Rabbi Eitan Webb, when I come to interview him early last Wednesday in his Nassau Street apartment, is juggling with ease five things at once. The sun rages to highlight red flourishes in his beard and the car beeps become louder as the Princeton Borough awakens, but he is preparing to have some thirty students over for Passover seder, arranging to have a Matzah Ball party with a middle weight boxing champion, balancing his son on his lap, updating the Chabad website, and fingering an official letter from President Shirley Tilghman. In the letter, a response to Chabad on Campus’s three-page plea for Rabbi Webb’s official chaplaincy, Tilghman writes two brief paragraphs denying the movement without any concrete explanation. And though the laugh of his son or the seder plans may be more important to Rabbi Webb, it is the letter that I have come to discuss. The main issue of contention seems to be whether or not Rabbi Webb’s Chabadnik Judaism is significantly different enough from that of the Center for Jewish (CJL) to merit its own chaplaincy. Some argue that because the three mainstream branches of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox—all operate already under the CJL structure with only one recognized Rabbi, there is no need for another officially university-sanctioned rabbi. But though the three distinctions under the CJL represent three levels of observance, Chabad also provides various ranges of religiosity in its own unique blend of Judaism. Webb has sought to create a unique and diverse program to make his Chabad initiatives cater to Jews at various levels of religiosity to comply with the University’s chaplaincy requirements of plurality.
“Every person is unique,” he says. “Every person deserves access to their heritage. And to that end, we have tried to create as variegated a program as possible in order to reach out to every person here on this campus.” Non-religious and strictly observant Jews alike find a niche with Rabbi Webb’s Chabad on Campus. “Some come to my classes, some come to Friday night dinners, some study Hebrew,” he says, adjusting his child on his lap and straightening his yarmulke. “And no matter what, every person has an access point to their heritage. The idea is to provide as many access points as possible so that every Jewish student should be able to appreciate the beautiful heritage which is theirs.”
One student, who has chosen to remain anonymous, supports the uniqueness of Rabbi Webb’s Chabad house even though he has served on many CJL student boards.
“[The Chabad house] offers home-cooked Friday night and Saturday day Sabbath meals,” the student said. “A cozy, pressure-free environment that accepts Jews for who they are and doesn’t try to fit them into categories, and provides a place to be Jewish without all the institutional bullshit of the CJL.” As the student elucidates, Chabad provides a warm environment to a variety of Jews without the bureaucratic hurdles of the CJL, but in 1 Nassau Hall, where I meet Tilghman on Monday morning, none of this seems to matter for the decision of Webb’s chaplaincy.
An opulent gold necklace hangs over Tilghman’s lacey olive green blouse, and when I ask her about the Chabad movement, she tenses her features and gazes away toward her office’s freshly cut flowers. Her blue eyes twinkle as she attempts to pronounce correctly the throaty, Hebrew “ch.” Though Tilghman has had the task of responding to all parties on this issue, she admits she is no expert on the subject. “I don’t for a moment pretend that I am deeply knowledgeable about the [Chabad] movement,” she says, “but I have certainly in the course of the last several years read about and I’ve certainly had a large number of discussions with people about Chabad.” In response to the written statement from Chabad and the written statement from the CJL, Tilghman met with Interim Dean of Religion Fred Borsch ’57, Vice President Janet Dickerson, Provost Christopher Eisgruber, Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin, CJL Rabbi Julie Roth (rabbi with the chaplaincy) and her executive committee, and Rabbi Webb with a group of Chabad students and alumni. When I tried to meet with Rabbi Roth to gain insight into her perspective of the issue, I found the process and bureaucratic loop holes difficult in preventing my contact with her. Over a few days, Roth failed to return a series of phone calls, e-mails, and messages left with her secretary. One questions her availability for spiritual guidance if she does not have the time for a simple, pithy electronic epistle. Last Friday when I showed up to the CJL, Roth finally reluctantly agreed to meet with me for an interview. “I don’t want you to think I was avoiding you, but…” Roth says and never finishes the sentence. After our introductions, she gives me elevator eyes in a sizing-up fashion and makes as if to speak. “If I don’t agree to do this interview, is there any chance you wouldn’t write the article?” she says. One has to question why it is that she is so reticent, why she is so unwilling to speak. Despite her initial uneasiness, Roth was encouraging of the bond between Chabad and the CJL.
