Many older Jews, especially older Jewish women, have never had a formal Jewish education. Confirmation for older adults provides an opportunity for Jewish study and a forum where an elderly person can affirm a commitment to the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people. An adult confirmation program was initiated at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center in 1995 and 1996, the Jewish year of 5756. Twenty nursing home residents, assisted living tenants, and community-based elders met three times a month for seven months. The participants explored Jewish ethics and values by studying classic Jewish texts and reflecting on their own life experiences as they related to particular topics. Members of the group also participated in a mitzvah project.
Over the course of the class, members had to deal with their own frailties and such crises as receiving a terminal diagnosis, breaking a hip, and caring for a spouse who had had a stroke. Despite these challenges, they were remarkably committed to the program.
For the class "mitzvah project," which occurred in the aftermath of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, the class chose a project that brought Jewish and Arab Israelis together: the Neighborhood Home, an after-school program for Jewish and Arab children in Jaffa, Israel. The group began to raise money to purchase computers to assist the children with their studies. Each class member made a pushke, a tsedakah box, which bore information about the project.
Class members found unique ways of raising funds for their mitzvah projects. One gave a benefit concert in the lobby of the geriatric center and asked listeners to drop money into her pushke. Some nursing home residents urged fellow residents to donate quarters won at bingo. Another participant donated winnings from her bridge club. The group raised over $600 and corresponded with the children who attended the Neighborhood House. The children were thrilled that a group of elderly Jews on the other side of the world had taken such an interest in their social and academic needs.
On the second day of Shavuot, when the Ten Commandments are read in the Torah, the confirmands, whose average age was 80, proceeded into the synagogue using walkers, wheelchairs and electric carts. Wearing white robes, they conducted the service and shared their feelings about the confirmation, and a chaplain gave each a certificate.
Inspiration and Satisfaction
These confirmands provided immense inspiration to the 250 relatives and friends–representing four generations of Jews–who gathered for the ceremony. One confirmand said in her speech, "I never had a formal Jewish education, although I was raised by wonderful Jewish parents and grew up to be a proper Jewish girl. I joined the confirmation class because I wanted to learn about Jewish religion and what it means to be a Jew. I can truly say that in our discussions, I learned that there is a God. I feel wonderful that I was able to complete this course. I'm proud of myself and my fellow confirmands." In closing, a representative of the confirmands gave the chaplain a certificate that acknowledged that the group had planted a tree in her honor.
The confirmands felt a profound sense of accomplishment and affirmation. All had achieved their goal despite impairments, serious illness and loss. They knew they were models to others for lifelong Torah learning, Jewish commitment, and continued growth and renewal.
This kind of confirmation program can be conducted in a synagogue, a senior center, an assisted living center, or a nursing home. Students may need reassurance that they are not required to have any previous Jewish study. Perhaps most importantly, students need to be acknowledged for the knowledge and perspective that they bring to the study itself.