New Shluchim Establish Chabad in ‘Ski Town USA’

As a bochur, Aizik Abelsky frequented this small Colorado ski town on Merkos Shlichus many times. He didn’t think that he would come back to establish a permanent Chabad House with his new family.

By Uziel Scheiner –

When Isaac Abelsky arrived in Steamboat Springs as a rabbinical intern for Chanukah of 2018, it didn’t strike him as anything more than a charming Coloradan town. To him and his fellow “Roving Rabbi,” the place seemed well-suited for a stop by adventurous rabbinical students or a visiting rabbi but not much more.

The pair were there to help Jews in Steamboat Springs celebrate Chanukah, and their experience reinforced their impression that the town couldn’t sustain a full-time rabbi. When the young rabbinical students set up a stand at the base of Steamboat Springs Ski Resort to distribute menorahs to Jews passing by, they were met with a tepid reception. Over the course of the day, they managed to give out only a handful of kits.

Abelsky enjoyed his time in Steamboat Springs nevertheless, and returned the following year for Chanukah, fully expecting that to be his last visit there.

He didn’t think that five years later, he would be making the trip up to Steamboat yet again—this time with his wife, Chaya, and 3-year-old son, Moshe, moving permanently to establish Chabad-Lubavitch of Steamboat Springs.

Like the mountainous Colorado roads that lead to the town, the Abelskys’ path to Steamboat Springs has been a winding one, Divine Providence marking each step of the way.

‘Ski Town USA’

Steamboat Springs, often referred to by locals simply as “Steamboat,” prides itself on being a relatively overlooked spot among the popular Colorado resort destinations. A small, tight-knit community huddled around Mount Werner and hidden within the Yampa Valley, Steamboat is distinguished by a Western swagger and buoyant communal culture.

Its main draw is its “Champagne Powder,” a rare kind of snow that results from the area’s particular combination of geographic and geological conditions. The snow is so airy and dry that it can be cleared with a broom. This makes for an ideal skiing experience, earning Steamboat the trademarked moniker “Ski Town, USA.”

Steamboat has a population of about 15,000 full-time residents, and hosts tourists and part-time homeowners throughout the year. It’s a locale that places significance on family, education, cowboys and Olympians.

The Jewish community in Steamboat has long been thought to be a lean one, and it has over the years been serviced mostly by larger neighboring Jewish communities and visiting rabbis at important times of the year—the young Abelsky having been among them.

A Decade-Long Campaign

Chabad of Steamboat Springs is one of the latest additions to Chabad’s sprawling network of centers throughout the world and came about as a result of requests from Jewish residents who felt the time had come for a robust Jewish presence.

One came via Abelsky’s uncle, Rabbi Ephraim Mintz, director of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), the Brooklyn-based Chabad institution that creates a wide range of Jewish educational courses and programs offered via Chabad centers worldwide.

Similar to Abelsky’s Chanukah visits, for around the last 10 years, Mintz and his son—Rabbi Mendel Mintz—have traveled from Brooklyn to Colorado to conduct two communal Passover Seders in Steamboat.

About a year ago, the elder Rabbi Mintz was approached by a friend from Toronto who wanted to bring to his attention a place he felt was in need of a Chabad presence. Certain that Mintz had never heard of Steamboat Springs, the man implored Mintz to look into sending a young Chabad couple there. Much to his surprise, Mintz replied that not only did he know of Steamboat but he’d been running Passover Seders there for years.

From there, the conversation began. Mintz approached his nephew, Abelsky, who was working at the time at JLI as an adult-education consultant, to see if he and his wife might be interested in exploring the posting.

Simultaneously, another pair of Steamboat residents, Sophie and Mark Berkley, were vying for a Chabad presence in the ski town.

The Berkleys met in Steamboat Springs in their 20s. Sophie has deep roots in Steamboat with her family living in the town since the early Homestead period, when the U.S. government encouraged migration through granting land to those who settled in the Western territories.

After marrying, Sophie and Mark moved to Breckenridge, Colo., where the non-Jewish couple first became interested in Judaism. It was there that they met Rabbi Dovid Mintz of Chabad of Vail (who is also Abelsky’s uncle) and started studying Torah with him. They eventually decided to begin the long and arduous process of conversion, which they completed a few years later.

Sophie and Mark later moved back to Steamboat to help Sophie’s mother on the family ranch. They were now in their 30s and the parents of two young sons. Returning to Steamboat as Jews, they found it lacking the Jewish infrastructure their family needed.

And so Mark embarked on a decade-long campaign to bring Chabad to Steamboat Springs. One morning in the summer of 2023, a full decade after moving back to Steamboat, Mark and Sophie found themselves sitting in a small Steamboat coffee shop with Rabbi Isaac and Chaya Abelsky, who had come on an exploratory visit.

The Abelskys were struck by Mark and Sophie’s passion and sincerity. Steamboat Springs had the potential for a vibrant Jewish community, the Berkleys insisted. Chabad could make that happen.

“We walked out of that coffee shop with a new understanding of how the community had evolved, the necessity of a Chabad presence in Steamboat and the potential of what it could be,” Abelsky said.

Two weeks after their meeting, the Abelskys were stunned to learn that Mark had suddenly passed away at the age of 46.

Hitting the Ground Running

Now, almost a year later, the Abelskys are making the final preparations for their move.

Their vision is to build a thriving Jewish community in Steamboat Springs by servicing any and all spiritual and material needs of the community. The Abelskys set out to do this by focusing on the individual, venturing to meet as many Jews as possible and forging personal relationships.

Over the past year, the Abelskys have been back in Steamboat to run community-wide celebrations for Chanukah and Purim, each program surpassing their expectations. They also found a location for their new Chabad center and by Passover were able to hold both community Passover seders there.

“The enthusiastic response that we have been blessed to have from the Steamboat Jewish community has shown us just how necessary a Chabad center is,” Rabbi Abelsky said.

For Sophie Berkley, the inauguration of Chabad of Steamboat Springs is at once a welcome breath of fresh air and the fulfillment of her late husband’s dream.

“Mark’s biggest wish was to help bring Chabad to Steamboat,” Berkley told “When Rabbi Mintz would come for the seders, Mark would go around town hanging up flyers throughout town.”

In an emotional interview, Sophie described how Mark had longed for their family to move toIsraelbut could never get himself to go because he was so dedicated to helping set up a Chabad in Steamboat.

“Mark was a pioneer in the fullest sense,” Rabbi Abelsky said when reflecting on Mark’s legacy. “He was a person who dedicated himself to bringing the light of Judaism to Steamboat and those who would otherwise not have it. Although he didn’t physically get to see the fulfillment of his dream, he is certainly looking down from heaven with pride, watching how his beloved town will be transformed in his merit.”

“This is a community ripe for a Chabad rabbi to bring a refreshing infusion of Judaism,” Berkley said. “I’ve already seen so many people curious about the new Chabad. I’m hoping that having the Abelskys here will bring a new sense of unity and connectedness to our community.”

Abelsky can already see that something has changed in Steamboat since his 2018 visit.

This past Chanukah, Abelski prepared to take up the same position at the base of the Steamboat Springs Ski Resort to distribute menorahs as he had five years earlier. Based on his previous experience, he didn’t expect much success.

This time, they ran out of all of the menorahs in two hours.

In keeping in line with the Rabbonim's policies for websites, we do not allow comments. However, our Rabbonim have approved of including input on articles of substance (Torah, history, memories etc.)

We appreciate your feedback. If you have any additional information to contribute to this article, it will be added below.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

advertise package