Donning a long beard and a kippa on the crown of his head, Colorado State University’s Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik is not the type of philosophy teacher one would expect to walk into a classroom, joking with students in a thick Australian accent.
For the past nine years, Gorelik has succeeded in making CSU students laugh, yet also contemplate their beliefs. He was named one of the six best CSU teachers for the 2013-2014 school year by the Colorado State University Alumni Association.
“Being Jewish, especially a rabbi, doesn’t mean you have to be outdated or archaic, but you can be with it,” Gorelik said. “I felt honored that they nominated me as best teacher.”
An Australian native, Gorelik, his wife and their five children now live in Fort Collins, where he serves the Jewish community throughout the city and the University.
Kyle Hartshorn, a junior studying international relations, connected with the rabbi after he took Gorelik’s philosophy of traditional Judaism.
“He has students lead themselves to realization,” Hartshorn said. “He asked us stuff like, ‘Is there a god? How do we know there is a god?’”
Over the course of the class, students learn about a range of topics, including Jewish history, law and mysticism.
“We just have to dispel myths and misconceptions and just give people a real education,” Gorelik said. “It’s often mind-blowing for students. They say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.'”
Hartshorn appreciated the openness of the classroom, where he was able to think about Judaism in light of his own spiritual beliefs.
“Before the class I didn’t really have any views,” Hartshorn said. “Being Christian, my faith comes from Judaism. Jesus was a Jew. More than anything, it made me think about areas of spirituality that I’ve never been a part of.”
Beyond investing in students’ lives as a teacher, Gorelik and his wife run the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center of Northern Colorado, which includes the Chabad Jewish Student Organization at CSU. One of three on-campus Jewish groups, which include Hillel and the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, Chabad’s purpose is to help Jewish students find like-minded individuals and become further educated about their religion.
“For the most part, the Jewish student is going to feel somewhat isolated,” Gorelik said. “They feel uncomfortable and they often have a choice to make.”
Danielle Geller, the student president of Chabad and a senior majoring in human development and family studies, believes that the rabbi and his wife facilitate a loving community for Jewish students.
“From the moment he meets you, he remembers your name,” Geller said. “He remembers things about you. He wants to get to know you — what your Jewish life is like, and what your family life was like. We can talk to them about anything.”
According to Harrison Myers, who works for residence life at CSU, there are an average of 1.5 Jewish students per floor on each hall.
“We’re trying to reach out to more Jewish students on campus and let them know there is a small community here,” Myers said. “A small one, but it’s still a community.”
Though they may be the minority in Fort Collins, Gorelik does not feel worried about the lack of Judaism and believes the religion can be a relevant part of community life.
“We want to be part of this community,” Gorelik said. “But, at the same time, we can be deeply faithful to our ancient traditions and rituals. It’s not a contradiction to be a part of a modern, contemporary world.”
Gorelik believes that the historic nature of Judaism, dating back thousands of years, is what motivates him to continue investing in peoples’ lives.
“I believe that Judaism, too, has a message in the face of the world, and done in the right way — in a positive way — it can bring smiles to peoples’ faces,” Gorelik said. “I always say, if Judaism isn’t fun, relevant, or meaningful, it isn’t Judaism.”
Collegian Reporter Hannah Ditzenberger can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @hannahditzy.