Rabbi Rena Rifkin
(She, her, hers)
Director of Youth Education
Office: (212) 877-4050, ext. 236
Rabbi Rena Rifkin, RJE, received her master’s in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education in 2008 and was ordained by HUC-JIR in 2010. During her time as a student, she was a Mandel Fellow for clergy-educators and worked in various communities throughout Los Angeles and New York City, including Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York.
Following ordination, she served North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, New York, as the director of lifelong learning, and most recently was coordinator of faculty and family engagement at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.
Rabbi Rifkin grew up at and continues to have strong ties with the URJ Camp Eisner and she is member of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators’s board. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, Scott, and their three children, Eden, Simon and Micah.
Is It The Most Wonderful Time Of the Year?
“Did you know that many of the most popular Christmas songs were written by Jews?” asks Rabbi Rena Rifkin. “Once the chanukiyot have become nothing but a pile of colorful wax, it’s hard to find light.” But “we can be a spark for someone else’s candle… on Christmas, let us help others to bring a glow to the world.”
The Blessing of Being a Jew
Rabbi Rena Rifkin wonders how we can be grateful for being Jewish “when we are tucking our magen David necklaces into our T-shirts, using fake last names on our uber accounts and even taking down mezuzot from our front doors…” Although we have every right to be scared, “we must fight back the fear and fight for the joy” that Judaism offers us each day.
“Sometimes, we get caught up in what we’ve lost,” says Rabbi Rena Rifkin. “But when we do that, we forget to give kavod to what’s really important… The only thing we really have to worry about losing is ourselves.”
Bonsais and Boulders
After a summer spent admiring bonsai trees and traversing a boulder field, Rabbi Rena Rifkin brought home two lessons: “The strongest trees are ones that can bend in the wind,” but you also need sure footing. “Our relationships, our community, our underlying beliefs — these are our rocks.”
We Need Pride
As Pride Month begins, Rabbi Rena Rifkin wonders “What is pride anyway? What does it mean to be proud of yourself and your identity? How does one develop pride? And where and when should we put it on display?”
What do non-binary people do at the Western Wall? “I think it feels like you would have to quiet yourself a little bit to be there,” one of our Rabbi Rena Rifkin’s colleagues said. Reflecting on silenced Holocaust survivors, our children’s quiet traumas, and the catharsis built-in to the Passover Seder, she says, “These quiet times may be fleeting or they may last longer, but there is a lingering effect…”
Admitting Our Faults
“Asking for forgiveness is hard because it means admitting we were wrong,” says Rabbi Rena Rifkin on Erev Yom Kippur. “And yet, Yom Kippur commands us to do just that. Once we truly admit our fault, then we can start to find forgiveness…”
Go-ing, Go-ing, Gonnne
During Rosh Hashanah, “I stopped in my office in between services to check on the Yankee games,” admits Rabbi Rena Rifkin. And now she finds that “the space between Aaron Judge’s 61st and 62nd home runs is similar to the 10 Days of Awe”: we reflect on how far we’ve come and wonder how much farther we can go…
On the High Holy Days, “we use this time to refocus and to recenter ourselves,” says Rabbi Rena Rifkin. “Our lives are full of small gems. But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are reminded to see the entire cave..”
Gathering In A Holy Place
“We Jews gather,” says Rabbi Rena Rifkin. “Sure, we can feel God with us anywhere, but it is here — at synagogue — that we keep a reminder of the Holy Ark of the Covenant, God’s dwelling place among our wandering ancestors.”
Recent Commentaries and Op-Eds
NY Jewish Week: Jewish advocates demand policy changes to combat antisemitism at NYC public high schools
Dec 22, 2023
While public discourse on antisemitism in schools has largely focused on college campuses, a series of activists say that the same trends are manifesting in New York City’s high schools. Rabbi Rena Rifkin, who works with about 250 middle and high school students at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, said that Oct. 7 had “opened the floodgates,” and made students more aware of persistent antisemitism, but that school hasn’t given them tools to cope with it. And while a range of voices are calling on schools to more proactively address antisemitism, Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz cautioned, “If we rely on the media, public schools, private schools to deliver what should be a part of our kids’ Jewish education, they’re going to do a terrible job at it,” she said. “And they’re going to leave our kids lost.”
West Side Rag: Enrollment Opens For In-Person And Virtual Hebrew School Classes At Stephen Wise Free Synagogue
Apr 30, 2021
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.
The Forward: How good it is to sit together: Why we re-opened our religious school during the pandemic
Apr 7, 2021
“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.”
New York Family: Why To Consider A Religious School For Your Child
Jan 7, 2019
Our Director of Youth Education Rabbi Rena Rifkin makes the case for religious education in New York Family Magazine: “Judaism is not just about God and prayer. Judaism offers us a history, a community, and a set of values and ethics to guide our lives. Even if your family chooses not to celebrate holidays or follow ritual practices, you can still be guided by Jewish values and ethics.”
New York Family: When Should Your Kids Start Religious School?
Oct 29, 2018
Our Director of Youth Education Rabbi Rena Rifkin discusses Challah Club, our revolutionary afternoon drop-off class that introduces young children to Jewish learning: “If we want our kids to be as good at Judaism, as well-versed and as thoughtful about Jewish life as they are at math, then we have to start as soon as we can.”