By Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune
December 18, 2012
Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein was expounding on the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel during his Sabbath talk at Chabad House, the Evanston outpost of an ultra-Orthodox brand of Judaism.
"Why is it that Jews bully other Jews?" asked Klein, his long white beard bobbing up and down as if to emphasize a point. "It's been that way since the first Temple."
Klein, who used to be a campus chaplain, is suing Northwestern University, which is presided over by a Jewish president, for firing him and "disaffiliating" Chabad House, revoking its status as a student organization.
Klein's suit charges Northwestern with religious discrimination. The university alleges the rabbi served alcohol to underage students at Shabbat dinners. According to the rabbi, he wasn't told the charges against him before getting the ax, and university officials aren't speaking publicly about the issue, citing the ongoing lawsuit.
But in its response to the suit, Northwestern points to "reports of Rabbi Klein's excessive use of alcohol and appearances in public in a state of intoxication." Klein's lawyers have asked him to refrain from commenting on specifics of the case. But Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, his supervisor in the Lubavitch-Chabad movement, said: "Considering that Rabbi Klein has been a respected member of the university community for 27 years and serves as a chaplain to the Evanston Police Department, I find the charge ridiculous."
Not that long ago, Northwestern didn't have enough Jews to host such a dust-up. The university kept a lid on Jewish enrollments into the 1960s. To open Chabad House 27 years ago, Klein had to get a judge to rule that Evanston's objections to the combined synagogue and social center, about a block from campus, boiled down to fears that his congregation would "practice their ancient religion in the way they have conducted it for the past centuries."
Now a petition in support of the rabbi has gathered more than 800 signatures of students and alums, Jews and gentiles.
It's a dispute laced with stereotypes, beginning with a question: Jews drink, who knew?
Actually, we do. Wine is blessed, and drunk, as part of Sabbath and holiday services. On Purim, which marks the Jews' escape from genocide in ancient Persia, the sages advise us to celebrate by drinking until we can't tell the difference between Haman (our enemy) and Mordecai (our hero).
In their lawsuit, the rabbi and Chabad accuse Northwestern of singling them out from other campus religious organizations that "commit the same acts" — meaning Christians who celebrate the Eucharist with wine. Their lawyers say they are holding a trump card, to be laid down at trial: evidence, they claim, that Northwestern's president, Morton Schapiro, hosted Passover dinners where wine was served and students were present.
Essentially, the suit asks that Jews be treated no different from other humans — a request Shakespeare's Shylock put in the form of a famed question: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"
For his part, the rabbi doesn't deny that alcohol used to be served at Chabad House, saying so to a reporter for the Daily Northwestern. But he claims that the congregation went dry before he was called on the carpet by Dean of Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin in July. According to Moscowitz, Klein was given a choice: Either resign or Chabad House will not be a recognized student organization.
Moscowitz met separately with Telles-Irvin, expecting the dean to wave, or point to, a thick file of complaints. Instead, he says, he was shown nothing and told nothing; a subsequent meeting with Schapiro and Klein was similarly unproductive, from the rabbis' perspective. Schapiro simply said he was backing his dean, according to Moscowitz, who added that the session began on a nostalgic note.
"President Schapiro recalled happier times he and Rabbi Klein had shared, the things the rabbi has done for the university," Moscowitz said.
Indeed, beneath the clothing favored by the ultra-Orthodox — stark black clothes with ritual fringes hanging out from beneath a shirt — there apparently beats the heart of a regular Joe College. The rabbi roots for the purple and white. He gave the benediction for a massive gathering of alums when Northwestern played in the Rose Bowl. He helped create a kosher food service on campus and has counseled students going through crises. He served as an adviser to a fraternity and to a residence hall.
Non-Jewish students have been attracted to Chabad House, which belongs to the Hasidic movement — an emotional, exuberant form of Judaism redolent of village life in the Old World where it was born. Julianna Nunez, one of the rabbi's gentile admirers, wrote a column supporting him in the Daily Northwestern. She told me that in two years of attending Chabad House events, she never saw anyone drunk.
Like other universities, Northwestern has a drinking problem, as it obliquely acknowledges in a handout for students: "Most (69 percent) have not missed a class due to drinking or other drug use." Yet something doesn't add up, said Rabbi Moshe Kushner of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, of which Klein is a member.
"Why pick on him?" Kushner said.
Eventually we'll know whether or not Klein is being picked on. His lawyers are demanding to see the university's files, in accord with "discovery," a litigant's right to see the other side's hand before trial. But until then, Klein's ministry is up in the air. Services at Chabad House continue; it's privately funded. But he can't participate in on-campus events, which is hard on a rah-rah rabbi.
"If I cut my finger," Klein says, "I bleed purple."