Sunday, September 22, 2019 -
Print Edition

‘Rewarding and frustrating’: Awakening those super laid-back students

Leah and Yisroel WilhelmIT may be revealing that in 2005, when Rabbi Yisroel and Leah Wilhelm first came to Boulder — checking out the campus community to see whether they wanted to set up a Chabad house there — it was on one of Colorado’s rare super-cloudy days.

Boulder was so socked in, they say, that you couldn’t even see the Flatirons, the city’s spectacular backdrop. Its fabled Rocky Mountain beauty was nowhere to be seen.

“People had been telling us,” Leah recalls, “that it’s the most beautiful city they’ve ever seen. But when we came to see it, we didn’t know what that was all about. We were confused.”

Not so confused, however, or so discouraged, that they didn’t make up their minds to move here to set up a Chabad operation dedicated exclusively to CU students.

They were attracted to the campus Jewish community, despite its estimated population of some 2,000 Jewish students — far less than most Eastern college campuses — and despite the fact that its level of Jewish identification was less than enthusiastic.


Both facts were seen by the energetic Wilhelms not as obstacles but as challenges and opportunities.


When they finally did see Boulder in all its panoramic glory, it was frosting on the cake, Rabbi Wilhelm says, and not a factor in their decision to become Boulderites.

“When I came back a few months later to look for a place to live,” he said, “I called up Leah and told her: ‘My G-d, this place is amazing.’”

SOME eight years later, the Wilhelms still think Boulder is amazing.

Their attachment to the hundreds of students who have passed through their Chabad house — until recently, and to some extent still, their private home — is obvious.

Their successes are evident for anyone to see.

As many as 300 students show up for their Passover seders, and sizable crowds show up for other holiday events. It’s not unusual for 100 show up for weekly Shabbat dinners.

They now own, and are in the process of renovating, a 14,000 square foot Chabad house, located in the heart of Boulder’s College Hill neighborhood, recently purchased with philanthropic gifts.

Yet a measure of fatigue, and to some degree frustration, are also evident.

Getting CU students to identify Jewishly — that is, to keep coming to Chabad activities or to actually begin exploring Judaism and incorporating it into their own lives — is not an easy task.

“From a rabbinical perspective, for both of us, it’s the most rewarding job and the most frustrating job at once,” Rabbi Wilhelm says.

But the couple — both of whom were raised in Chabad families — know the drill and understand exactly what they signed up for as emissaries of the Orthodox outreach movement.

RABBI Wilhelm was born and raised in London, the son of Israeli parents who are the descendents of Ashkenazi Jews who have lived in Israel for some 400 years.

“I broke a chain of many, many generations that were born in Jerusalem,” he says.

An American since the age of 18, he attended yeshiva then Chabad’s rabbinical school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Leah grew up in Oak Park, Michigan, a Detroit suburb, the daughter of a Chabad rabbi.

Boulder was not the Wilhelms’ first posting as emissaries. After their studies and marriage, they moved to Milwaukee where the rabbi worked as youth director of the Chabad house there.

Their main desire, however, was to “set Chabad up on a college campus,”  Rabbi Wilhelm says.

Their timing was excellent. Not long before, philanthropists George and Pamela Rohr had funded the movement’s Campus International Foundation, dedicated to establishing Chabad houses on campuses across the world.

The Wilhelms’ gave serious thought to universities in Georgia and Wisconsin. Colorado, however, “sounded really good,” and won their hearts in the end.

THEY admit that at the beginning their knowledge of Boulder was quite limited.

“When we first came to Boulder I was very uneducated about it,” the rabbi says. “To me, Colorado meant nothing — I knew there was skiing here — and Boulder for sure . . . ”

His wife completes his sentence.

“. . . well, we knew it was a hippie town.”

“I remember someone showing us an article about the Bu-Jews in Boulder,” Rabbi Wilhelm says, using the slang term for those Jews who find ways to synthesize Judaism and Buddhism.

“It was very interesting. But what we’ve seen is a very big difference between students and the city.”

