In an old brick building, on a quiet street in Greece, stands a private K-8 school that most locals have never heard of, but that over the years has enabled dozens of young families to move here and make Rochester their home.
Derech HaTorah of Rochester serves Orthodox Jewish students by providing a Torah-based education as well as general studies in English language arts, social studies, science and math. Founded in 2004 with just 31 students, the school’s enrollment has grown steadily to 115.
“Without Derech HaTorah, most Orthodox Jewish families would not move here,” observes Lea Goldstein, principal and founder.
Orthodox Jews adhere strictly to traditional practices such as kosher dietary laws, in-depth study of the Torah, daily prayers, and gender segregation in many settings. They limit their exposure to popular culture, so many of them don’t own televisions, listen to mainstream music, or engage in modern-day social events. Secular schools, weekend Hebrew schools, and even some American Jewish day schools can’t provide the cultural environment and religious education that they require.
DHR actively recruits students by providing tuition discounts for families who move here from other regions, as well as offering incentives for current families who refer others. Full tuition is $10,000, but families who move here from other areas pay only $1,000 for the first two years that their children attend any of the school’s K-3 classes. At full price, tuition at DHR is about half of what parents pay for similar schools in bigger cities.
“We’re wagering,” says Goldstein, “that they’ll really love it here and will put roots down and stay, and that long term it will be worthwhile—both for the school and for the Greater Rochester community.
When Isaac Kuyunov decided to further his training in dentistry, he “looked only at places that had a solid Jewish community with Jewish schools. If the DHR school didn’t exist, we would have probably not moved here.”
Kuyunov and his wife moved here in 2016 from New York City. They have two children at the school, and never considered sending them to any other school in the area. Kuyunov is a prosthodontist who treats complex dental issues.
Many DHR families have relocated to Rochester for careers in health care, but there are also artists, writers, teachers, rabbis, accountants, and business owners. Rifka “Emily” Chilungu moved to Rochester from Cleveland, so that her husband could do a fellowship in clinical neurophysiology here. After his fellowship, they had planned to return to Cleveland, to a large Orthodox Jewish community, where they had many close friends.
“It didn’t take us long to fall in love with the Rochester community and the region,” Chilungu says.
For the Chilungus, DHR is an integral part of life. Two of their four children attend the school, and Chilungu helps DHR maintain its vegetable and butterfly gardens.
“At DHR, I know our kids are getting not only a solid Judaic education but also a quality secular education,” she says. “They’ll thrive in the religious community and be able to navigate the secular world as well. There’s a good balance.”
Goldstein helped start Derech HaTorah after teaching at Rochester’s Hillel school for 17 years. The Hillel school is a pluralistic Jewish school, catering to families with diverse religious affiliations and levels of observance. Goldstein attended the Hillel school herself, and has strong connections with the staff. However, when they could not adequately serve the Orthodox Jewish families’ needs, she left her position to take on the role of principal at DHR.
In addition to tuition income, the school secures donations and leads fundraising campaigns, to ensure that no family is turned away for financial need.
DHR students spend half of their day in general studies based on New York’s Next Generation and Common Core standards. Despite the shorter lessons, students at DHR are meeting or exceeding New York State standards.
“Before the pandemic, our seventh and eighth graders were taking the high school Regents exams,” Goldstein says. “Two years ago, our eighth graders approached me and said that they wanted to take the 11th grade American history exam. Their teacher said that they were ready. Most of the students scored in the mid to high 90s.”
Goldstein attributes DHR students’ success to culture of scholarship, support from parents, a lack media distractions at home, and the analytical skills that the students learn from their religious education.
“The other half of the day, they’re learning how to think,” she says. “There’s a huge emphasis in Engage New York and Common Core on close reading, which is exactly the skill they use in their Judaic studies classes.”
By fourth or fifth grade, the students start reading the Talmud, a complex text of Jewish civil and ritual law. In kindergarten, they read and write in both Hebrew and English.
Goldstein also attributes the school’s success to the engagement and enthusiasm of her staff. As a private school, DHR has the flexibility to hire teachers from all over the country. Teachers have a variety of backgrounds and credentials, and stay up to date with the schools’ needs with staff development training. DHR employs a total of 16 teachers.
Kathy Clarke started teaching at DHR at the beginning of this school year after a 30-year career in the Rochester City School District.
“A lot of schools districts have very prescribed, scripted programs,” Clarke says. “When I came here, it was very open. They told me that Iwas the expert, and that I just needed to teach my way. Coming to this place made me realize that this is what I was meant to do. I’m thrilled every time I come in. I just want to be here.”
Clarke is one of a few non-Jewish teachers at the school, but she feels very much a part of the warm, family environment. Clarke praises her Jewish colleagues; she says they go out of their way to make her feel welcome and explain customs and celebrations that are unfamiliar to her.
The cost and ease of living in Rochester prompted Rabbi Yitzi Shulman and his family to consider moving here from Westchester, but it was Derech HaTorah that gave them the means to do it. Shulman’s wife, who is certified in both general and special education, got a teaching position at DHR. Shulman also accepted a job at the school teaching Judaic studies and math.
The staff at DHR provide a nurturing environment that caters to each individual child’s needs. Author Naomi Shulman, the parent of a kindergartener at DHR, lived in Florida and Ohio before moving to New York. She has observed that in schools in other communities, children are expected to fit into a certain role.
“(At DHR) every kid is their own person,” she says. “The staff work with parents to find what works for their child.”
For her son, that meant having a fidget toy to help his focus, and extra help in handwriting. For other students who need additional support, DHR offers occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech and language counseling through Catapult, a third-party agency that provides Title 1 services. Catapult also provides a school counselor for social and emotional support for the students.
Naomi Shulman says the quality of general education, support services and religious education has earned Derech HaTorah a reputation among Orthodox Jewish communities as the “top of the top of the top.”
When asked why she thought Derech HaTorah is so successful, Shulman immediately answers, “Lea Goldstein is gifted beyond gifted. She leads the place with heart and soul.”
Nipa Armbruster has been a fashion designer, martial arts instructor and an active volunteer in her kids’ schools. She currently writes the blog https://fashionipa.com.
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