Double Standard On Campus Drinking At Northwestern
Tue, 01/15/2013
Special To The Jewish Week

When Dovid Hillel Klein, a prominent rabbi with the Chabad chasidic Jewish movement, served as the guest chaplain at the opening of the House of Representatives’ April 2010 session, he related a pearl of wisdom that he’d first heard at a comedy show at Northwestern University in Chicago.

One of the comedians performing told the audience about a conversation he’d had with his grandmother over the perennial “is the glass half-full or half-empty?” debate. When one is drinking, the comedian’s grandmother told him, the glass is half-empty, but when one is pouring, the glass is half-full.

Rabbi Klein concluded by beseeching God to “continue to bless us,” through allowing us to be in the position of providing, so that “we are able to pour, and let others into our lives.”

That metaphor has come back to haunt him more than two years later. In September, Northwestern University announced that it was disaffiliating the campus chapter of Chabad, which Rabbi Klein launched 27 years ago, on the grounds that the rabbi was serving alcohol to underage students at Friday night Shabbat dinners. Rabbi Klein responded by filing a religious discrimination suit against the university, claiming that Christian campus groups who served wine to celebrate the Eucharist were not being targeted as he was for saying the kiddush over wine.

In filing his suit, Rabbi Klein pointed out that his campus Chabad went dry over the summer, save for the modest amount of wine consumed during kiddush, after he was upbraided by Patricia Telles-Irvin, the university’s dean of student affairs, for providing students with alcohol. For its part, the university countered by referring to “reports of Rabbi Klein’s excessive use of alcohol and appearances in public in a state of intoxication.” This unusually sharp attack on the character of a man who was praised by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) in front of Congress for his “invaluable role in our community” fueled the sense that Northwestern, already nervous about student drinking, may have misfired spectacularly by picking on Rabbi Klein.

Nonetheless, the university is holding its ground, insisting in its reply to Rabbi Klein’s suit that the rabbi had long been aware of the pitfalls of alcohol use. In 2001 and again in 2005, the university says, the rabbi was told by the university’s chaplain, Rev. Tim Stevens, to cease serving alcohol, highlighting a report that spoke of “shots of vodka and/or whiskey ... provided on a regular basis to students of all ages attending the Friday night dinners.”

Chabad disputes this account. “In the past, if there was ever an issue, it was resolved to the university’s satisfaction,” said Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, regional director of Chabad of Illinois. “Out of the blue, and without incident, they demanded I fire Rabbi Klein after 27 years of service to Chabad at Northwestern, or we would face disaffiliation. I offered to fund an independent inquiry, but Patricia Telles-Irvin turned that down and could not or would not provide evidence of what Rabbi Klein had done wrong, or any supporting evidence.”

While heavy drinking is certainly not confined to Northwestern students, the university has been under particular pressure following the death, shortly after the disaffiliation of Chabad, of a sophomore who attended a party where revelers were drinking. According to the Evanston police department, “alcohol may have been a contributing factor” in the student’s death. All first-year students must now attend a compulsory alcohol education course. “The university feels very strongly that it must take seriously the safety of its students,” Alan Cubbage, a spokesman for the university, told me.

While student alcohol education emphasizes the importance of informed choices when it comes to drinking, the dispute between Chabad and Northwestern suggests that campus authorities would rather not present the choice in the first place. Yet not all students drink with the express purpose of getting drunk. Moreover, encountering alcohol at a campus religious event is hardly an invitation to binge drink to the point of oblivion. There are plenty of other destinations, like bars and parties, where students can do exactly that.

This last point is stressed by Rabbi Klein’s supporters, who insist that there were never any displays of drunkenness at the Shabbat dinners he hosted. A student petition, saverabbiklein.org, has garnered hundreds of signatures backing an individual it describes as “an icon.” And after the Forward newspaper published an article attacking Rabbi Klein, protests from the rabbi’s supportive flock led the author of the piece, David Wilensky, to do an about-face. “No one could recall ever seeing alcohol served at any time other than Friday night,” Wilensky said in a subsequent apologia. “There was kiddush wine, one shot for a few people who Rabbi Klein already knew and trusted — and that’s it.”

One saving grace in this sorry dispute is that no one, on either side, has talked about anti-Semitism as a factor, despite Northwestern’s double standard in focusing upon Chabad alone. More pertinent is the university’s apparent conflation of alcohol consumption with alcoholism as a disease.

From a religious perspective, that assumption is troubling. Long established rituals within both Judaism and Christianity use wine as a sacrament; to invoke binge drinking in this context serves no purpose other than to demonize these practices, and move the debate away from its heartland of frat parties, spring breaks and round-the-clock bars.

An investigation into the causes of student binge drinking would be more helpful than probing the activities of religious groups on campus.

Ben Cohen is a New York-based writer on Jewish and international affairs. Follow him on twitter @BenCohenOpinion.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Comments

1. The university has found a scapegoat in Rabbi Klein, whom they can down on instead of addressing the real source of dangerous drinking on & around campus - students. Why? Because the students' parents and relatives are providing the university with tuition and other donations, while Rabbi Klein is not.

