The Life of the Synagogue

Confirmation class, Washington Hebrew Congregation

Washington Hebrew Congregation, confirmation class, May 29, 1925
Washington Hebrew Congregation, confirmation class, May 29, 1925

Beginning in the 19th century, the Reform movement eliminated the bar mitzvah ceremony, rejecting the idea that 13-year-olds were adults. Confirmation at age 16 or above was established as a graduation ceremony from Hebrew school, and it was customary for entire classes—boys and girls—to be confirmed together in a celebration at the synagogue. The festival of Shavuot was eventually chosen for the event; Jewish children, now educated, were meant to accept God’s Law of their own free will, as Moses and the children of Israel had accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai. In this photograph, the bimah is decorated with greenery in honor of the holiday.

Rabbi Abram Simon (1872–1938), who served as Washington Hebrew Congregation’s rabbi from 1904 until his death in 1938, is seen here officiating at graduation services for the confirmation class of 1925. In his 1904 article “A curriculum for a Jewish Sabbath school,” Rabbi Simon argued specifically against the cheder system of Jewish education still practiced in Europe and among new immigrants to America. In describing appropriate education for children ages six to eight, he stated: “The method of approach and of treatment should be topical rather than catechetical. The catechetical method smacks of the former days of education by rote…The preference for the topical method lies in the fact that it requires the pupil to give a connected statement and expression of the knowledge it has acquired concerning a topic assigned or told by a teacher.” The rabbi laid out a curriculum based on ideas appropriate for each age group: for ages six through eight, “God in nature;” for ages eight and nine, “God in Jewish history;” and “God in the Bible,” up to age 13. Only from ages 14 through 16 would students be ready for the confirmation class, with all previous levels serving as “steps in the religious educational growth to the spiritual climax of the confirmant.” At this point the student would have earned the privilege of entrance to the class with the theme, “God in personal life.” Graduation would follow in a confirmation ceremony.