Rising Star Religious High School
In 2002, businessman and philanthropist Lev Leviev established the Jewish Institute of Queens in Rego Park to serve the borough’s Bukharian Jewish community. This group from Central Asia longed for a special place where recent immigrants could move forward while retaining a sense of their roots.
Leviev had helped various Jewish communities create schools abroad that met similar needs. With the help of founding administrators Faye Rottenberg and Jennifer Seideman, among others, Jewish Institute of Queens (called the Queens Gymnasia) secured a building, hired staff and administrators in record time and welcomed the first few elementary grades. The high school opened its door in 2005 with a 9th grade class.
This coming June, only seven years since its founding, the school will graduate its pioneering class of seniors. Through Leviev’s generosity and grants, the Gymnasia began tuition-free, and now operates on a pay-as-you-can sliding tuition scale. The idea was that parents who wanted a religious education for their children shouldn’t be deterred by cost.
“Our mission is to be a school in which students will develop a strong sense of Jewish identity and will gain knowledge and skills of Jewish texts and life while enhancing their growth towards excellence in high level academics,” said Head of School Cynthia Galler Levin.
To that ambitious end, students, who come from several nearby Jewish communities in addition to the Bukharian, participate in everything from community service and sports to religious observances and celebrations, all while preparing for Regents exams and college. The school has already achieved full high school status recognition from New York State, a rarity for a relative newcomer.
General studies Principal Avi Strulson spearheaded the effort, which included making sure that everything from science labs to physical education and sports, as well as the regular academic subjects, met state standards.
Galler Levin also emphasizes the importance of college as a goal. The Gymnasia has also sent several students to national leadership conferences to help broaden their horizons.
But academics are only half of the game here. The day is split in two: for Judaic studies, taught separately by gender and general studies. It’s no wonder the students in high school don’t go home until 5 p.m.
In the Jewish studies department, the faculty, which includes rabbis and seminary graduates, forms close relationships with students while guiding them to reach high spiritual and intellectual standards. Shabbat weekends provide the chance for students to travel to teachers’ homes and synagogues for bonding, worship and introduction to the wider Jewish community.
The bond goes far beyond formal activities.
“I was taking a walk on Sunday and I ran into students going out to a local restaurant with three of their teachers after spending Shabbat together,” Galler Levin said. “The teachers are so committed to the kids as people, to teaching them information and skills. They have a deep caring about students, their accomplishments, their success and their future.”
This sense of caring extends to community service, a graduation requirement and one of the school’s proudest accomplishments. Students conceive many of their own service-learning projects, and teens have visited nursing homes, cleaned up local parks and helped younger students through mentoring and tutoring. The Gymnasia has a Hanukah toy drive and has implemented a school-wide recycling program.
Along with giving back, Galler Levin explained that the service projects provide an “opportunity for kids to do research and learning, to see the difference they as teenagers can make.”
And this is what sums up the school’s overall mission.
“Our goal,” she said, “is for them to see there’s nothing they can’t undertake and accomplish, in all aspects of life.”
Jewish Institute of Queens
60-05 Woodhaven Blvd.
Elmhurst, N.Y. 11373
Cynthia Galler Levin, Head of School
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