Burlington, the largest city in Vermont, was named as the “best college town in America” by Travel and Leisure last year. The city’s numerous bike paths, coffee shops and music venues together with, arguably, the best skiing on the East Coast just a half hour drive away, are clear incentives for prospective students. It is a town that prides itself on its progressive and liberal attitudes—an environment that might seem unlikely for the flourishing and vibrant campus Chabad House that has become a favorite for Jewish students at University of Vermont.
Chabad of UVM opened in 2006, with Rabbi Zalman and Chani Wilhelm catering to the needs of the 1,500-strong Jewish student body. It started off in a small apartment where, as Rabbi Wilhelm admits, “students were climbing over each other to find a space to sit,” but has since moved into a three-story property, situated conveniently in the heart of student housing, offering more space and visibility.
Despite their Chasidic appearance and their down-to-earth, pragmatic personalities—atypical of the average Vermonter—they feel at home in Burlington. Rabbi Wilhelm is quick to point out that students are very accepting. “There is a hippie culture here. People make their own laws; they don’t eat this and that, and so they are accepting of Jewish laws because they are used to it. There is a spiritual openness here that doesn’t exist in other places.”
As many as 50 students participate at Friday night Shabbat meals, and over 350 students join Chabad of UVM’s yearly mega-Shabbaton. A remarkable achievement, considering that fewer than 10 years ago only a handful of students had any involvement with Judaism. The city’s Jewish population was disparate with no accessible community for students to be a part of.
Nowadays, many students turn up at the Chabad House after encountering the Wilhelms Friday mornings on campus, where, for the past six years, they have been religiously handing out 200 challahs each week. “It has become a ‘thing’,” Chani says. “Everyone knows that Chabad gives out challah on Fridays.”
The challahs come with an invite to a hot meal later on that evening but, more importantly, they let students know that Chabad is approachable. Getting to meet the Chabad representatives in a neutral location, students take away a clear message: Chabad is here for you.
The message is warmly reinforced when students walk into the Chabad House. The first time Michael Sharf, a post-baccalaureate pre-medical student at UVM attended a Shabbat meal, he asked Chani her goal. “She said, ‘to make you feel at home.’ It has been home ever since.”
The Chabad House doubles as the family home, and with six young children, daily Torah classes, student social events and a kitchen that is constantly operational, the environment is dynamic and alive.
“Students come to learn, but they also come for the family atmosphere,” says Chani. Sharf, a member of the Chabad student board, agrees. “The children are always around to play with and teach us fun lessons in Judaism. The Wilhelms are a second family to me.”
The primary goal at the Chabad House is teaching. Students “are not going to hear about concepts in Judaism if we don’t tell them,” says Rabbi Wilhelm. Every opportunity, whether through one-on-one learning or group classes, is taken to ensure that students gain exposure to the depth of Torah and its outlook.
Many students, such as Matthew Segil, a sophomore at UVM majoring in neuroscience, have had little or no Jewish education and aren’t aware of the Torah’s approach to life issues. He explains. “I was initially surprised to see such a large family, and was surprised by certain Orthodox customs I was not familiar with. But, after I came to understand the laws and their purpose, they made sense to me.”
Matthew is currently attending Sinai Scholar classes with Rabbi Wilhelm. “I feel as though Chabad has contributed as much to my learning this semester as any other class I am taking.” This sentiment is shared many students at UVM, some of whom have subsequently gone on to study at a yeshiva.
Chabad of UVM plans to grow their student reach and enlarge on the Jewish educational and spiritual experience they are providing. Their goal is to establish a nurturing and solid Jewish community at UVM. As Chani says, “our students should know that the only reason we are here is for them.”