The American Reform movement introduced confirmation for boys and girls in 1847 when Temple Emanu-El in New York adopted the practice, which rapidly spread to other congregations. At the time of Theresa Hess’s confirmation in 1899 in San Francisco, such ceremonies had been widely implemented in Reform congregations in the United States and abroad. Originally intended to supplant the traditional bar mitzvah ceremony, confirmation was seen by the Reform movement as an affirmation of commitment to the Jewish people. While lacking a standardized set of requirements, confirmation typically culminated anywhere from one to three years of religious study. Education was a crucial component, as the commitment to the Jewish faith required an in-depth understanding of Judaism, attained through formal study. Orthodox Jews have been critical of the confirmation ceremony since its origination, condemning it as foreign to traditional Judaism. Conservative Judaism also rejected confirmation. Today, while still practiced by Reform congregations, it is often considered of less importance than the traditional bar or bat mitzvah, which has regained popularity.
Congregation Emanu-El’s religious school was founded in 1854 by the congregation’s first rabbi, Julius Eckman (1805–1874). The first Jewish religious school on the Pacific Coast, it originally met in the congregation’s temporary synagogue on the corner of Green and Stockton. Upon completion of the congregation’s synagogue on Broadway, which was consecrated on September 14, 1854, the school was moved into its basement. Rabbi Eckman, whose tenure lasted only for a year, was succeeded by Rabbi Elkan Cohn (1820–1889) in 1860. Rabbi Cohn reorganized Emanu-El’s religious school and inaugurated the first confirmation program in 1861; the first class graduated on Shavuot 1862. Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger (1852–1908), who signed Theresa Hess’s certificate, joined Congregation Emanu-El as assistant rabbi in 1886 and became senior rabbi in 1889.