After the main course is served at a Friday night dinner, Rabbi Yisroel Wilhelm stands up in his dining room packed with students. As he raises his glass of wine, the many conversations come to a halt and the room is momentarily silent.
Wilhelm begins in an excited voice, to tell a story about what was read in the Torah that week, and how it relates to students every day life. The students sit quietly, eating, as Wilhelm continues to talk.
Several minutes later, Wilhelm realizes that his speech has rambled on and he has gotten lost in tangent. Raising his glass again, Wilhelm lets the students return to their food and conversations, as he makes his way to a student to answer a question they had.
Wilhelm is often referred to as just the University of Colorado at Boulder Chabad rabbi. Although Wilhelm started the Chabad in Boulder eight years ago and has become a fixture in CU’s Jewish student community, he is also a full time father, fundraiser, and friend.
“He [Wilhelm] embodies all the qualities of a friend and mentor and is always there to talk with no judgment,” Micah Mador, 20, junior in business management, who frequents Chabad,
Chabad is a student organization that provides students with Jewish services, meals, education and much more.
Wilhelm was born and raised in a Orthodox family in London, England. He moved to the United States at age 18 to study at a Chabad yeshiva in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. After marrying, Wilhelm moved to Milwaukee, Wis., to work at the Chabad house there.
Wilhelm moved to Boulder in August 2005, along with his pregnant wife, Leah Wilhelm, and two sons to open up the first Chabad house at CU. Since his arrival in Boulder, Wilhelm’s family has grown to six, with Yitzi,10; Levi, 9; Asher, 7; and Yocheved, 4.
If being the father of four young children, there are many more struggles, since at a young age Yitzi was diagnosed with autism. Because of this, Yitzi attends a different school than his siblings, also attending speech therapy.
After a full morning of getting the children ready for school, and afternoons filled with play, feeding the kids and getting them to bed, Wilhelm is still able to run the Chabad organization on campus.
Wilhelm has wanted to be a campus rabbi for many years, citing his visits to college campuses when he first came to America. Wilhelm said he knew it was hard to create a stable Chabad on a college campus, but that doing so is very rewarding on a personal level.
Having lived in America for so many years, Wilhelm has lost all noticeable signs of his British accent. Wilhelm keeps to the traditional Jewish Orthodox garb always wears a black suit on Shabbat. Yet, for the rest of the week he switches out the suit jacket for a nice sweater.
Wilhelm has a full beard, as he does not shave for religious purposes. To top it off Wilhelm always wears a black kippah, a religious head covering, along with a black hat on Shabbat.
Wilhelm finds it “very rewarding on a personal level” to help out the many Jewish students on campus define their Jewish identity. Yet, in order to do so, he must be more than just a rabbi who leads services and hosts Shabbat dinners.
“When you think of rabbi you think of a big bearded man with a funny hat,” said Mador, referring to his kippah, “although Rabbi Wilhem meets this criteria, he is so much more.”
To have college -ge students become excited about Chabad and willing to attend events, Wilhelm, 34, must become like a friend to them in the process.
There are many ways that Wilhelm is able to accomplish this goal. The simplest way he accomplishes this is through his unbelievable hospitality.
On a given Friday night, after Shabbat dinner, Wilhelm never asks the student guest to leave. There can be students hanging out and talking well past midnight. Although Wilhelm is often there, talking with the students, if it gets too late, he will go to bed, allowing the students to remain.
As a soccer, baseball and cricket fan, Wilhelm also keeps up to date on other major sports in America, to know what students are talking about. He is always willing to go out of his way to be able to relate to student population.
“He is fun … just good time to hang out with,” said Alec Nyberg, a senior at CU, about why he enjoys going to Chabad and seeing Wilhelm.
It is little gestures like these that bond the students and Wilhelm further, providing for a successful and positive atmosphere at Chabad. Without this sincere care for others, he would have trouble connecting with students.
It is not just Yisroel Wilhelm that the students are connected to, it is his entire family. Students are willing to take time out of their busy days to babysit the children when need be.
Surprisingly, the one thing that connects them all is puzzles. Due to Yitzi’s love for puzzles, the entire Wilhelm family has grown to enjoy this complex fun. Whenever students come over, one of the children always makes sure to get some help on whatever that weeks puzzle is.
Some of the puzzles have been completed and destroyed and redone so many times, that Yitzi is able to help a first time student complete the puzzle, with no picture guide. Nice detail
Being a rabbi at a college campus means that there are no congregants paying yearly dues to cover the daily operations of the organization. Many college age students have little excess spending money that they would be able to donate to Chabad. Because of this Wilhelm also has to act as a full-time fundraiser.
Most funding for Chabad at CU is currently coming from the parents of students. But, the longer Wilhelm remains at CU, the larger the alumni community grows. These are the people Wilhelm is now focusing his fundraising efforts.
“People [alumni] have a passion for what’s happening over here,” said Wilhelm, on how his fundraising efforts are currently going.
Many of the alumni who went to Chabad while in college are now realizing the impact it had on them, Wilhelm noted. In turn, these alumni are more willing to support the future community. Without these donations, the entire operations would fail.
Yet, without each vital part of Wilhelm, being a father, fundraiser, and friend, Chabad at CU would not be as successful as it is today. Wilhelm defines this success with the increased reach to students and a budding Jewish student community.
“Rabbi Wilhelm is one of the most wise, caring, intellectually intelligent people I ever met,” said Zach Levin, a senior at CU, who enjoys discussing with Wilhelm about everything ranging from that weeks Torah portion to sports.