2. The petition is actually at supportrabbiklein.org

This story still has me bothered by the actions of my alma mater, Northwestern University. Rabbi Klein is an icon at Northwestern, and this is clearly a case where the University targeted him out of the blue, regardless of the facts.

There are errors in the first sentence of this report:
1. The man's name is Dov Hillel Klein, not Dovid Hillel Klein;
2. There is no need to refer to a “Chabad chasidic Jewish movement”, since Chabad Lubavitch is a well-known movement and there is no non-Jewish version;
3. Rabbi Klein was the guest chaplain in Congress on May 5, 2010, not in April 2010;
4. Rabbi Klein did not first hear the "pearl of wisdom" at a comedy show, nor did he say he did when speaking before Congress; he heard it at the Northwestern University commencement exercise in June 1997. The remark was delivered by Bill Cosby, who gave the charge to the Northwestern graduates;
5. The anecdote has nothing to do with the subsequent drinking controversy at Northwestern;
6. Northwestern University is not in Chicago but in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago.

I'm a student at northwestern and know rabbi klein. He's awesome and is great for jewish and campus life at NU. What is happening is very stupid and I hope it's resolved.

The Methodist founders of Northwestern and Evanston made the shool and area dry, and that status held until a few years ago. They had it right, to remove alcohol used for fun and abuse from the environs of gown and town, I would like to have liked to have seen some more reportage in this essay among undergraduates at the school and members of the group and other Jewish student clubs. Although unrelated to this specific case, I find it worrisome that there are several growing Jewish groups that target undergraduates with "lechayim" events and do their outreach using alcohol as an enticing tool or an attractive nuisance.

Is this about ridding the university of alcohol or ridding it of a chabad rabbi? Sound more like people didn't like the rabbi. But what's the deal? He's been there for decades? All of the sudden this happens. Not right

Mr. Cohen, I understand that you are coming at this story from an outside perspective, but I feel I have to address, as a Northwestern Alum, some of the slightly inaccurate elements of this article.

First, Northwestern did not disaffiliate from Chabad due to the use of wine in Kiddush. The disaffiliation was predicated on other non-sacramental (though Rabbi Klein disputes this) uses of hard liquor and other alcohol by minor students at Chabad events. In my personal experience, these have included "l'chayims" using vodka, schnapps, etc. offered to every student entering Chabad on Friday night regardless of age, as well as an open bar provided in a back room at Purim and Simchat Torah parties. The Rabbi was, as is traditional in many Jewish communities, visibly intoxicated at these gatherings, as were many students. His comparison to the Eucharist is valid for Kiddush, but not for the rest, and every other Jewish organization on NU's campus uses grape juice there anyway, as is permissible.

Second the university was in no position to decide "whether that choice [between drinking responsibly or drinking to excess] is available in the first place." That is a matter of Illinois State Law since, like every other state, it bans the serving of alcohol to those under the age of 21 except for a generally accepted sacramental purpose. Again, the university feels Chabad exceeded these bounds in the use of alcohol. The university has its own Code of Conduct for students and affiliated adults (of which Rabbi Klein was one - he had an ID card and could use campus facilities) which directly bans minors from drinking and adults from providing them alcohol. As I understand it, it makes no religious exemption.

Third, it is absolutely untrue that "no one, on either side, has talked about anti-Semitism as a factor." Rabbi Klein has, with the support of Chabad of Illinois, filed suit against the university on exactly those grounds, claiming precisely the double-standard you credit him with nobly overlooking. The university has been silent on this issue because of the constraints of ongoing legal action, not because of pressure applied by a tragic incident this Fall which occurred, as you note, well after it could have had any influence on the decision to disaffiliate from Chabad.

Northwestern University is blessed with a wonderfully vibrant and pluralistic Jewish community, which enjoys the full support of the University administration. Through their continued involvement with Northwestern Hillel among other groups the administration has continued their exemplary interaction with Jewish life in the months since the disaffiliation, while Chabad has continued its programming for students with little interruption. Northwestern students have had, and continue to have, amazing opportunities for Jewish involvement.

It should be noted that joe zissman was a student at northwestern who, like the tiny minority within the university who kicked klein off campus, throughout his time at northwestern did not like rabbi klein and this post reflects that more than it reflects what has really happened. Again, like w what the university has done, joes comments are a reflection of his dislike of klein and his character as a chabad rabbi and alcohol is merely used as the public excuse. Hence the anti-semitism.

It must be noted that the university was content with everything rabbi klein was doing for 27 years. There were 2 occasions according to all reports, in 2001 & 2005 where the university addressed concerns about alcohol use at chabad and following those discussions chabad satisfactorily followed university policy. Since the new policies from 2005 there have been no serious issues with alcohol at chabad and the university, knowing exactly what has been going on, has said nothing. Until a new administrator came and without talking to students at all or faculty or klein himself kicked him off.

Northwestern, like most colleges, has major drinking problems. In the past decade many students have died because of it. The problem has nothing at all to do with what is happening at chabad, period. If the university was really concerned about drinking at chabad it would have asked klein to stop serving. Instead it just kicked him off. This was not about alcohol. This was about someone or a few people, not liking klein personally. Very sad.

Rabbi Swift in Pittsburgh, had the same problem in Seton Hall University. On Purim of all days they insisted that he cut down on the booze on campus.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.