By Menachem Posner, Chabad.org
Photos: Colorado State University Alumni Association
Faculty, students, alumni and family members sat at dinner tables in a hushed hall on the Colorado State University Campus last week to honor six outstanding professors who had been bestowed the “Best Teacher Award” by the CSU Alumni Association.
One table, however, was just a bit different. The food was kosher, and the guest of honor was a bearded rabbi with an Australian accent and an easy laugh.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik is an anomaly in Fort Collins, Colo., where he juggles many hats. Together with his wife, Devorah Leah, the 38-year-old Melbourne native directs the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center of Northern Colorado, teaches the philosophy of traditional Judaism at CSU, and in that capacity, serves as faculty advisor to the Chabad Jewish Student Organization on campus.
“We are a very small Jewish community here amidst a much larger heavily Christian population,” Gorelik explains, “so many students from larger Jewish population centers find themselves challenged to understand their Jewish identify for the first time,” something he helps them explore in the semester-long course he teaches.
One such student was Ashley Mills, who was one of the students and alumni who nominated Gorelik for the award.
“I grew up with very little Jewish background,” says the Aspen-native who graduated CSU with major in human development and family studies in 2009, “and I had been thirsty to learn more about Judaism and connect to roots. Today, I am living a Jewish lifestyle largely due to my interactions with the Goreliks.”
In any given semester, Gorelik says he sees a wide range of students, ranging from Jews of all backgrounds to Christians and Muslims seeking to find themselves within their own respective faiths.
“It was really interesting to see how the rabbi would teach non-Jews,” notes Rebecca Schwartz, class of 2013, who is unique among his students in that she received a Jewish primary- and high-school education in Denver. “He is really down to earth and manages to bring his message to people who have never experienced Judaism before, in a way that is uniquely relatable for each individual.”
Schwartz recalls her first day as a freshman in 2009. Seeking to break away from her Modern Orthodox upbringing, she says she applied to CSU specifically because so few Jews attended.
“I arrived on Friday afternoon, and I suddenly realized that I needed Shabbat in my life,” she recalls. “Some friends put me in touch with Rabbi Gorelik. He invited me into his home for that Shabbat and even arranged for fellow students to walk with me. That began a long friendship. I would not be as religiously secure if not for his guidance and help,” reflects Schwartz, who went on to become student vice president at Chabad.
At the April 28 awards ceremony, the rabbi made it a point to talk about the influence in his life of the example and teachings of Rebbe, of righteous memory.
He thanked G‑d, his students and the university, and also spoke about the women in his life, thanking his wife for her constant support while raising their five children and being a partner in all his work, as well as his mother—a Chabad shlucha in Australia, and an English and history teacher—for giving him the passion and the tools to become a teacher in his own right.
Beyond their Chabad center and the world of academia, the Goreliks have raised the profile of Judaism in a town where the Jewish population tends to fly beneath the radar.
“They arrange a public menorah-lighting every year, which I proudly attend,” says professor H.J. Siegel, who teaches alongside the rabbi at CSU. “This is not only good for the community but also for the students, who are very aware of the fact that they are a small minority. None of this happened before.”
Siegel noted that the university has been very receptive to the rabbi, whom he says uses his fine-tuned sense of humor to make religion intellectually accessible for people with limited Jewish education.
“I have a great deal of respect and affection for him. He jokes and has a good sense of humor. It’s fun, and the students keep on coming back for more.”