In July, Rabbi Rena Rifkin joined the Stephen Wise community as director of the Religious School. Previously, Rabbi Rifkin served as the coordinator of faculty and family engagement at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan, and before that, as director of lifelong learning at North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, New York.
Rabbi Rifkin received her MA in Jewish education from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education in 2008 and was ordained by HUC-JIR in 2010. A board member of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators, she lives in Manhattan with her husband, Scott, and their two children, Eden and Simon.
An eighth-grade student at MS 54 Booker T. Washington Middle School, Lily Pecoriello has attended Stephen Wise Religious School since 2011 and now participates in our Post Bar/Bat Mitzah Program. Lily had a chance to interview Rabbi Rifkin as she settled into her new position. Excerpts from the interview follow.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, but I mostly grew up in Sullivan County, New York, and New York City.
When you were a kid, did you ever think you would become a rabbi?
I didn’t! My dad is a rabbi, and lots of people told me I should be a rabbi, but who wants to do what everyone thinks they should do? I never wanted to be a rabbi—I wanted to be a Broadway actress. But I always loved being involved in Jewish life. I grew up attending the URJ’s Eisner Camp, liked going to Religious School and attending Shabbat Services with my parents, and as a teen I got very involved in NFTY [the North American Federation of Temple Youth].
How old were you when you knew that you wanted to be a rabbi?
I was 19 and in college. I realized that everything I liked about certain careers were part of being a rabbi. For example, I liked the idea of being in front of people and of working with kids and communities. And I loved teaching.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when becoming a rabbi?
There is so much learning and studying. It takes a lot of time, effort, dedication, and commitment. I still don’t know it all!
What did you like most about religious school when you were a kid?
We did really fun projects that were very creative—for example, we would write our own songs about different aspects of Jewish life. I remember writing a song about places in Israel, and another about Hebrew words. Also, I had a really special group of friends that I didn’t get to see every day because we all went to different schools.
Who inspires you the most?
My kids because they ask good questions, they aren’t afraid to try things, and they love to have fun. My daughter is three-and-a-half and my son is one-and-a-half.
What’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you?
I don’t embarrass easily. Probably nothing.
If you could have dinner with three biblical characters, who would they be and why?
That’s a great question. Michal, Saul’s daughter — I wrote my rabbinic thesis about her. She is a super cool character, a strong woman who is married to David. She is a princess and a queen. She has one of the most interesting stories in the Bible and it isn’t well known.
Then I would have dinner with Pharoah — I want to understand why he didn’t want to let the slaves go and also how his life changed after the Hebrew slaves were gone.
And Eve: I want to know what was the actual fruit from the tree? (We don’t know it was an apple.) What convinced her to eat it, and what was the garden really like? Was it truly paradise?
Which story in the Torah is most significant to you and why?
Probably Parsha Lech Lecha — the story of Abraham going out and starting the Jewish people. I think it’s an inspirational story that shows we can try new things and do more than we ever dreamed we could. And that there’s always somebody there to help and support us. Great things are ahead of each of us.
What’s your favorite Jewish tradition?
Havdalah. I like ending Shabbat with my family or friends and using all of our senses to not just experience but say goodbye to Shabbat and get ready for what the week holds.
What are your favorite TV shows?
I like Modern Family, the Big Bang Theory, and NCIS.
What’s your favorite Jewish food?
Shakshuka! It’s a Mediterranean dish with tomatoes and eggs.
Have you ever been to Israel?
Yes, many times. For rabbinical school you have to live there for a year. I also went as a teen. And this March, from March 22—April 2, I will be joining Rabbi Hirsch and Stephen Wise congregants for our mission to Israel — I’m really excited to experience Israel with families from the synagogue!
What was the most memorable thing you saw or learned in Israel?
My first trip was when I was 16. We hiked from the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean — that was a four-and-a-half day hike. I felt incredibly connected to the land, as if I were part of the nature of the country. We ended the hike by jumping into the Mediterranean — it was an amazing experience for a 16-year-old. It also brought me and my friends closer together.
What inspired you to want to lead a Religious School?
I love working with kids. I like teaching. I want to make the experience of building Jewish identities better and stronger and deeper for every individual.
What advice do you have for kids who are preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs?
Practice every day, even when you don’t think you need to. Ask for help when you need it. Make sure you know why you and your parents want you to do this.
Photo by Mike Pecoriello