Many preteens share the common misconception that once they finish their b’nei mitzvah, they have completed their Jewish education, but that is not the case. The b’nei mitzvah may mark the end of childhood, but even afterward, those twelve and thirteen-year-old “adults” still have much to learn.
In their early teenage years, children begin to ask questions and formulate their own opinions about religion and G-d. To give them the opportunity to ask these questions, teenagers take a series of Confirmation classes with their rabbi during their sophomore year of high school. This raises the question of what are they confirming?
Confirmation is meant to solidify one’s faith in Judaism and answer any questions they may have about religion and Jewish values.
By this point in their lives, Confirmation students have taken almost eleven years of science classes in which religious teachings were often disproved by science. Many students at Temple Bat Yahm admitted that they stopped believing in G-d years ago, yet they all showed up to Confirmation class anyway.
Following Rabbi Edward Feinstein’s book “Tough Questions Jews Ask,” Temple Bat Yahm’s Rabbi Gersh Zylberman began his first Confirmation class by asking the students how many of their peers still believed in G-d. Answers ranged from none to all of them. They concluded that kids’ beliefs were influenced by peer pressure, so it would be difficult to get an accurate estimate of who truly believes in G-d.
The Rabbi’s next question was taken straight out of Feinstein’s book. “Have you ever felt that G-d was close to you?” he asked.
One student said that he sensed G-d’s presence at his grandmother’s funeral. Another said that he felt G-d’s presence through his family as they comforted one another in an Israeli bomb shelter. One girl said that as she stood at the summit after climbing a steep mountain and gazed into the sea of clouds below, she knew G-d was close. A boy said that he knew G-d was present for his bar mitzvah, while another girl said that she felt G-d’s presence when she visited Abraham’s Gate in Israel.
The Rabbi explained that there were common themes in everyone’s answers. G-d was present at the funeral and bomb shelter because G-d has the power to bring people together. “G-d provides comfort in crisis,” he explained.
“G-d never fails to attend important events,” the Rabbi said to the student who felt G-d at his bar mitzvah, “and G-d was there when you visited Abraham’s Gate because he’s responsible for the grandeur of creation.”
He explained that G-d was present at all the students’ important life moments. “G-d has been present for every important moment, good or bad, since the beginning of time,” he said.
If G-d has been present at every event in history, why did he fail to stop the bad moments from happening? To explain this delicate subject, Rabbi Zylberman said that first, they must look at mankind as a whole.
The Bible says that people are “created in G-d’s image” (Genesis 1:27). This means that all humans are born with the capacity to behave like G-d. In the past, humans have been compared to both angels and animals.
“I believe that humans are animals with certain angelic qualities,” said Rabbi Zylberman.
Humans have a moral compass and free will, unlike animals that act on instinct. Humans know the difference between right and wrong, so every person has the ability to be the best of themselves, which has been described as angelic or G-dlike.
More often than not, humans act more like animals than angels. “No matter if we are acting good or bad, G-d is reflected in us, so the way we behave is a reflection of G-d,” said Rabbi Zylberman, “we are not angels, and we are not perfect, but we can always try to be the best we can be. So when your family gathers to honor a lost relative, or you are standing atop a mountain, and you feel something within yourself, you’re feeling G-d’s presence at its strongest because you are acting your best.”
Every human is capable of making the honorable choice when presented with a difficult decision. G-d may not be able to prevent bad situations from happening, but he has given humans all the tools they need to stop these situations themselves, as long as they are being the best versions of themselves.
Most students began the class with the belief that G-d was unreal, yet they could all describe an experience where they felt G-d’s presence.
The Rabbi realized that the way he asked the question set the stage for the answer. Rather than ending the class by asking the students if they now believed in G-d, he asked them to take notice of the times when they felt G-d’s presence at its strongest because in those moments, they were being the best versions of themselves.
B’nei mitzvot may teach kids the prayers needed to lead a service, but there are far more valuable lessons to learn as they continue with their Jewish educations.
Confirmation is an important step in developing one’s unique Jewish identity. Not all Jewish people fit a specific mold. Judaism grants people the freedom to develop their own opinions about G-d and live their lives the way they choose.
Through these Confirmation classes, students have an opportunity to freely express their views about religion and become the best versions of themselves, under the guidance of their rabbi, cantor and clergy.
A child’s b’nei mitzvah may mark the end of their childhood, but they still have a wealth of knowledge to gather in their Confirmation classes before taking on the responsibilities of Jewish adulthood.
Hannah Schoenbaum is a contributing writer to Kiddish magazine.