Rejoins Leah:  “It’s not like the university is a reflection of the city.”

One of their earliest lessons about Boulder and CU — an important one, they say — is that the city’s well-earned reputation for liberal politics, environmental activism, New Age religiosity and alternative lifestyles does not necessarily apply to the kids, Jewish or not, who study at CU.

“They’re different types of people,” Rabbi Wilhelm says. “People always talk about the students as people who care, who want to make revolution . . . but we’ve found that the students in Boulder don’t really care all that much.”

“They’re not that passionate about environmentalism and liberal causes,” Leah says.

CU students, they say, are unlike students at Boulder’s other college, the Naropa Institute, a few of whom occasionally show up at Chabad events.

“If yo

u compare the students to the hippie-ness of the town,” the rabbi says, “I always say there are two universities in town — Naropa and CU. People ask us why we don’t work more with Naropa. The answer is that it’s very hard. These are two conflicting types of students.”

“The Naropa students,” Leah says, “are all vegan and gluten-free while CU students want their pasta and meat.”

“Naropa students look at the CU students as materialistic, like what’s wrong with these people?” Rabbi Wilhelm adds. “And the CU kids look at the Naropa kids and say, ‘what’s wrong with these people?’”

While the CU kids might therefore be somewhat less vulnerable to the attractions of alternative or New Age religious influences, they are also less interested in Jewish influences.

They are — to use a well-worn Colorado phrase — laid back.

“Verrrry laid back,” Leah adds with a smile.

THE Wilhelms say that CU Jewish students don’t necessarily have any hostility or antipathy toward Jewish observance and cultural pursuits. It’s more a matter of indifference.

“They’re not searching,” Leah offers.

“There’s no passion,” says the rabbi, adding that this is quite likely the same attitude that the students’ parents have.

“If I get into a conversation with a student, no one is going to actually have an intellectual problem with Judaism.”

It’s all a matter of engaging them, and hoping that something sticks.

CU students, the rabbi says, enjoy the casual atmosphere of the Boulder campus. There’s less emphasis here than in many big schools on clothes, financial or social status; less tendency for students to form cliques; less emphasis on activism; less passion for religion.

Unlike many large universities, CU is a campus where there is minimal Jewish cohesiveness. Jewish students are less likely to congregate socially or share living quarters.

“There’s no Jewish dorm, no Jewish area,” he says. “It’s so laid back. Everybody is that way.

“Therefore we have to create that environment.”

The Wilhelms offer an extensive selection of classes, holiday programming, speakers, Israel programming, Shabbat meals and services, social events, a Jewish bowling league, a Jewish deli night.

During Chanukah, they go out into the dorms and organize Chanukah parties.

The more social and celebratory activities tend to be well-attended, as are Shabbat dinners, but the in-depth programming can sometimes be a hard sell.

“The key is having enough programs, to hope that of all the programs that you do, someone will find a program they will connect with and come back to again and again. We’re trying to create a Jewish social scene, what other schools have naturally.”

They are not discouraged, Leah emphasizes.

“It’s an attitude we have, that we’ve been ingrained with: If you have two people, next time you’ll have four. If you have four people, next time you’ll have eight. Our first week here we had five people around our Shabbat table. Now we have 125 people.”

Still, the rabbi adds, it remains an uphill challenge.

Asked to assess Chabad’s overall record after nearly eight years in Boulder, he says, “Scratching the surface. There’s so much potential.

“It’s all about taking kids to the next level. It’s not just about numbers. It’s very nice to have 300, 200 kids. But then you say, now what?  What are we going to do next? Are they going to come back? Are they going to get involved?”

Students often drop by spontaneously: L-r, Yocheved Wilhelm, Stevie Kreimandahl, Tzvi Darling, Yitzy Wilhelm

not offering any pat answers to that question, the Wilhelms are hoping that their new facility on 14th Street, in the middle of the Hill, will help draw the students in and — in some cases — keep them there.

The 1970s-era three-story structure is now interchangeably named the Schaeffer Chabad House and the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center, in honor of the families whose philanthropy purchased it.

