Former Northwestern rabbi heavily criticized for allowing underage drinking

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Asked to give the invocation before the 1996 Rose Bowl, Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein ended by raising a cup of beer to 100,000 college football fans and urging them to join him in a toast of “L’chayim!”

For decades, Shabbat dinners and religious holidays the colorful Klein hosted at Northwestern University’s Tannenbaum Chabad House had a similar reputation for fun.

Maybe a little too much fun, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Wine and hard liquor, including scotch and vodka, were for years served to underage students at the Jewish community house despite repeated warnings, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner wrote in a scathing opinion published last week.

The boozing continued even after one student was hospitalized and others vomited after over-indulging at a party in 2001 at the Orrington Avenue home, Posner said.

<em>Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein at Northwestern University in 1986. | Sun-Times library</em>

Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein at Northwestern University in 1986. | Sun-Times library

So Klein — who allegedly also served booze to underage students at his son’s bar mitzvah in 2005 — can’t claim the university was guilty of anti-Semitism when in 2012 it finally cut its ties with his group over the underage drinking on his watch, Posner ruled.

Northwestern was within its rights to disaffiliate from a group whose popular leader “had gotten away for more than a quarter of a century with an irresponsible attitude toward excessive underage drinking that went on under his nose in the Chabad house, and seems to have thought that he could continue to do so, with impunity, indefinitely,” Posner wrote.

Klein and his branch of Hasidic Judaism sued the school in 2012, alleging that fraternities and other campus organizations with drinking problems were not treated so harshly.

Northwestern’s decision to disaffiliate cost Klein a contract to certify kosher campus meals, he said.

But U.S. District Judge John Darrah tossed out the lawsuit — a decision now upheld by Posner on appeal.

Though Klein had argued it would violate Jewish law to require students to carry proof-of-age identification to Shabbat dinners where alcohol was served, Posner wrote, “As far as we’ve been able to determine, plying minors with hard liquor is not required by any Jewish religious observance.”

Noting that many students at Northwestern are Jewish, as is the university’s president, Morton O. Schapiro, Posner acknowledged that “excessive and underage drinking is common in . . . fraternities.”

“But unlike Chabad houses, fraternities are not managed by adults and are components of the university rather than separate entities merely affiliated with it,” the judge wrote.

Klein had apologized for prior transgressions and vowed to prevent underage drinking on at least two occasions, but was finally undone when another rabbi who had religious differences with him filed a complaint with the university, according to the ruling.

“There is evidence that [Klein] was himself intoxicated at some of these events, though he denies that,” the judge added.

Klein’s lawyer, R. Tamara de Silva, said Posner’s comments about Klein “plying minors with hard liquor” were “unconscionable,” criticized the judge for citing Wikipedia in his ruling, and said Chabad may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The group had to go to the Supreme Court to get Chabad recognized by Northwestern as a religion in the 1970s, she said, adding that even during prohibition Chabad followers were allowed by authorities to consume alcohol during religious ceremonies.

She said that there was “a history of anti-Semitism, even by Jewish people.

“There’s this self-loathing, especially by other Jewish people who may want to assimilate more,” she said.

“It’s so unfortunate, because Rabbi Klein is beloved by students at Northwestern.”

Rabbi Meir Moscowitz, director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois, which brought the lawsuit against the university alongside Klein, said Klein had followed the rules for years and was being singled out a decade after the fact for a 2005 incident in a way that was ”discriminatory and grossly irresponsible.”

But Posner — who included a link to a YouTube video of Klein in his ruling — gave the rabbi a backhanded compliment, writing:

“Rabbi Klein is lively, engaging, eminently approachable, enthusiastic and one might even say charismatic.

“Were he more responsible concerning underage and excessive drinking by the kids who frequent the Chabad house, the university would have maintained its affiliation with the house.

“He was given multiple chances. He was warned repeatedly but did not react. Why should he be given fourth and fifth and nth chances?”

Judge Posner’s Chabad House Ruling

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