News that the University ended a 27-year-long affiliation with the Tannenbaum Chabad House surfaced just before school started due to a lack of adherence with university alcohol policy, according to The Daily Northwestern.
Four days before the decision was made public, however, Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein filed a suit with the Northern District of Illinois federal court against Northwestern, University Chaplain Timothy Stevens, and Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president for student affairs.
“Northwestern had no legal reason to disassociate from the Tannenbaum House," Klein argued in the 11-page complaint. "The University knew that its proffered reasons were specious and based upon innuendo and falsehood. The reasons offered for that disassociation were wholly pretextual and meant to single out Chabad against all other faiths for removal from Northwestern University.”
The complaint also read, “Even if the reasons offered for that disassociation were not false, many other campus organizations including religious organizations, had committed the same acts for which Rabbi Klein stood falsely accused.”
Klein has since said that alcohol was served at the Chabad house, but defended the action with Illinois state law, which does allow for consumption of alcohol “in the performance of a religious ceremony or service.”
However, University policy “prohibits the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol by its students and employees on University property, as part of any University activities, in vehicles owned or operated by the University, or at any work site or other location at which University duties are being performed by Northwestern employees.”
Communication senior Matthew Renick, president of Chabad’s now-defunct student executive board, said that though the university will not associate with Chabad, the student board is still meeting and planning events to support Klein and the organization as a whole.
“It’s not something we were expecting by any means, and I think had there been clear steps beforehand, I think it would have less of a shock,” Renick said. “I think there are always opportunities to sit down and work things out and this was very sudden and very ‘this is what had to happen’ without any real conversation, and for me this was problematic.”
Although Renick did not find the university’s move against Chabad discriminatory, he did feel that Klein had been “targeted.”
And despite the university waiting to cut ties until the summer, Aaron Zelikovich, a Weinberg junior on Chabad’s exec, wrote in an email that Chabad has been “completely dry” since a nationwide policy change for Chabad houses at the end of the 2011-2012 academic year.
“Chassidic culture incorporates alcohol into its Friday night ritual out of honor and respect for the Kiddush and Friday night celebration. Drinking is by no means the essence of the Shabbat,” Zelikovich wrote.
Renick also said any alcohol consumed was for the purpose of Shabbat dinner, not recreation, and did not appreciate the university’s reaction for what he considered a religious practice.
“It definitely is kind of curious as to why one particular sect of a whole religion is being specifically targeted over any other sect of that religion or of any other religious sect on campus. That’s really where the questions kind of come out – and the investigation just starts there,” Renick said.
Renick maintained that Chabad’s supporters bear no ill will towards the university, but were disappointed by the lack of opportunity for Chabad to mount a defense.
“This wasn’t really about alcohol," he said. "What this really comes down to from Chabad’s side was the lack of due process. Chabad has this end result, while other groups did not.”
Michael Simon, executive director of Fiedler Hillel at NU, declined to comment on the lawsuit’s allegations of religious discrimination on Northwestern’s part (citing ongoing legal proceedings), but did express satisfaction in his organization’s dealings with the university.
“We at Hillel are working to be a great partner with Northwestern and we’re really proud of our relationship with the university and the university’s overall support for Jewish life on campus. We just think there’s a tremendous amount of support from the university for Jewish life on campus,” Simon said.
Simon also spoke about the strength of his own organization’s relationship with Chabad.
“We’ve developed a really positive working relationship with Chabad. Last year, we worked together to present a program called Mega Shabbat in Allison Dining Hall,” Simon said. “We’ve developed a positive working relationship with Chabad and we hope that they get their situation with the university resolved amicably.”
Zelikovich, like many current and former students involved with Chabad, still feels like the University has an opportunity to reverse course and reopen lines of communication with the organization and Rabbi Klein.
“The university should work with Rabbi Klein and Chabad by having a conversation about how to best improve the experience for Jewish students here at Northwestern,” Zelikovich wrote. “There has been a tremendous improvement in the quality of Jewish life on campus in recent years and it would be a shame to take a big step back instead of moving forward."