Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik has been a leader in Northern Colorado and Colorado State University’s Jewish communities for almost 20 years. The Orthodox rabbi is the director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Northern Colorado, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Philosophy, and an advisor for the Chabad Jewish Student Association, as well as for CSU’s Jewish fraternity and sorority, and the organization Students for Holocaust Awareness Week. As if all that wasn’t enough, in 2020 the father of six became the first Jewish chaplain for the Colorado Army National Guard.
We spoke with Rabbi Gorelik to learn more about this latest role, what it was like to tackle basic training in his 40s, and the issues facing CSU’s Jewish community.
Listen in on the Conversation
(Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity)
What made you decide to become a Captain in the Army National Guard and serve as a chaplain, providing spiritual guidance to service members of all faiths?
While it was sort of always on my mind, I couldn’t really justify it with how full my life was in my various roles. What it took was the terrible challenges we’ve seen in this country, both socially – the divides and the intolerance and the racism – and then COVID. But it was ultimately the unprecedented surge in anti-Semitism that we saw in this country that really made me step up to be there for my community, including the two synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, California.
I found myself counseling a lot of community members that were very downcast and experiencing anxiety and in fear about the Jewish identity, and it created a void. I was encouraging them in the classical Jewish response to any form of challenge or any form of darkness to try and find an opportunity where you can create light. When I was encouraging them, I was asking myself, “What are you doing to fill that void?”
My hope is that it has allowed others to say, “Wow, there is a way forward out of this darkness and out of this chaos.” And I got so much positive feedback just for injecting something positive and something bright into that narrative. That was a big part of the reason why we had requested the governor to swear me in.
What was that like, Colorado’s first Jewish Army National Guard Chaplain being sworn in by Colorado’s first Jewish Governor?
That was a terrific honor on so many levels. The governor is the state’s commander-in-chief, so it was also a very logical choice to have him swear me in because he’s my commander. As a Jewish governor, I think we were highlighting a statement that he’s made that – especially in this country – even if you’re part of a minority, there is no reason why you can’t succeed and even go all the way to the top. On the contrary, this is a country that celebrates those differences in the unity that comes as a result of being the many colors of a rainbow. I’m very thankful for it. And thankful to God that at the age of 45, I could complete boot camp, which certainly wasn’t a given. I wasn’t the fittest rabbi in the world.
Were you required to do basic training?
While as a chaplain you are considered a noncombatant, you’re expected to be with the troops, and that means keeping up with the troops wherever they are. So you are expected to keep the same levels of fitness as the soldiers that you’re with, and that required three months of intensive training.
And of course, a lot of it was the physical component. We trained fairly regularly – up every day at 4 a.m. for the usual running, pushups, sit-ups, a variety of activities and training for ruck marches where you have to carry a certain amount of weight and traverse a certain amount of miles in a certain amount of time. Personally, it was like a little boy’s dream come true. It was really just a phenomenal experience, and I loved learning every aspect about it.
Every year – except during the pandemic – you’ve brought survivors of the Holocaust to campus to speak to the students and the community as part of Holocaust Awareness Week. Why is that important to continue?
I would not say the sum total of my Jewish identity or of any Jewish person should be the Holocaust or persecution. On the contrary, it should be about living joyously and creating purpose and the great accomplishments the Jewish people have thus performed for the world and will continue to. But to remember the sacrifices of those martyrs, those that were murdered in genocide that the world has never seen – and hopefully will never see again – is very, very important, as much for the Jewish people as for the community around us. As a member of a family that survived, in part, the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust, I feel it’s our duty to ensure that in this last generation — the Holocaust survivors are now in their late 90s, the few that are still around and are even healthy enough – we need to continue to provide those opportunities to this generation to hear living testimony from them. Not to highlight the negativity, but to highlight the positivity.
Every survivor who has come to campus has had an extraordinary positive message of prevailing hope and optimism and love. We’ve never had one that called for anything else. If anything, it’s a reminder and an inspiration to those that are struggling in their own world that we can emulate these heroes. We can find a way forward just like they did in places that were subhuman, were hell on Earth.
They want to inspire others to do good. They want to inspire joy and light and resiliency and hope, and we want to be able to keep that going as long as we possibly can.
Any final thoughts that you’d like to share with the CSU community?
I really just want to encourage people. You may be living in extraordinary times now – and I think we are – and those extraordinary times have come with some extraordinary challenges. But one thing Judaism is very emphatic about – and I think it’s been the reason for Jewish survival and Jewish success despite what’s been thrown at the Jewish community – is that in every moment of darkness, there’s a greater light waiting to be unearthed. It’s the way we operate as human beings.