“I didn’t ask for the money,” Rabbi Wilhelm says. “On their own, [the Schaeffer family] gave $720,000. Then the Rohr family matched that gift. That’s how we made the down payment for the building.

“Now we’re in the middle of raising $1.2 million for the renovations. So far, we’re almost to $800,000, with 90 to 95% coming from parents.”

Much of the renovation will be to upgrade the building’s two upper floors, which are apportioned into individual living units. Basing their idea on other Chabad houses, the Wilhelms plan to convert the units into gender-separate dorms and make them available, at below market rents, to Jewish students.

When complete, the structure will also boast a synagogue, library, kitchen, social hall, student lounge, education space and offices.

Already, many of their activities are taking place in the new student center.

The Wilhelms, who live nearby, have no plans to make the new building their own home. Although their hallmark since coming to Boulder has been to remain “very open and very warm,” opening their own doors to students for all kinds of activities, they feel the time is right for a little separation.

It was not unusual for students to simply enter the Wilhelms’ private house without knocking on the door, or to phone “at 2 o’clock in the morning, or whenever they feel like it.”

The Wilhelms — who have four of their own children, ranging in age from 3 to 9 — need a little private time and space.

But that worries them a bit.

“Our biggest challenge with the new place ,” the rabbi says, “will be how to keep that environment. This should be a place where the students can just walk in. They love coming to our house, to be able to hang our with our kids, and we hope to have that here as well.”

WHAT’S clear in talking to the Wilhelms is that the youths with whom they live and work are more than just students or clients.

The hardest part of their job, both husband and wife agree, is seeing them leave after graduation and knowing that they’ll never have further contact with many of them.

They worry about how they’ll do, both Jewishly and otherwise, once they’re on their own.

It’s clear that the students have become their good friends.

THEY’VE made other friends in Boulder, too.

In 2011, Chabad House and the nearby St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center hosted a “Jews vs. Catholics” basketball game which received national media attention.

It wasn’t a progressive interfaith event, just a down-to-earth basketball game between two groups of kids who happen to be in the same part of town.

“It’s sports — what could go wrong?” Rabbi Wilhelm says, adding that the two religious groups hope to schedule another match during the current season.

“It was fun. It was good times. Sports brings people together.”

Leah has also made friends through an organization she started, Linking Hearts, for Jewish parents of special needs children. The Wilhelms have an autistic son.

The program, connected to the national Friendship Circle movement, brings together parents, children and student volunteers to ease some of the burdens unique to special needs families.

Such activities are philosophically consistent with — even if they’re technically separate from — the Chabad ideals that mean so much to the Wilhelms.

Those ideals, they emphasize, are geared almost exclusively to the Jewish students on the CU campus.

“On a college campus, the number one thing we want to achieve is good Jewish continuity, to have a Jewish identity, to marry Jewish,” Rabbi Wilhelm says. “There’s nothing more important to us than that. Without that we have no future.”

Adds Leah: “And the rebbe [the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson] was into the idea that each mitzvah stands alone; that each mitzvah is an incredible thing. We’re inspired each time a student takes on a mitzvah or does a mitzvah. It’s beautiful, inspirational.”

The students they encounter in Boulder, Rabbi and Mrs. Wilhelm says, are their inspiration.

While he might have things to say about the inherent Jewish interest of many Jewish students at CU, and while he might feel that he’d like to see more of them come around, he is amazed at how frequently they impress him.

“People ask, what is the secret to our success. There’s no secret. The answer is that if you love every person equally, without any boundaries, then people feel that. They come to you.

“If people would know what these students do, what changes they make in their lives, it would blow everybody’s mind. To fight for Israel. To fight for their Judaism. It’s unbelievable. There’s a lot of hope.”

In a Jewish world that seems always obsessed by one crisis or another — and worrying about the younger generation seems a perpetual crisis in the Jewish world —  Rabbi Wilhelm insists that the next generation of Jews is going to do just fine.

“We have a very bright future,” he says. “I really do think so.”

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

Leave a Reply