Up until the 1970s, many Reform congregations did not offer bar mitzvah celebrations for their young people because -- as the thinking used to go -- they did not consider thirteen to be an appropriate age for conferring the obligations of adulthood on a child. Instead, the early Reform Movement created a ritual called "Confirmation."
Like bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation celebrates young people's (boys and girls) coming of age. Most confirmations are done at Shavuot for the class of students completing religious school, often at the end of tenth, eleventh or twelfth grade.
Starting in the 1970s, the Reform Movement saw an increasing number of congregants with backgrounds in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. This was a major factor in the decision to revive celebrations for boys becoming bar mitzvah and to introduce bat mitzvah celebrations for girls. Today, almost every Reform congregation celebrates both bar/bat mitzvah and confirmation.
Confirmation, however, is more than a vestige of past Reform practice. As it has developed over the years, confirmation has taken on meaning that makes it an important life-cycle event.
In contrast to bar/bat mitzvah, confirmation is a group event. Students in a class are confirmed together and they often prepare a tzedakah project as a group as part of their confirmation. This emphasizes the importance of communal action that is at the heart of Judaism.
In most congregations, confirmation is focused on the students' commitment to Judaism. In an age in which many bar/bat mitzvah celebrations -- Reform, Conservative and Orthodox -- are overshadowed by the party after the service and entertaining out-of-town guests, it is good to have an event for the congregation at which its young people sincerely express their Jewish values without the hooplah of a lavish party and an orgy of presents.
Many Conservative congregations have adopted the confirmation model. Many Reform and Conservative congregations see confirmation as a way of keeping students committed to Jewish education beyond bar and bat mitzvah celebrations.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser