Deepen your child’s Jewish identity at our Religious School. Students, parents, and teachers engage with core Jewish values and their shared heritage, and take part in a dynamic community.
At our Religious School, we strive to build and intensify Jewish identity by providing meaningful opportunities for Jewish learning for children ages five to 18. We offer Sunday, weekday, and home-learning options and our programs give students the opportunity to make friends while building a positive connection to the synagogue and the Jewish people in a comfortable setting.
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and his more than 100 followers founded the Free Synagogue in 1907. From the very beginning, the Religious School has played a vital role in preparing the next generation to lead Jewish lives.
We want our students to love being Jewish and figure out for themselves what that means. We take our responsibility of educating the next generation very seriously, so we don’t just teach from a textbook – we strive to invigorate Judaism through a hands-on curriculum that’s engaging, innovative and dynamic and involves the entire family. We instill Jewish values into everything we do. At the beginning of each year, students, parents/guardians, faculty, madrichim (middle and high school students who help in the classroom), and staff sign a school brit (covenant), which espouses five middot (values) through which we form a caring community steeped in Jewish tradition:
• Kavod (respect and honor)
• Derech Eretz (common decency)
• Achriyut (responsibility)
• Chesed (compassion and kindness)
• Talmud Torah (Jewish study)
Embedded in the religious school’s brit is the partnership between the whole family and Jewish education, which is integral is forming a strong Jewish identity. When students and parents are excited by Jewish education, their connection to Judaism and the Jewish community deepens and they want to learn more. Stephen Wise creates frequent opportunities for families to further engage in Jewish life and learning throughout the year, including Shabbat Family Experiences programming, social justice programs like our Emergency Food Program and our on-site Next Step Men’s Shelter, and much, much more.
We look forward to accompanying you and your family on this Jewish journey!
To enroll your children or learn more about admissions, please visit our Religious School’s admissions page here.
If you or your family are facing special circumstances or challenges, our clergy, administrators, and teachers are always available to privately discuss educational, emotional, religious, or financial concerns, among others.
When Stephen Wise Free Synagogue had to close its physical doors in March of 2020 due to COVID-19, like so many other schools its Religious School went online. But unlike most others, in fall 2020, Stephen Wise’s school gave students the choice to return to a hybrid model of in-person learning and remote Hebrew lessons or continue fully remotely.
“When we decided last spring to give all of our religious school students the option to attend in person, I’m pretty sure most people thought it was a pipe dream — and a risky one at that,” writes our Rabbi Rena Rifkin in the Forward. “Nothing beats sitting in a room together. Learning builds community. Physical togetherness builds community.”
Our Pre-K (Taste of Religious School) through second grade programs begin to build a Jewish foundation utilizing developmentally appropriate curricula. We build our students’ Hebrew lexicon and Jewish vocabulary through immersion and games. They also begin learning key prayers and blessings which are reinforced during t’filah (prayer services) specifically framed for our youngest students. Beyond Hebrew learning, our students engage with Jewish holidays and values, Torah stories and Israel.
Jewish Holidays: By celebrating Shabbat every week and marking the sacred annual holidays, such as the High Holy Days, Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover, our students learn about the symbols and traditions of each holiday and how to celebrate them through hands-on projects.
Jewish Values: Students delve into values of tzedakah (charity in the pursuit of justice), b’tzelem Elohim (the idea that we’re all made in the image of God), welcoming the stranger, being appreciative, and more. Through arts and crafts, drama, games and other activities, our students explore the ways that we live Jewish lives and act as God’s partners in the world. As they engage with Jewish values, students contemplate how we can make the world a better place and how we should treat ourselves and others.
Torah: Students also focus on the stories of our most sacred text, the Torah. Students study Torah stories, analyzing the characters and distilling important lessons about relationships, responsibility, and being our best selves. As part of building a relationship with the Torah, students explore the physical Torah and learn about the different parts of the scrolls in our ark. Together, they engage in conversations about its centrality to the Jewish people. These foundational stories of our ancestors help our students create a solid foundation as their Jewish identity develops.
Israel: Our students also learn about our Jewish homeland. Through interactive lessons, they discover the richness of Israeli culture, the uniqueness of Israel’s geography and Israel’s contributions to our world.
The third through fifth grade curricula build on the previous foundation to develop a Jewish identity steeped in tradition, history and culture, and to explore Judaism’s role in the modern world. This is not only done through learning, but also by encouraging student to question traditions.
Kadosh (Holiness): Students engage with the concept of kadosh through examination of Jewish ritual objects, holidays and Jewish traditions. Our students confront questions such as: What makes something sacred or holy? How are holy objects treated differently than everyday objects? Students will have the opportunity to touch, feel, find and create various Jewish ritual objects throughout the year. We then reflect on how we can bring holiness into our modern lives. Our students debate what it means to truly be created in God’s image and think about how we should treat one another and ourselves if we are truly created in the image of God.
Israel: Our fourth graders focus on Israel, learning about the history of the Jewish state, the people who live there and the amazing things that Israel has to offer. Throughout the year, the students create their own relationships with the land of Israel, and begin to gain a deeper understanding of why we have a Jewish state and how we can support it.
Lifecycle Events: As students begin to think about their b’nai mitzvah, we try to contextualize this event within the greater Jewish lifecycle. They’re challenged to think about these Jewish lifecycle moments as one continuum in order to discover how they mark various moments in a Jew’s life and help form a spiritual community.
Tanakh and Other Jewish Texts: While the Torah is Judaism’s most central text, it’s not the only one. Students continue to build on their knowledge of the Torah, while also exploring the other two sections of the Tanakh (Jewish Bible), the Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). They continue their textual journal and examine the midrash (stories that explain the Torah), the Mishnah (discussions of rabbinical laws from around 200 C.E.) and the Gemara (further discussions of rabbinical laws from around 400 and 500 C.E.).
In preparation for their b’nai mitzvah, students engage with their parasha (portion of the Torah), from which they will read at their bar or bat mitzvah. Using the Pardes method (a methodic Jewish approach to textual study), they learn their parasha, ask questions and attempt to answer these questions for themselves — to bring deeper meaning to their texts. At the end of the year, students present to their peers and parents. These presentations have included speeches, video projects, songs, artwork, skits and more.
T’filah: Throughout our curriculum, students engage with Jewish prayer, studying the different sections of the prayer service, the prayers we recite and their meaning. They wrestle and discuss what it means to actually pray and try to answer questions such as: How can I participate in prayer if I am not focused on praying? How does prayer change with my mood? What is the difference between individual and communal prayer? How does one balance kavanah (intention) with keva (fixed liturgy)? Students even have the opportunity to create their own prayers. These discussions don’t end in the classroom, but are a major component of weekly t’filah in our main sanctuary.
Hebrew: Our students begin their formal Hebrew studies in third grade. We believe that every child is capable of decoding and fluently reading Hebrew, whether from our prayer book, the Torah, or modern Hebrew texts. Students focus on learning the Hebrew letters and vowels and then graduate to words, phrases and then texts. Students reinforce their Hebrew skills during our weekly t’filah. Those who experience difficulty reading Hebrew receive extra help to ensure they are confident and fluent readers. Throughout our Hebrew program, students learn a basic vocabulary to help them navigate the siddur (prayer book) and create meaning from our tradition.
What is our relationship with God? How do we apply the ethical laws in the Torah to make a better world? What is my role in this world? During the sixth and seventh grade years, we ask these fundamental questions and then try to answer them as part of the final preparation for b’nai mitzvah, which mark adulthood in Judaism. It’s through this process that our curriculum endeavors to build a Jewish community. While students are separated by grade for Judaica, they combine for Hebrew and chugim (electives).
Theology: Our students study theology and personal belief systems. Through texts and multimedia, students confront different conceptions for God, exploring different ways Jews throughout history have connected with the divine and then thinking about the role God plays in our world. We guide them to discover (or create) a theology that helps them grow into their teenage years and develop a positive Jewish identity.
Tzedakah: They learn what it means to create a more just and righteous world not only though study, but also through practice. Students begin by exploring how and why Jews fulfill this mitzvah, and then choose an organization to study. Then in groups, our students prepare presentations of their chosen organizations, and at the end of the year present them to their class.
Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh ba-Zeh (All of Israel is responsible for each other): Students delve into texts and explore their responsibilities to Jewish peoplehood, answering questions such as: How do we care for ourselves, the Jewish people and the world? This responsibility ties directly into becoming a bar or bat mitzvah and Jewish adulthood.
Chugim: For a third of the academic year, students choose a chug or elective course of study. These chugim differ from year to year, depending on the interests of both students and our faculty. A few examples from the past include: Jews and fashion, Jewish music and Jewish culinary tradition.
Hebrew: By the sixth and seventh grades our students are expected to be able to read prayers in our siddur as they prepare for their b’nai mitzvah. Students work at their own pace, practicing and then testing with faculty. Additional help is available for those who need it.
Plural for bar or bat mitzvah, we view this as not only a lifecycle event for the student, but the whole family. It’s not the culmination of our students’ Jewish education, but rather the beginning of their adult Jewish lives. A year before their b’nai mitzvah, students begin working with a private tutor. Through the b’nai mitzvah training process, students meet and get to know the clergy, while studying their Torah and Haftarah portions.
In Hebrew, madrichim means “guide,” which some Jewish summer camps call their counselors. In our Religious School, teens in grades 8 through 12 can volunteer as madrichim, helping teachers in the classroom. This opportunity allows them to continue to engage with the Jewish community after their b’nai mitzvah, while also developing important skills. To ensure growth, teachers and other staff give our madrichim feedback and guidance. Many of our younger students look up to their madrichim, who model continued Jewish involvement and positive Jewish identity.
We encourage our teens to volunteer both within the Stephen Wise community and beyond through programs like our on-site Next Step Men’s Shelter and Emergency Food Program, at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion soup kitchen, and on other service projects around the city and on trips to other states. Our Religious School creates opportunities for teens to participate in text study and to celebrate Jewish holidays with fun and educational programs that engage with Judaism and build Jewish identity.
We offer a number of opportunities for our students’ families to engage with Jewish learning. Family programs for each grade help highlight elements of the curriculum, giving families a taste of the material. When role models like parents engage in learning, it motivates students to learn and each session creates opportunities for community building among families. We challenge our families to think deeply about how they incorporate Jewish life into modern day lives.
We also encourage students and their families to attend our synagogue’s many Family Experiences programs, which build on skills and knowledge learned in the classroom and provide meaningful opportunities for families to learn and celebrate together. Our youngest students participate in joyful, age-appropriate services, while our older students welcome Shabbat in the sanctuary before participating in programming just for them.
We know that the normal religious school model doesn’t fit every student’s need. Therefore, we offer Portals, which brings an experienced teacher from Stephen Wise’s Religious School to your home for weekly one-on-one sessions with your child. We tailor these weekly lessons to the student’s needs and interests. Families are still able to take part in the warm and inclusive community, including children’s services and other Family Experiences. This program is available only to students in third through seventh grades.
To attend Religious School, families must hold membership in the synagogue and children must be registered.
Returning and current members will receive information and forms in April and should be returned as soon as possible to reserve the child’s spot. Prospective new members will receive information starting in May. To enroll your children in the Religious School for the 2020-21 school year, please use our online form.
If you’re interested in visiting our school, we have open houses and information sessions in the spring. Otherwise please contact the Religious School.
Rabbi Rena Rifkin, director of youth education, is always available to meet individually with families to discuss needs, programs, and other concerns. Sandra Divack Moss, the synagogue’s executive director, is available to discuss any financial concerns.
Our Adminstrative Staff
From our teachers to our students to our volunteer madrichim, it truly takes a village to create a thriving religious school. Learn more about Director of Youth Education Rabbi Rena Rifkin, who heads our Religious School along with our dedicated administrative staff.
(She, her, hers)
Director of Youth Education
(212) 877-4050, ext. 236
(She, her, hers)
Religious School Assistant Director
(212) 877-4050, ext. 247
(She, her, hers)
Religious School Operations Coordinator
(212) 877-4050, ext. 230