“Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” That’s how Rabbi Rena Rifkin likes to start conversations with religious school students who profess their atheism. “It’s usually because they’re feeling stuck in what they ‘have’ to believe,” says Rabbi Rifkin. “But really, they’re rejecting a particular idea of God. I like to show them that they have options.”
As the director of youth education at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, Rabbi Rifkin sees her job as helping children discover what being Jewish means to them. Judaism isn’t a skill you can train, like arithmetic, she says. “We teach children to light Shabbat candles not just so they know how to do it, but also so that they understand why Jews have been doing it for thousands of years — and decide if it’s something they want to do themselves.”
To aid in that endeavor, the synagogue employs diverse staff from all walks of Jewish life: some observe strict kashrut and keep Shabbat, while others — outside of teaching religious school — really connect with organized Judaism only on the High Holy Days. “We understand that Judaism happens in different ways, and we like to model and celebrate that,” says Rabbi Rifkin.
The biggest challenge is that the hard work of building young Jewish identities is so qualitative, and she has precious little time to do it. “Two hours a week isn’t enough and the moments where we see our success are few and far between,” Rabbi Rifkin admits. “Kids need to have Jewish lives outside of the classroom in order to utilize and struggle with what they’ve learned.”
That’s why it’s so important for families to lead Jewish lives — and to be part of a synagogue. “This is where people gather to worship, or to do community service, or to celebrate life’s big events, or to mourn,” she says. While the synagogue fills a different need for each family, “it’s a one-stop shop for Judaism. This is where Jewish life happens.”
“The beating heart of Judaism is the synagogue,” explains Stephen Wise’s senior rabbi, Ammi Hirsch. “No other entity creates Jews and sustains Jewish identity. Everything Jewish is rooted in Jewish religious values, so lovingly and relentlessly taught for millennia in synagogues and academies of study.”
But it can be hard to articulate the identity-building process to parents, Rabbi Rifkin says, especially for children: “It’s not quantifiable. Kids find it really difficult to explain what they did in class: that they had a conversation about how they see God, or that they’ve shifted from thinking of their family as Jewish to thinking of themselves as Jews.”
So when a student tells Rabbi Rifkin, “I don’t believe in God,” it reminds her why she decided to become a rabbi-educator in the first place. “They expect me to try to shut them down, but instead, I give them permission to question and reject theology.” In other words, Rabbi Rifkin wants them to think for themselves, to experiment with Jewish ideas and figure out what works (or doesn’t work).
At the end of each school day, the third, fourth and fifth graders head downstairs to gather for t’filah in Stephen Wise’s hazy gold sanctuary. Standing before the bimah, Rabbi Rifkin’s small figure is framed by soaring arches of pale white light. She closes her eyes and sways softly to the music. The hand holding her microphone drops and rests at her side. “When I don’t have to sing at all, when I can just listen to a hundred little voices chanting ‘Mi Chamochah,’ that’s a moment when I connect spiritually with God and the Jewish people.”
To learn more about the Religious School at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, visit their website here or call (212) 877-4050, ext. 230.