research and Write: Ask him or her to write an introductory piece about the history of the Confirmation to go with the reflection pieces.
For a Student who is Tech Savvy: Ask him or her to help create the program book for Confirmation, including artistically displaying the reflection pieces. One of my tech-savvy students talked about digitally aging this year’s Confirmation photo to look more like the historic pictures—a clever idea!
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.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen, 2014 Twersky Award Winner." (Viewed on February 21, 2018) <https://jwa.org/twersky/deborah-cohen>.