Siobhan Waitzman, 22, a senior and president of the Chabad Jewish Student Association at Colorado State University, loves how tight-knit the Jewish community is on her campus.

She met Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik at the start of her freshman year, on her first night on campus. Gorelik, co-director of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University, invited Waitzman and her mother over and told them, “we’re family now” she recalls. “It meant so much to me.”

Ever since, Waitzman’s been going by to hang out with the Goreliks, counting on the rabbi and his wife, Chabad House co-director Devorah Leah Gorelik, for support when she needs it; she even met with his extended family when she traveled abroad.

“It’s a really deep connection,” she says.

Looking to give back to the organization that has done so much for her and her friends, Waitzman joined other students in nominating Gorelik, who serves as faculty advisor to the Chabad-affiliated student organization, for the campus’ Advisor Gratitude Award, one of several annual honors celebrated across the university.

Along with her peers, Waitzman filled out paperwork extolling the rabbi as a leader and elaborating on the difficulties he has guided them through, including the death of one of their board members last semester.

“He really was there for us,” recalls Waitzman. “He was the first person at the hospital and there for everyone every step of the way.

“He’s also great at helping make Jewish education accessible,” she continues.

The effort paid off, and Gorelik was feted at two separate events last week.

“On a personal level, it’s certainly nice to get that kind of appreciation from the students,” says the rabbi. “I’m also very thankful to the university for the opportunity and honor.”

An adjunct instructor at Colorado State’s philosophy department, Gorelik arrived on campus in 2005. His three-credit course on Judaism, called the Philosophy of Traditional Judaism, is a popular fall offering that draws Jewish students looking to learn more about Judaism, along with non-Jewish students from the broader campus community.

The student group he advises has also won awards: for best new program and outstanding religious organization.

As part of this year’s awards season, Gorelik was recognized by the student organization department and then in a campus-wide ceremony, where he received an award from the vice-president in the presence of the president and board of governors in a campus ballroom.

“It was remarkable to behold,” says Gorelik, adding that on a campus where being Jewish is somewhat of a novelty, it may have come somewhat of a surprise to see him onstage. “For some of them, it was probably their first time seeing a Chasidic rabbi.”

With limited outlets for Jewish life in the area, holidays can draw crowds in the hundreds as people seek resources to aid in their Jewish expression, notes the rabbi. He hopes the fact that a rabbi and a Jewish student group won recognition sends a message of pride to students, adding that his focus on campus is on educating the wider population as well.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik receives the Advisor Gratitude Award.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik receives the Advisor Gratitude Award.

“We’re regular people who contribute to society,” he says. “I try to teach these kids the beauty of Judaism and the wonder of it.”

Michael Lichtbach, a Colorado State University senior and social chair of the Chabad student group, says Gorelik was a worthy nomination because of the example he sets for area Jews, students and community members alike, by his exuding Jewish pride. Lichtbach feels it’s an especially important message for students, who often feel the pull to sacrifice their own values to gain social acceptance.

“He helps us remember you can gain social acceptance, but value your pride, value your Judaism and your Jewish identity,” explains Lichtbach. “I think what he does really well is just foster Jewish pride here, in a place where it’s kind of hostile and desolate, especially in terms of acceptance and tolerance to other people and cultures.”

Lichtbach, who started attending the Chabad House as a freshman, studies with the rabbi and considers Chabad his anchor at school.

“It’s very consistent and reliable, and I know I can always count on going to Sabbath dinner and being welcomed, and not having to worry about how people perceive me,” he says. “I can really fully relax and let go.”

Coming to Fort Collins from the more metropolitan Denver area, Lichtbach found it a bit of a challenge to have his Judaism socially accepted by his peers.

“I think there’s a stigma of being a Jew in Fort Collins,” he relates. “I think people are afraid to identify or do these things, so a lot of them hide and they just blend in with a lot of other people and don’t want to get involved.”

H.J. Siegel, a professor at Colorado State University, appreciates the work Gorelik does in the area in terms of supporting students, staff and community members. Siegel first got to know the rabbi when his mother was in an area nursing home.

“He’s made such a big difference to so many people here in all age groups,” relates the professor.

Siegel mentions his 16-year-old daughter, Sky, as another beneficiary of the rabbi’s positive energy and enthusiasm for tradition. In addition to the pride it instills in her, it gives her a chance to attend Passover Seders and other Jewish events and experience the community via its togetherness.

“It’s good for my daughter to see, to feel the Judaism and be proud to be part of it and part of this group of people,” says Siegel. “He makes Judaism fun.”