Reconnecting With Jewish Community At Stephen Wise Free Synagogue

Photo: Lenny Medina / RetroLenz Photography

Many people may still be feeling disconnected and isolated as a result of the pandemic. Everyone needs community, and you may just find like-minded individuals at the Upper West Side’s Reform Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, located at 30 West 68th Street.

“Stephen Wise Free Synagogue is so much more than a place,” says Isaiah Benedek, director of membership engagement. “It’s a community that comes together — through smachot and trying times — to learn and educate the next generation; that worships as one, wherever we might be; and that cares for each other and the greater world.”

Sheltering in place has impacted young families big time; enter the Early Childhood Center (ECC), with programs for children 12 months to 5 years. The ECC gives children a place to socialize while parents have the opportunity to bond with one another.

“The SWFS Early Childhood Center was an amazing preschool for my 3 kids.  It is a warm, nurturing environment where the kids learn through play and exploration. Not only did my children have a great preschool experience, but they were fully prepared for Kindergarten. And I made lifelong friends and found a truly wonderful community.”

– A happy SWFS mom

A crucial aspect of brain development is human interaction; “Young children need to interact with others and have opportunities for dialogue in order to grow,” wrote ECC Director Miriam Kalmar. The school takes a play-based approach to education, and programs include language development and literacy, mathematical thinking, dramatic play, social skills, and artistic expression.

Inspired by the world-renowned schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, Stephen Wise’s ECC views children as capable, strong, and rich with wonder and knowledge. “Here, students help guide the curriculum,” explains Kalmar. “All of our classes are taught by experienced early childhood educators who respond to the rapidly evolving needs and experiences of the children.”

When Stephen Wise Free Synagogue’s Religious School (for children ages five to 18) reopened, “the feeling of community was revitalized,” wrote Director of Youth Education Rabbi Rena Rifkin in a piece published by Forward.

Religious school programs give students the opportunity to make friends while building a positive connection to the synagogue and the Jewish people in a comfortable setting. It’s also a place of self-discovery, where independent thought is encouraged; “We want our students to love being Jewish and figure out for themselves what that means,” says Rifkin.

There are plenty of opportunities for adults to reconnect through a myriad of cultural, educational, and social programming.

They’ve got afternoon mahjong games open to all skill levels; Shabbat morning study with Rabbi Sam Natov; social justice groups who work towards tackling issues like antisemitism, voter suppression, climate change and food insecurity; and a host of exciting annual events which take place both onsite and at neighboring UWS institutions.

Stephen Wise Free Synagogue also hosts concerts and musical events, convenes short story and book groups; brings speakers, authors and subject experts; takes missions to Israel and Europe; and offers a whole host of family experiences filled with age-appropriate activities.

There’s something for everyone! To learn more, please visit


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