When Eric Alterman arrived at the University of Colorado as a freshman, he had zero intention of ever celebrating the Sabbath with the local Chasidic family.

“When I first came to college I had no interest in the Chabad House because I didn’t know anything about it,” reveals the now 20 year-old business major. “But then I went and checked it out and I loved it.”

Ever since then, Alterman has been a steady fixture at the Rohr Chabad Student Center directed by Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Yisroel and Leah Wilhelm. He attends social gatherings, study sessions and Sabbath dinners on Friday nights.

“It’s become a big part of my Jewish upbringing,” says Alterman, who spent nine months studying in Israel on the Young Judea Year Program prior to entering college. “The food, the environment, the people – it’s just unreal. It’s so good. For me, it’s become a real home away from home.”

Like Alterman, who now serves on the Chabad Student Board, droves of other Boulder students – the school’s Jewish population is approximately 2,000 – have flocked enthusiastically to the Chabad House, which landed on campus in 2005.

“When we first arrived, people on campus were literally telling us they didn’t know what on earth we were doing here,” recalls Yisroel Wilhelm. “But slowly and surely, things changed.”

It was standing room only at the first Sabbath dinner that the Wilhelms hosted in their newly purchased modest 2,600-square-foot quarters.

“It was packed,” remembers Wilhelm. “Our first dinner and we already didn’t have room. And we’ve kept growing over time.”

Rabbi Yisroel and Leah Wilhelm
Rabbi Yisroel and Leah Wilhelm

Currently, Friday night dinners draw an average of 50 to 90 students per week, with even bigger crowds – including visiting parents and professors – turning up for holidays such as Rosh Hashanah (about 280 people) and Passover. This year, the first Seder boasted more than 200 students.

“We’ve known that we needed a bigger place,” says Wilhelm, “but with the economy in the shape that it’s in and the real estate market in Boulder being so high, we didn’t know when we were going to have an opportunity.”

Enter Nicole Schaeffer, a Colorado grad whose parents, George and Miriam Schaeffer, along with her aunt, founded the internationally successful nail polish juggernaut OPI.

“Going to Chabad of CU gave me the Jewish identity I wanted and needed,” states Schaeffer, who celebrated every Sabbath dinner at the Chabad house from the time she was a sophomore up until commencement. “I needed a Jewish home. It was the Jewish family I’d been missing.”

So moved was Schaeffer by her experience at Chabad, that her parents sponsored many events throughout the course of her college tenure, including Girl’s Night Out, a gathering of Jewish women in the community.

“Chabad at CU is an amazing place where you can meet people you normally would never hang out with because everybody’s backgrounds are so different,” says Schaeffer. “It’s this way because of Rabbi and Leah. They are so open about everything. No judgment. Doesn’t matter who the person is, what kind of background, there is so much acceptance.”

Upon graduating in 2008, Schaeffer wanted to give back in whatever way she could. So she approached her parents, asking them to donate funds to help build a new on-campus Chabad center that would dwarf in size the old cramped quarters. They happily complied.

The Moshav Band performs at a Jewish festival night organized by the Rohr Chabad Student Center.
The Moshav Band performs at a Jewish festival night organized by the Rohr Chabad Student Center.

“[George Schaeffer] was my miracle,” says Wilhelm. “George and Miriam gave us the $720,000 we needed to get started. Philanthropist George Rohr matched their gift. Both of them made it all possible.”

The Wilhelms moved into the new 14,000-square-foot center in January 2011. With its roomy backyard perfect for basketball games and barbeques, the house has become a bustling haven for Jewish programming and activities, including daily meals and Torah study classes. There’s even a Chabad bowling league.

“We’re currently raising the rest of the money to renovate the house and make it look the way we want it to look,” says Wilhelm. “It’s our dream house.”

For Alterman, the Wilhelms deserve all the good fortune coming Chabad of CU’s way.

“The Rabbi and his wife are always there for support,” says Alterman. “If you need anything they will do whatever they can to provide whatever support possible. Rabbi has helped me through some of my own issues. He is always giving, giving, giving. That’s the kind of person he is.”

Schaeffer foresees the Chabad House changing the face of Jewish student life at the University of Colorado for the better, attracting students that might not otherwise become involved.

“I don’t want there to be just a Chabad House,” she affirmatively declares. “I want it to be the best Chabad House. I’m excited because The Rohr Chabad Center will change the Jewish community at CU. This is going to be one of the biggest campus Chabad Houses in the country. A Jewish home for all at CU.”