“I am proud personally that the CJL has formed a positive relationship with Chabad in my two years here,” she says, adjusting the sleeves of her white top and twirling her black, curly hair. “Together we sponsored two very successful events, the ‘Sushi in the Sukkah’ in the fall the ‘Shabbat 300’ that happened in the Carl Icahn Lab a few weeks ago.”
Roth speaks in an excitingly subdued manner about the collaborations, and she has nothing but praise for Rabbi Webb and his wife.
“I think very highly of Rabbi Eitan and Gitty Webb,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed studying Torah with Rabbi Webb. We sat down and he taught me some Hassidic texts, and I taught him some theology from the Conservative movement, and I very much believe in the Talmudic statement that says that… ‘these aspects of Judaism, and these aspects of Judaism are all part of what is sacred to us.’” But though there was a fair exchange in the Judaic teachings between the two rabbis, in the realm of University policy it was Roth who failed to reciprocate Webb’s gesture of openly sharing the statement he made to Tilghman. Though Roth admitted to writing Tilghman a statement, presumably of rebuttal the Chabad statement, she refused to comment on its contents and refused to show anyone from Chabad. When I ask her why she refused to share the contents of the statement with Webb or with me, she appears angry and keeps silent for a full two minutes and forty-three seconds, according to my tape recorder; I make some notes, gaze around her office, pull out an extra stick of gum, retie my shoes, but Roth looks down in deep thought as if constructing an appropriate response—ultimately failing to deliver it. She dances around the question, and when she does look up after her lengthy pause, she changes topics entirely.
Webb views the occultation of the CJL document as indicative of the nature of the organization.
“The Center for Jewish Life wrote a response,” he said. “We asked them if we could get a copy of the response so we would know what, if anything, we would have to answer to. They refused. To this day, we still have no idea what they wrote. Which is very shady. I mean, what are you hiding? I say in here [in the Chabad letter], and the students and alumni in here say exactly what they feel about the CJL, and some of it is positive and some of it is frankly not, but…you have to be open. If you can’t even say openly what your issues are, then I think that’s very, very telling.”
And back in 1 Nassau Hall, I observe similar elusory techniques à la CJL. In the beginning of our interview, Tilghman admits to having received separate letters from Roth and Webb, but then when she is asked about the specific content of Roth’s missive, I encounter a flustered University President, who makes haste to dispel of the issue.
“I’ve never received a statement from Rabbi Roth,” she says. “Mine was just a conversation. So if there is a statement, it had no bearing on my decision.”
The retro-active denial seems suspicious yet convenient for Tilghman, who, in hindsight, decides she does not want to discuss Roth’s letter. “I don’t even remember seeing a [statement from Hillel or the CJL],” she says. “Maybe Vice President Dickerson saw it, but, you know, to be honest with you, I don’t remember either statement,”
Tilghman craftily removes herself from blame by making it Dickerson’s responsibility to have read the statements from the rabbis. Tilghman’s goal seems to be to assert that neither document influenced her in a certain way to decide definitively the final outcome. “So what I can tell you certainly is that there was no lack of balance, because if such statements existed they had no impact on my decision,” she says. “Yeah, I don’t remember…a lot of paper goes by my desk. I have no recollection of a statement having any part in the decision.” If in fact Tilghman has, as she says, forgotten the content of documents she read relatively recently, then this does not bode well for informed decision-making by the University’s head. If, though, this memory lapse is a feigned Alzheimer’s on Tilghman’s part constructed for the purpose of avoiding commentary on the CJL statement from Roth, then Tilghman is only raising suspicion. This evasiveness from the CJL and Tilghman also made Chabad Student Board President Arthur Ewenczyk ’09 suspicious. “There’s been an effort on the part of the CJL not to leave a paper trail,” he says. “And in terms of its exchanges with President Tilghman, making it unclear to us what their recommendations were. I doubt they were positive, but I can only hope that whatever was said, was with the best interest of the students in mind and not the best interest of the Center for Jewish life as an administrative component on campus.” N.B.—The issue is much larger than a series of meetings that have led to a secret letter from the CJL. The Chabad movement itself must be explored and clarified so as to prove its positive contributions to Jewish life on campus and its fundamental differences from the breed of Judaism offered at the CJL. The next installment will detail, not the administrative take, but the students’ views on this controversy and the ideological explanations of Rabbi Webb’s Chabad.