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‘Jews versus Catholics’: Not a holy war, but a basketball game!

Rabbi Yisroel Wilhelm and Father Dave Nix (Susan Glairon)IT’S a common sight that turns heads on the CU-Boulder campus: Rabbi Yisroel Wilhelm, his tzitzit hanging from beneath his shirt, yarmulke covering his head and full black beard, eating lunch with Father Dave Nix, his white collar poking from beneath his black clerical clothing.

But this Orthodox rabbi from Chabad at CU and priest from CU-Boulder’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center are the best of friends. And they both have the same goal — to bring more CU students back to their respective faiths.

“At the end of the day we’re two religious leaders, and we both want our people to be involved,” Rabbi Wilhelm, 32, said.

With that, as well as a lot of fun in mind, the two are planning a “Jews versus Catholics” basketball game, Sunday, April 17, at 3 p.m., in Boulder High School’s gymnasium. The game is free and open to the public, and T-shirts and kosher hot dogs will be sold.

“(The game) is creating a tremendous buzz among the Jewish community,” Rabbi Wilhelm said.

“I don’t know what it is about, but in my opinion a lot of peace can be generated through sports. There’s no religious talk, you’re not praying, there’s just a game.”

The event, which is being held on Palm Sunday and two days before Passover, is a clever marketing tool where Rabbi Wilhelm plans to promote Chabad at CU’s Passover seders, the first of which will be held the following night in a tent for 200 pitched in his backyard.

He hopes the non-threatening sports atmosphere will encourage Jewish students to attend their first campus seder. Similarly, Father Dave hopes the game will attract Catholic students who normally don’t participate in religious activities.

“It’s creating a buzz even with our not-so-Catholic Catholics,” said Father Dave Nix, 32, the parochial vicar at St. Thomas.

THE story began when Rabbi Yisroel Wilhelm was considering purchasing a new building for his Chabad at CU center in the University Hill area, and he went to meet his potential neighbors. Across the street he found St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center, the campus ministry serving CU-Boulder.

An acquaintance from CU’s religious council led him to a meeting with St. Thomas’ head Pastor, Father Kevin Augustyn.

“I was a little curious how it would work,” Rabbi Wilhelm said. “I’m a rabbi, and I never met a Catholic priest, especially in his office face to face.”

Rabbi Wilhelm said he found a young, enthusiastic, religious leader, eager to minister to CU students, who also told him he was excited about the possibility of becoming neighbors.

“That was the most amazing meeting,” Rabbi Wilhelm said. “All boundaries broke within five seconds of meeting him.”

During the conversation, Father Kevin mentioned the basketball court on the proposed Chabad property, and suggested the two religious groups compete in a basketball game.

Although Father Kevin recently told Rabbi Wilhelm he no longer remembers that part of the conversation, Rabbi Wilhelm never forgot.

IN January, Rabbi Wilhelm purchased the building and their friendship continued.

Chabad received a zoning permit only because of a shared parking agreement, where Chabad can use the Catholic center’s parking spaces on Friday nights, and the Catholic Center uses Chabad’s parking spaces on Sunday, Rabbi Wilhelm said.

Months later Father Dave recognized Rabbi Wilhelm at CU’s Center for Community, introduced himself, and asked if he wanted to eat lunch together.

“I guess I am pretty easy to recognize,” Rabbi Wilhelm joked.

The conversation immediately turned to the basketball game, and they are already planning to make it an annual event.

Tryouts are being held for the Jewish team, and the top 10 CU students and alumni will be chosen.

Father Dave indicated that the process for choosing Catholic team members is a little looser.

“If you’re baptized and you can make a free throw, you can play,”  he said.

“The main thing is we haven’t found a referee who isn’t Catholic or Jewish, but we’re working on that,” Rabbi Wilhelm added.

And both are happy to have a religious presence on The Hill.

“To have a temple or synagogue and a Catholic church there tells the fraternities and sororities, ‘You don’t have to be ashamed to be Jewish or Catholic,” Father Dave said. “G-d’s not going away anytime soon.”

Both Father Dave and Rabbi Wilhelm are the same age and they grew up playing soccer, but after that their backgrounds diverge.

The son of two Israeli parents, Rabbi Wilhelm grew up in London and later studied in New York. He was ordained as a rabbi in 2002, and he is married with four children.

Father Dave, who grew up in Denver, was ordained as a priest 10 months ago.

“We are really in a specific time in the history of the world, where this can finally be done in a spirit of gentleness and ecumenicism and love,” Father Dave said.

“And we both want our people to win,” he added.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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