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Shavuot, Education, and the Majesty of Jewish Learning

Friday, June 3, 2022

In May 1896, the editors of Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent looked forward to the upcoming Shavuot holiday and the “incidental ceremony of Confirmation.” The confirmation ritual had migrated to the United States from Europe in the 1840s and was by the end of the century standard fare in Reform synagogues.

Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the reception of the Torah atop Sinai, is an ideal festival to celebrate a commitment to Jewish education. Confirmation rituals were never the same in any two synagogues. In general, confirmation was a ceremony intended to examine young pupils’ knowledge of Jewish texts and beliefs. Before the ceremony, rabbis and teachers prepared the youngsters in the classroom, reviewing the essential components of their faith. After completion of a curriculum decided by the congregation, children were deemed religiously literate and prepared to accept the tenets of Judaism and full membership to their faith community.

The Jewish education-based curriculum and ritual emerged as the synagogue’s most important tool to retain young people (and their parents) within the congregation. In Philadelphia it was believed that “there can be little doubt but that the course of instruction that is given in the confirmation classes makes a deep impression upon the mind of the confirmed.” Shavuot emerged as an all-important moment to solidify Jewish belonging.

Traditional-minded Jews did not like that the confirmation ceremony replaced the bar mitzvah rite (there was no bat mitzvah at that time). The editors of the Philadelphia newspaper, however, dismissed these attacks as a “few cheap and trite jibes.” Instead, they turned it around, challenging those traditionalists—they would in due time more discretely identify as “Orthodox” and “Conservative”—to develop other forms of education that would fit the needs of the wider Jewish community.

But no one responded to the Jewish Exponent editorial.

I like to imagine that this was because a very charitable answer was self-evident. A year earlier, a diverse collection of Jews had founded Gratz College. This Hebrew teachers college was the fulfillment of earlier efforts to fortify Jewish education in Philadelphia and was driven by the very same content-focused mission by the group that had just a few years earlier established the Jewish Publication Society.

Like JPS, Gratz College fit the educational needs of Jews belonging to all types of American synagogues. Gratz prepared teachers to lead bar mitzvah, confirmation, and most other forms of Jewish learning experiences. The College has evolved since that time, assuming even wider responsibilities on behalf of education and what we now describe as applied Jewish wisdom. The core mission of Gratz College remains timeless and unchanged: an absolute and unwavering commitment to rich Jewish education, the kind that comes to mind when I think of Shavuot and the majesty of Jewish learning that started at the peak of Mount Sinai.

Zev Eleff's signature
Zev Eleff, Gratz President