Everything You Need to Know About Stephen Wise Free Synagogue’s Religious School

It’s never been more important for Jewish children and teens to have a safe, enriching place to build identity and feel that they belong. That’s precisely why Stephen Wise Free Synagogue’s Religious School — designed for students ages five to 13 (with ongoing programs for teens) — is an excellent way for your family to invest in your child’s Jewish future. With an expansive values-based curriculum, a highly-experienced staff, flexible class times, and a large interconnected community, Stephen Wise Religious School stands apart from the rest.

Located at 30 West 68th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, Stephen Wise is one of the most vibrant Reform synagogues in New York City, offering robust programming for all ages. Many Jewish children, especially those in secular schools, aren’t always in environments that allow for complete freedom to be themselves. That’s where the supportive atmosphere of Stephen Wise comes in. And, considering how many after-school activities are available (from sports to theater and beyond — especially in Manhattan!), Stephen Wise Religious School provides unmatched flexibility. The bulk of the program is once per week (on Sundays or weekdays) or even at home (more on that later), so there’s room for every child to flourish.

Photo: Elizabeth Mealey

Since Rabbi Stephen S. Wise founded the Free Synagogue in 1907, the Religious School has played a pivotal role in helping prepare the next generation to lead Jewish lives. When students, siblings, parents, and the whole household are invested in a Jewish education, their connection to Judaism as a whole is heightened. The Religious School fosters a desire in students and families to learn more and inspire more people. In fact, there are numerous occasions throughout the year for families to engage with Jewish life, such as the Shabbat Family Experiences programming, the Emergency Food Program, social justice work and more. Additionally, families are encouraged to attend grade-specific Shabbat programming at least once every six to eight weeks.

Photo: Elizabeth Mealey

Though Hebrew and reading the Torah are certainly a vital focus, Stephen Wise’s curriculum goes well beyond typical texts and required reading. The hands-on nature of the school begins each year with the signing of a brit (covenant), which embodies the five following middot (values):

  • Kavod (respect and honor)
  • Derech Eretz (common decency)
  • Achriyut (responsibility)
  • Chesed (compassion and kindness)
  • Talmud Torah (Jewish study)

Photo: Sam Rothermel / In-Motion Photo

There is no official cutoff to join the Religious School, but, of course, getting involved earlier makes for an easier transition. With that in mind, here’s a look at the programs:

Pre-K to 2nd Grade: Known as the “taste of Religious School,” this program sets a Jewish foundation by building students’ Hebrew lexicons and Jewish vocabularies through age-appropriate games and immersion. Key prayers, blessings, Jewish holidays, Torah studies, an introduction to the richness of Israeli culture and more are explored. Values such as tzedakah (the pursuit of justice), gratitude and more are also at the forefront.

Photo: Sam Rothermel / In-Motion Photo

Grades 3 to 5: Students in this age group are particularly curious and many already have a strong foundation of Jewish learning. From there, educators at Stephen Wise will help them apply these principles to their modern lives. Students will dive into formal Hebrew studies (think Hebrew letters, vowels and eventually words, sentences and text), learn about Israeli history and culture, and develop fluency and confidence with leading prayers — which is especially important as families start thinking about b’nai mitzvah.

Grades 6 to 7: Now, this is a particularly exciting time that many of us look back on fondly. The final preparation for the b’nai mitzvah is exciting, challenging and, in many ways, intimidating. As students confront different conceptions of G-d, explore history and develop a theology and personal belief system, Stephen Wise’s professional team is right alongside them — offering unparalleled support, answers and guidance. Best of all, values are put into practice as students embark on yearlong tzedakah projects to help create a more righteous world.

Photo: Colleen Putman

Portals:  Stephen Wise understands how busy today’s youth is. The Portals program brings the education to your home, by way of an experienced teacher who will provide weekly one-on-one sessions tailored to individual needs. Please note, the Portals program is only available for students in grades 3 through 7. You can find more info about Portals here.

B’nai mitzvah and teen experiences: The b’nai mitzvah is considered the pinnacle of Jewish education and a passage to adulthood. Students will study the Torah and Haftarah portions, culminating in a Saturday morning service in front of their community. Then, from eighth grade onwards, teens have the opportunity to serve as madrichim (guides) for younger students, developing leadership and teaching skills (and earning community service hours). There are also incredible travel opportunities, which in the past have included trips to Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, the Czech Republic and Germany. Next year, the school plans to travel to Arizona, where they’ll learn about immigration issues, and to Israel.

Photo: Jonathan Goldstein

Family Experiences: The young don’t have all the fun — the whole family can get in on the action! These experiences are also an excellent way to figure out if your family is ready to commit to the Religious School program. Learn more about Family Experiences here.

The philosophy of the Religious School is to help students discover Judaism through building community in a comfortable, safe and respectful environment. Stephen Wise Free Synagogue believes Jewish journeys last a lifetime — but there’s no better time to start than now. Conveniently, an info session is scheduled for Tuesday, April 16 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Register now here!

Learn more about the Religious School by visiting swfs.org/school, contacting the office via email at school@swfs.org or calling (212)-877-4050, ext. 230. Financial aid is available for those who qualify.

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