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.