The Conspiracy

How I Got The Story of Chabad at Northwestern Wrong

When I heard that the rabbi of a Chabad house on a university campus was in trouble for providing alcohol to students, I assumed that I didn’t need to hear any further details to understand what the story was.

That led me to write this post. I approached the subject with prejudice and without a firm grasp on the facts.

The story I thought I knew was that Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein has been rightfully banned from the campus of Northwestern University for providing alcohol to underage students. Of course, I said at the time, there are worse places to drink on any American campus. But I also said that it was hard to sympathize with Klein because he had still provided alcohol to underage students.

Since then, I investigated further and found that reality did not exactly agree with the conclusions I initially jumped to.

First, Klein appears to be a saint. I spoke to several Northwestern students last week from every corner of the school’s Jewish community – and beyond – and found that Rabbi Klein is universally loved and respected. He goes to athletic games and school events of every kind, especially when it’s an opportunity to support a student he knows well. One recent alumna told me that she still considers Klein to be her rabbi. He’s also a volunteer chaplain for the Evanston, Ill. police department and he’s the person who is responsible for making sure that kosher food is available to Northwestern students.

Not only that, no one could recall ever seeing alcohol served at any time other than Friday night. There was kiddush wine, one shot for a few people who Klein already knew and trusted – and that’s it.

The more I looked into it, the less the timeline of the entire story made sense. In June, toward the end of the Northwestern school year, Klein’s Chabad house voluntarily went dry. In July, Northwestern Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin, demanded that Klein resign. If he did not, the university would sever ties with Chabad and Chabad would no longer be an official campus organization. It’s unclear why his resignation was desirable, though alcohol is implied; Northwestern has an established and problematic drinking culture – and Telles-Irvin has a mandate to do something about it.

In August, Chabad announced that all of its campus houses across the country would be going dry. And in September, right before Yom Kippur, Klein emailed the community to inform them that after the holiday was over, Northwestern would be taking the promised actions against him.

Students I spoke to told me that Klein isn’t going anywhere and that he’s still reaching out to the Jewish students of Northwestern – though that task is a little harder now that he’s no longer recognized by the university. Those students also told me that attendance at Chabad has actually increased this semester.

Like many American universities, Northwestern has a drinking problem. But it’s safe to say that the problem stems more from fraternities than from Chabad. Whatever is actually going on, this much is clear: Rabbi Klein was unjustly caught in the crossfire. And my original take on the situation certainly didn’t do anything to help.

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