When Rockland County’s Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School set up an alumni network a year and a half ago, no one was expecting major gifts from the under-21 set.
But this summer Caren Irgang, who graduated from the Conservative day school in 2007, before going on to Tappan Zee High, donated $16,000 — the amount of a merit scholarship she had received unexpectedly from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
The 17-year-old, a freshman mechanical engineering major at the upstate university, decided her alma mater needed the cash more than her family, which had already budgeted for the full tuition.
“I’d heard from my mom that Reuben Gittelman was not doing so well, and so I talked to her and asked her, ‘Why not give them the money that would’ve gone to RPI?” Irgang told The Jewish Week. “She was very happy. She’s always told me to do what I think is right.”
Once enrolling more than 350 students, Gittelman has been seen its numbers drop below 200 in recent years, the result of the recession and the county’s shrinking non-Orthodox Jewish population.
Irgang says she is grateful to the New City school for giving her a solid grounding in Judaism along with a strong academic foundation.
“At Gittelman, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m sick of going to [prayer services] every day, but when I got to public high school, I found myself missing it,” she said. “In high school I was one of the only practicing Jews and when someone had a question about Judaism, I was always there to answer it.”
Because of the day school’s rigorous science curriculum — in which seventh graders take earth science Regents’ exams and eighth graders take the biology ones — “when you get to high school you get to study chemistry a year or two earlier than everyone else,” Irgang said. “That made me more confident and inspired me to take more science classes.”
Rabbi Scott Bolton, Gittelman’s head of school, said the donation will be invested in the school’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) offerings.
“Her gift really stands out, because what incoming freshman thinks this way?” he said.
Rabbi Bolton joined the Gittelman faculty when Irgang was an eighth grader there, and he recalled how, even then, “She was so thoughtful and reflective.”
No mere science geek, Irgang, who volunteered on an Israeli army base this summer, has diverse talents and interests. Named the “teenage female grand champion” at this year’s International Whistlers Convention, thanks to her whistled renditions of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” she is also an avid ballroom dancer who is planning to join RPI’s ballroom dancing team.
And of course she’ll be checking out the campus Hillel.