Synagogues have always served a larger role in our communities than mere places of worship. They are sites for neighbors to gather, share experiences, celebrate traditions, educate one another, engage in activism, and so much more.
New York City is home to a bevy of outstanding synagogues, but perhaps none is better known than the famous Park East Synagogue. This is the kind of place from which politicians deliver their remarks. The kind of place whose rabbi of more than 50 years, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, was knighted by the Roman Catholic Church to honor his work promoting world peace and religious freedom. The kind of place inclusive to all people seeking spiritual growth, regardless of their degree of observance, knowledge of Jewish faith or traditions, and affiliation. But perhaps most impressive is its focus on the community’s children, which manifests in an abundance of youth programs. And not just any youth programs, either. These are the youth programs that dreams are made of.
First and foremost is its school, Park East Day School. Founded over 25 years ago by Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the school has served students from preschool to eighth grade in a nurturing environment that promotes Jewish, humanistic values in an academically rigorous environment. The school features a well-rounded curriculum, rich with STEM offerings and religious studies, but also intent on providing ample exposure to athletics and the arts, including visual art, dance, vocal music, and drama.
And that’s just the beginning. The synagogue runs Early Childhood summer programs, classes in Hebrew language and Jewish heritage classes through its Youth Enrichment Center, as well as trips into the city and beyond, including a trip to the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn. The center couches its educational pursuits between an exciting array of parties, carnivals, art projects, presentations, and even cruises. None of these programs aim to expose children to hours of rote memorization or mind-numbing lectures. Quite the opposite. Each offering is designed to appeal and educate by immersive, playful measures.
Park East is invested in shaping children’s shabbat experiences into memorable, enjoyable events. While adults worship in the main sanctuary, children attend the famous children’s service, which is held every shabbat and holiday. Created by Toby Einsidler, the inspirational program focuses on prayers and songs for shabbat, and portions of the Torah that can be examined through the lens of Jewish values. There are also art projects, lunch, games, and activities.
Children from Kindergarten through 6th grade have the option of joining the Junior Congregation. Participants rotate leading activities and delivering Parsha, which is followed by Parsha Trivia, as well as activities that may include Let’s Make a Deal, Minute to Win It, Match Game, Dress Up Esther, and so many others (including fun prizes). When children need to recharge, there’s the Shabbat Game Room for a variety of sports and popular gym games. Children can even join the youth group to partake in snowtubing, rock climbing, bowling, and more.
Park East is remarkable for the breadth of its many youth offerings, as well as the way in which the material is presented. All of Park East’s programs show a commitment to community-building and innovative education, meaning the learning is always fun and meaningful. It’s so refreshing to witness the way Park East makes Jewish children feel at home in their own skins and imparts to them a sense of pride. Whether these children are being shaped by poetry, music, game show-style trivia games, or ice-cream socials, it’s always enjoyable and it’s always a celebration, which seems like an appropriate and preferable approach to immerse a child into their own faith and heritage.
Park East Synagogue is so many things to our community and the city at large: a cultural icon, an architectural landmark, an eclectic congregation, and the scene for countless international and communal actions and initiatives. That is why the Charatan/Holm Family Foundation is proud to support its great work on all fronts. But beyond its papal visits, its lecture series with bestselling authors and foreign ambassadors, its world-famous rabbi knight that is both a Holocaust survivor and an active proponent of using religion to unite the world, beyond all of this, there are children who are feeling content and inspired as a result of its great work. And that, more than anything, will positively shape our collective future.