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By Rabbi Jack P. Paskoff
(While this article reflects the experience of my congregation, proper credit should be given to Rabbi Bennett Miller at the Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple. The model my congregation uses is based on what I learned as Rabbi Miller’s assistant and associate from 1988-1993.)
“I’m not sure I see myself being involved Jewishly in college.”
“I’m not sure I believe in God.”
“Should I have children when I get older, I know I’ll raise them as Jews.”
“The first time I left for Camp Harlam/went to Israel/went to a NFTY event/attended a L’Taken seminar/confronted anti-Semitism/dealt with the death of a peer, I felt a deeper attachment to my faith.”
The first time I suggested changing Confirmation to 12th grade, it seemed as if I had thrown down the first set of tablets received at Sinai. There were those concerned about my tampering with tradition and others who were convinced that we would see a huge drop off in enrollment after Bar/Bat Mitzvah. At the beginning of 12th grade Confirmation, I ask our students to write an essay addressing two basic questions:
The students spend the better part of the year thinking about those questions, writing essays based on them, discussing their work with me, and re-writing until we are all satisfied. Those essays, as excerpted above, become the essence of the Confirmation service at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim. The answers are profound and thoughtful, sometimes troubling, and always meaningful. Students can write anything they want, much of which will be shared from the bimah, as long as it is stated respectfully. Our congregation turns out in large numbers to honor our students on the occasion of their Confirmation.
Even in our Reform Movement that prides itself on adaptability and innovation, certain elements of our tradition have been treated as if they were handed down from Mt. Sinai. One of those is Confirmation in 10th grade. While informal educational opportunities such as youth group and camp are available for young people through high school graduation, formal educational opportunities disappear in many congregations at precisely the time when students are thinking about the rest of their lives in a different way. We know that the combination of formal and informal education produce the best results, yet we remove the formal from the menu of options. For over 10 years, with compelling results, our congregation has combined the two to make the opportunities more varied for our students. In Lancaster, the addition of two years of formal educational programming has made a profound difference in our young people and in our congregation.
Shaarai Shomayim was one of those places with a history of over 100 years of 10th grade Confirmation. Many current congregants identified themselves by the others with whom they were confirmed. The first time I suggested changing Confirmation to 12th grade, it seemed as if I had thrown down the first set of tablets received at Sinai. There were those concerned about my tampering with tradition and others who were convinced that we would see a huge drop off in enrollment after Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Initially, we kept Confirmation in 10th grade, but I started an 11th and 12th grade class in addition. Interestingly, while enrollment was good, the students were not motivated to participate in any kind of service in their honor upon graduation, which seemed anti-climactic after the existing Confirmation service. If participation was good, why bother officially moving Confirmation? As it was, the addition of an 11th and 12th grade program afforded us several new opportunities:
As in many congregations, students attend two days of school a week from grades 3-7, move back to one day at 8th grade, and then, for reasons more social than educational, attend a combined 9th and 10th grade class weekly. In 11th grade, the model changes. The students attend just 10 programs during the year. The number of sessions drops back considerably acknowledging the realities of life as a high school junior and senior, and there is great flexibility in how the students meet these requirements. Options include eight Sunday morning combined 11th and 12th grade classes which address topics on the theme of “what we want to make sure you know before you leave our community.” Additionally, students can attend NFTY events, adult education sessions, or do an independent study under my supervision. With this model in place, we have maintained a post b’nai mitzvah retention rate of 80-85%, with almost no decline in participation after 10th grade.
I believe very strongly that for any substantive change to happen in the educational program, the rabbi must not only be on board, but must be setting the agenda and championing the cause in very public ways. The key to youth engagement may be directly tied to rabbi engagement. I waited for the right class before I raised the subject again and asked the congregation to join me in this experiment. By this time, I had 2-3 additional years to gain the trust of the congregation, a significant part of any change. At this point, while there was still some reluctance, the congregation agreed. We haven’t looked back since.
At Confirmation every year, our choir sings Debbie Friedman’s Lechi Lach as a blessing to our students as they leave our program, and most often leave our community. The students know that they have been valued and supported, and the congregation is confident that these young people will truly be a blessing.
Jack Paskoff is the Rabbi of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, PA, where, among other things, he teaches 11th and 12th grade. He is also the Rabbinic advisor for NFTY-PAR and serves on the faculty of Camp Harlam. The congregation consistently has one of the highest numbers of participants at PAR events, and over 30 young people (over 25% of the students eligible for such programs ) from the congregation participate in URJ summer programs including Camp Harlam, 6 Points Sports Academy, 6 Points Sci-Tech, Kutz Camp, Mitzvah Corps, and NFTY in Israel. You can reach him at email@example.com.